Are politics genetic?

By: Cristen Conger

Do parents pass down their political views to their children? See election memorabilia pictures.
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In the mid-2000s, a new word entered the academic lexicon: genopolitics. Not to be confused with "geopolitics," the contemporary buzzword referring to the big-picture intersection of politics, geography and economics, genopolitics speaks to politics on the individual level [source: Biuso]. Defined as the influence of people's genes on their political attitudes and habits, the term heralded a novel -- and controversial -- phase in political science, which until then, had been much more intimately associated with sociology rather than biology.

Prior to the 21st century, much of the research into why and how people vote focused on nurture, rather than nature. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, sociologists widely agreed that people's politics often fell in lockstep with their parents' [source: Tedin]. In the following decades, that environmental explanation would broaden to include a number of other variables, such as socioeconomics, education, peer pressure, age and gender. Even still, the parent-child relationship remained central to the understanding of how political affiliations are formed [source: Fowler, Baker and Dawes].


But while nurture, or how a person is raised, undoubtedly plays a pivotal role in shaping political viewpoints, the extant research had largely ignored the nature side of the equation. That is, until genopolitics came along and offered a glimpse into how much people's genes determine whether they swing liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. In 2005, acknowledging that the idea of inborn political ideologies would strike many colleagues as "far-fetched, odd, even perverse," a trio of political scientists published a groundbreaking study in the American Political Science Review suggesting that behavioral genetics in fact makes a significant impact at the polls [source: Alford, Funk and Hibbing].

The team compared survey data assessing political and social outlooks from pairs of fraternal and identical twins and compared how closely their responses aligned. Affirming the study hypothesis, the identical twins who shared 100 percent of their DNA saw more eye-to-eye compared to the fraternal twins who share only half their genes. By the researchers' calculations, genetics is 53 percent responsible for stances on social issues and 14 percent responsible for the political party alignment [source: Carey].

For the first time, scientific literature supported the notion that politics run in the family, not only in terms of socialization and values, but also in the genes passed along from parents to children. And thus genopolitics was born.


A voting gene?

Does Republicanism run in the Bush bloodline? Possibly.
Does Republicanism run in the Bush bloodline? Possibly.
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From an evolutionary perspective, genopolitics doesn't make much sense at first blush considering there were no political rallies or elections during the Stone Age. Cavemen did, however, have to learn cooperation to foster group survival, which is where behavioral geneticists suspect these alleged voting genes sprang from [source: Scientific American]. Assuming that's a valid theory, precisely how DNA determines people's inclinations to vote red or blue is fairly straightforward.

The theory of genopolitics contends that since genes have been known to tailor people's emotional responses and social temperaments, biological nature is a significant sculptor (roughly 50 percent or so) of people's political ideologies [source: Carey]. Put another way, politics is inherently emotionally and psychologically evocative, and people are genetically hardwired to respond to it in certain ways. While upbringing and environment also mold perspectives, recent studies are finding that genetic mechanisms controlling impulsive reactions fundamentally sway people's support or opposition to platforms such as gay marriage, school prayer and gun rights. Genopolitics also helps explain documented psychological correlations between preferences for structure and conservatism and laxity and liberalism [source: Wenner].


In 2008, genopolitics received a major boost in exposure when University of California, San Diego political scientist James Fowler published a study spotlighting two genes, MAOA and 5HTT, possibly linked to political behavior [source: Cohen]. Both genes help regulate the production of serotonin in areas of the brain associated with processing fear, trust and social interaction, all three of which are determinants of voting behavior [source: Fowler and Dawes]. That said, identifying a couple of contributing genes doesn't mean they're the only pair pushing people to the polls. In 2011, the National Science Foundation also published a report lauding the new field of genopolitics while cautioning against leaping to misguided conclusions that liberalism or conservatism can be boiled down to particular strands of DNA [source: Leeper]. Genopolitics study authors reiterate as well that the nature side of politics likely is the handiwork of hundreds of genes [source: Cohen].

The overwhelming power of nurture also shouldn't be cast aside in wake of genopolitics' cutting-edge buzz, either. Critics of the idea of political genes abound, and even supporters of the comparatively nascent field agree that, throughout the lifespan, environment remains king when it comes to how people vote [source: Scientific American]. Long after adults leave home and can freely distance themselves from their family's influence, major events and societal shakeups can further reshape their political outlooks. Consider, for instance, how after the Aurora, Colo., shooting massacre in 2012, the Second Amendment guaranteeing Americans the right to bear arms seemed to receive a jolt in popularity as gun sales leapt around the country [source: Feldmann]. Following the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, 30 percent of survivors reported more conservative political stances, while 15 percent swung more liberal [source: Wenner]. In other words, genes and nature might lay the hardwired foundation of personal politics, but to the extent that researchers empirically understand, environment and nurture are the bricks and mortar of how those politics evolve over time. And in many ways, both nature and nurture alike, people can thank their parents for that.


Author's Note

As for the question of whether parents pass along their political viewpoints to their children, it seems like political scientists must've been stunned by the events of the late 1960s and 1970s. Scholarly literature before that point assumed that political values and party affiliations were handed down consistently from parents to children -- and prior to 1920 and the 19th Amendment, only to the sons. But certainly the counterculture movements that reached a fever pitch in 1968 offered some startling proof that kids might not fall in line with mom and dad's political allegiances. Since then, scholars still haven't been able to calculate just how much influence parents wield over their kids' political loyalties likely because so many other environmental factors contribute to them. Not only that, just as political scientists were throwing up their hands in surrender at the sheer magnitude of "nurture" variables that contribute to personal politics, nature and behavioral genetics had to come along and stick in another layer of complexity.

With this in mind, I nominate political science as one of the most perplexing fields in academia. Rocket science has to be far more concrete than unraveling why and for whom people vote.


Lots More Information


  • Alford, John R. et al. "The Politics of Mate Choice." The Journal of Politics. Vol. 73, No. 02. April 2011. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Alford, John R.; Funk, Carolyn L.; and Hibbing, John R. "Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?" American Political Science Review. Vol. 99, No. 02. May 2005. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Beckwith, Jon and Morris, Corey A. "Twin Studies of Political Behavior: Untenable Assumptions?" Perspectives on Politics. Vol. 06, No. 04. December 2008. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Biuoso, Emily. "Genopolitics." The New York Times Magazine. Dec. 12, 2008. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Carey, Benedict. "Some Politics May Be Etched in the Genes." The New York Times. June 21, 2005. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Cohen, Elizabeth. "Are your politics rooted in your genes?" CNN. Feb. 11, 2008. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Feldmann, Linda. "Why gun sales spike after mass shootings: It's not what you might think." The Christian Science Monitor. July 25, 2012. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Fowler, James H.; Baker, Laura A.; and Dawes, Christopher T. "Genetic Variation in Political Participation." The American Political Science Review. Vol. 102, No. 02. May 2008. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Fowler, James H. and Dawes, Christopher T. "Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout." The Journal of Politics. Vol. 70, No. 03. July 2008. (Aug. 03, 2012)
  • Leeper, Thomas J. "Polarized." Psychology Today. April 24, 2012. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Scientific American. "The Genetics of Politics." Oct. 14, 2007. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Tedin, Kent L. "The Influence of Parents on the Political Attitudes of Adolescents." American Political Science Review. Vol. 68, No. 04. December 1974. (Aug. 02, 2012)
  • Wenner, Melinda. "Political Preference Is Half Genetic." LiveScience. May 24, 2007. (Aug. 02, 2012)