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Mande Wilkes: Are Genetics Behind Our Elections?




By Mande Wilkes || Brace yourself, because I’m getting ready to paint with a broad brush, and make generalizations, and perpetuate stereotypes: Republican parents raise Republicans, and Democratic parents raise Democrats.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you – that’s of course a purposefully over-the-top characterization, and it’s not true all of the time. For instance, I’m the political black sheep of my family: My husband and parents and siblings can’t stomach socialism, while authoritarianism is what pushes my buttons. To use a sports metaphor, I prefer coaches who hand out trophies for participation, and my family values awarding achievement.

These black-sheep scenarios notwithstanding, it seems broadly true that kids follow their parents’ political leanings. And now science bears this out, at least indirectly.

If we think of our two-party system as the choice between blind generosity and raw meritocracy – and that’s an overly-simplistic characterization, to be sure – then niceness is the basic difference between the parties. Though there’s more to politics than just the economics of giving versus taking versus keeping, those constructs do seem to be its foundation.

Genetic studies indicate that our propensity for generosity is inherited. Between one-quarter to one-half of our inclination toward “niceness” is no choice at all, according to genetic research.

While “niceness” isn’t a plank of either party’s platform, I think it gets at the core of political affiliations. Essentially, if you’re genetically inclined to be open-handed, then your genes also compel you to identify with liberalism. And if you value meritocracy over magnanimity, then your genes drive you toward conservatism.

Not for nothing, four years after the fact I’ve kept my old campaign signs. The other day my toddler happened upon one of those signs. As he played with it, flapping it back and forth in his floppy little grip, I wondered how he might politically identify himself in the future. I thought of how incredibly giving he is – extraordinary, really, for a kid. He loves handing strangers his toys or sticks or teddy bears, and (knock wood!) he’s always eager to share.

Does this indicate within him some ingrained, inherited penchant for generosity? And if so, will that altruism trump self-interest, causing him to affiliate with one political party over the other?

The thing about writing an opinion column is that it’s easy to get stuck in the trap of trying (and failing) to change minds. It’s the lazy way out, really, because it presumes that a person’s politics can be amply molded out of a few hundred words on a newspaper page. But what if we’re simply wired one way or the other – generous or rigid – and impervious to outside influence?

Much ado has been made of some research suggesting that conservatives donate more money than progressives. While that would seem to fly in the face of what I’ve written today, a closer look in fact reinforces the genetic link.

According to an MIT study, conservatives are more likely to donate to churches while liberals prefer giving to nonprofits for the needy. That’s hardly surprising — Democrats like to give directly to people, and Republicans like to support entities and organizations. Maybe it’s hardwired in conservatives to trust in structures and systems, and hardwired in liberals to sympathize on a personal level.

If that’s true, it backs up that age-old gem about not talking politics in polite company. It might be that you’re no more likely to change someone’s mind than you are likely to change his DNA.

(Also it’d explain why Fox News and MSNBC have built whole empires by preaching to their respective choirs).


Mande Wilkes is a former FITS News contributor and current cultural commentator for The (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) Sun News. She lives in Myrtle Beach with her husband and toddler. Her column – originally published here – is reprinted with permission.