Politics

Politics is in our genes – to a point – Boston Herald


Increasingly, the intellectual consensus seems to be that our political leanings are hardwired in our genes. There is some excellent research behind this thinking, and I’ve come around to believing that DNA plays a bigger role in our political worldviews than many on the right or left are willing to accept.

But we also shouldn’t get carried away. We’re more than our genes, and we shouldn’t reduce our political orientations to the sort of essentialism that has taken over identity politics.

Take author Sebastian Junger’s recent essay for The Washington Post. In it, he suggested that the way out from our politically polarized dysfunction is to recognize that maybe conservatives and liberals are just born that way.

I don’t dispute the research he cites, just his conclusions.

Junger says: “Every human society must do two things: It must be strong enough to protect itself from outside groups, and it must be fair enough to avoid internal conflict.” He assigns the former task to conservatives, who want to protect the nation, and the latter to liberals, who are dedicated to equality and “social justice.” Other versions of this argument often reduce conservatives and liberals to “hardwired” opponents of change or champions of it.

Obviously, there’s something here. But the reality is that such divides run straight through the human heart. Our genetic programming may tell some of us to obsess over social justice and others to fixate on external threats, but most of us care about both.

Most conservatives worry about social cohesion and equality, and most liberals care about external dangers, but each side works from different definitions and assumptions over how to define the problems — and how to solve them.

And then there’s the definitional thicket. During the Cold War, the most dedicated and doctrinaire communists in the Soviet Politburo were often referred to as “conservatives.” This vexed many American right-wingers. In America, anti-communism was at the heart of being a conservative, so could the hardest-line Soviets also be conservatives?

Well, yeah. In 1957, political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote a brilliant essay, “Conservatism as an Ideology.” In it, he observed that “Conservatism differs from all other ideologies except radicalism: It lacks what might be termed a substantive ideal.” In other words, what a conservative believes depends on where he or she lives, and what, exactly, he or she wishes to conserve. What Saudi Arabia’s or North Korea’s conservatives want to conserve is very different than what conservatives in the United States want to conserve.

More broadly, there’s a vast amount of small “c” or “genetic” conservatism in contemporary progressivism and a great deal of radicalism in conservatism. That’s because — for now at least — the right supports the market and the “creative destruction” it brings, while the left defends the regulatory state and the protections it provides. I’m called a conservative because I want to dismantle much of the New Deal, and Nancy Pelosi is called a progressive because she wants to defend it. But which of us is acting on some “conservative” genetic imperative to resist change?

It’s becoming clear that our genetic programming makes persuasion more difficult than we once thought. But at the end of the day, it’s all we’ve got. And persuasion becomes more difficult when we turn philosophical arguments into a mere appendage of a new form of identity politics.


Jonah Goldberg’s latest book is “Suicide of the West.”

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