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Is there a conservative gene?

John Infranca | Thursday, October 28, 2004

While growing up my favorite television show was “Family Ties.” As an avid young Republican, I was quite taken by the character of Alex P. Keaton, the ultra-conservative Reagan-loving son of two liberal parents – parents so liberal they even worked for a public broadcasting company. Happily ensconced in a warm and supportive conservative home, I could celebrate that I did not have parents of such questionable character. At the time, I never wondered how conservative wisdom could become incarnate in such an unlikely household.

But what made Alex Keaton a conservative? It does not seem that he was the product of his environment. Alex’s siblings either shared their parents’ political proclivities or simply expressed no interest in politics. The Keaton parents did not allow cable and so Alex and his siblings were often forced to watch the public television station his father worked for. As we all know, public broadcasting dispenses nothing but liberal propaganda and tote bags. Perhaps the source of his political identity was genetic rather than environmental. Could there be a recessive gene for conservatism that had become dominant in young Alex Keaton? Might a similar gene be responsible for liberalism?

I did a bit of research on the issue and came across varying opinions. According to one, perhaps not very reliable, source on the Free Republic Web site: “The answer manifests itself in the structure of the human genome. Liberalism can be explained by the notion that liberals lack the gene required to process reality.” I will contend that this questionable science is likely politically motivated. A more scholarly analysis of the psychology behind our political orientations was published in the May 2003 issue of the Psychology Bulletin, the journal of the American Psychological Association. The article appraised the past 50 years of study on the psychology of conservatism.

The study claims that conservatism is a form of “motivated social cognition.” Conservative ideology, like any belief system (including liberal ideology), is said to develop in part out of psychological need. This is not to say that such an ideology is not responsive to reason or grounded upon strongly held principles. It might, however, be initially motivated by some psychological factor and then further developed and articulated into a set of core beliefs.

The psychological variables that the study claims might contribute to the adoption of a conservative ideology include anxiety regarding death, intolerance towards ambiguity, resistance to change, avoidance of uncertainty, need for order, structure and closure, fear of loss or threat, aggression and lower than normal levels of self esteem. It is worth noting that none of these are inherently good or bad character traits. One might reasonably concur that contrary traits could lead to the development of a liberal ideology.

What brings us as individuals to our particular political persuasions is worth considering amid this most heated and divisive of elections. It is probably a complex interaction of personality traits, genetic disposition, environment and experience that turns us into liberals or conservatives or anywhere in between. Much of this complexity is lost in the process of trying to so clearly paint people in particular political stripes. It is worth considering that even the most vaunted political principles we hold and express so dearly might be less the product of our own rational thought than we care to admit. Perhaps our genetic traits and the environment in which we find ourselves predispose us more than we would like to admit towards a particular political position. This might offer reason for thinking a bit more deeply not only about the basis of our own political principles, but also the factors that have brought those around us to opinions that might be very different.

In the years since my youth, my love for “Family Ties” has faded and with it my admiration for both Alex Keaton and Ronald Reagan. Interestingly, I now share with that character the experience of being a black sheep, the left-leaning child of two party-line Republican parents. Now I have a hard time making sense of why my parents insist on watching Fox News while I would rather turn to public television. My parents’ experiences and personalities are similar but in many ways far different than my own. While at times we might attempt rational discussions of politics these often devolve into the kind of fiery arguments only a family of hot-blooded Italians is capable of.

At the end of the day there is something that has formed our political ideologies that can not be reduced to policy positions and factual analysis. As I argue with my parents across the dinner table I also realize that someday I might be battling my own children as they argue on behalf of lower taxes and increased military spending.

There remains no clear explanation for the source of an individual’s political orientation. Perhaps it is something we are born with but not always comfortable expressing.

If so I hold out hope that one day, perhaps through some form of counseling, disordered conservatives might finally recognize the nature of reality and embrace their true identity.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. He can be contacted at

[email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.