Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why are we liberal or conservative?

There are a lot of theories about why people are liberal or conservative. I'm talking mainly about political ideology, but for many this also bleeds over into their social interactions. You don't meet too many gay Republicans or gun-toting Democrats. Sure, they exist, but they're the exception rather than the rule. 

One prime mover in the level our liberalism or conservatism is certainly age. The baby boomers who drove us out of Vietnam with the peace movement are now voting more and more conservatively as they acquire wealth and near retirement. They've abandoned the liberal ideals of their youth in favor of the security of the status quo. The youth vote went overwhelmingly to Obama in 2008 and still leaned left in the 2010 midterm elections.

This brings to mind Winston Churchill's famous quote. "Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains." Mr. Churchill was certainly talking about a different era and different brands of liberalism and conservatism than are practiced in contemporary American politics, but the quote rings true to a large degree - young people tend to be liberal, old people do not. 

A recent poll demonstrated that even young Conservatives don't care much about gay marriage. It's a non-issue among the youth of our time. This suggests that eventually gay marriage will be allowed - this battle has already been won, but the spoils have not yet been received. 

Beyond age, our upbringing, education, and religious affiliations also certainly play a role in our political ideology. I'm sure there is also some effect of our geographic location. Not many liberals in Utah or many conservatives in New York City. Are people of certainly ideologies drawn to those places or do those places breed people of a certain ideology? 

But more than these things, recent research has suggested that there is much more to the workings of our brains - our actual genetic make-up - to our political leanings than previously thought. 

A study out of the UK using U.S. data found that people with higher IQs were more likely to be liberal and atheist, and among males, sexually exclusive. The findings, from research by an evolutionary psychologist, suggest that these are evolutionarily novel positions taken more often by those with higher intellects who have managed to overcome our natural predispositions to self-preservation. 

This is further explored in research suggesting that the reason so many professors are liberal and atheist may not be because they are biased, but because conservatives and religious people are much less likely to want to be professors, leaving the field overwhelmingly to liberals and atheists. Of course, since intellect is also tied to these positions, it may additionally reflect the findings of the UK study. 

Another study found that Conservatives have larger fear centers in their brains. Fear centers drive self-preservation. Fight or flight, right? Since liberalism, as classically defined, is a focus on empathy for others, in other words, a focus on fairness and not doing harm to others, it makes sense that fear plays less a role in these judgements. On the other hand, Conservatives have been shown to have a higher degree of disgust, which would influence focus on self, or again, self-preservation. 

It appears, from yet another study, that approximately 50% of our political ideology is genetic

None of this is to suggest that liberals are smarter or better educated or more altruistic, but rather that we aren't completely in control of our own political beliefs. Our beliefs may be driven by factors outside of what we consider our rational thought processes. Next time you think someone is dumb for disagreeing with you, remember you may or may not have beliefs based on sound reason and judgment, but rather based on who your parents are and where you grew up. Likewise, the person disagreeing with you may have the same handicap. 

What this draws into a larger light is how useful is democracy if the "free will" of the people is not so free after all? And also perhaps why political discussions are so often fruitless. It's not simply about presenting evidence and drawing rational conclusions from that evidence. 

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