Why study genes and politics?

Apologies for having this up a few days later than promised; I have been sick this week, but everything is back to normal now.

For my first discussion post, I’d like to talk a bit about an important question: why is it important to understand how genes influence politics? The punchline is this: having an accurate theory of where political attitudes and behaviors come from can help us improve our democracy.

First, the strategies that are used to mobilize voter turnout rely on what we think makes people tick. By understanding how genes affect whether people care about politics and whether they vote, we can design messages that will be more effective in turning out the vote and avoid messages which could have unintended consequences. For example, research from California has shown that messages which we thought would mobilize voters can actually end up having a negative impact on turnout among certain genetic populations.

Second, understanding how genes affect politics can help address one of the biggest problems in politics today: polarization. Some people have stronger physiological responses to threat, disgust, and other stimuli; these responses have been shown to be related to policy preferences on national defense, gay marriage, abortion, and other important political issues. By understanding that part of the reason that people disagree about politics is because they physiologically experience the world differently from each other, we can become more accepting of different points of view. From this perspective, people who support the other party are not simply stubborn and wrong-headed, but rather that they are reacting to the world as they experience it. While this means that our differences may be difficult to resolve, realizing the multiple sources of those differences opens a venue for dialogue where it might not otherwise exist.

If we ignore the role of genes in politics, we will be stuck with an inaccurate theory of human behavior that limits our ability to accomplish our political goals.