Change of Politics: How Your LIFE Events Affect Your Views

Thursday, November 10, 2011

(Alana Casanova-Burgess/WNYC)

Politics are personal, and they often affect our actions - whether it's for latte-drinking, Volvo-driving liberals or gun-totin', Bible-thumping conservatives. But politics are also shaped by our own life events, apt to change depending on our own experiences.  

For Nancy Reagan, a passionate stance in favor of stem cell research came after her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Jim Brady's campaign for stricter gun controls came after he was shot, nearly killed, and left permanently disabled - changing him from a supporter of the 2nd amendment to an advocate for the other side.

But it's not just trauma which leads some of us to change our minds and our politics. Researchers have found that sometimes chance - the sex of your baby or even winning the lottery - can make a difference in where people stand on the issues. 


Adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. And liberal and conservative. A growing field of sociology and political science is studying the role genetics plays in an individual's politics. John Alford of Rice University told Miller-McCune that as much as 50 percent of our political leanings come from our DNA. "We found that political attitudes are influenced much more heavily by genetics than by parental socialization," he said. And if you don't see your liberal politics as a reflection of your conservative biological parents, then look further back in your family tree. "Chances are you picked up a recessive liberal gene."


A study from Yale University found (not surprisingly) that lottery winners turn against the estate tax and get a little more bristly about the idea of government redistribution once they've hit the jackpot. But "broader attitudes concerning economic stratification or the role of government as a provider of social insurance" don't change noticeably, the study found.


It's the economy, stupid. But only the economy. Several studies of the effects of unemployment on voting and on politics have found nearly zero connection between the two.

"The strong finding is that the individual pocketbook factors don't have a strong impact though for some reason in the aggregate, it does," said Robert Grafstein of the University of Georgia, who has researched the political effects of unemployment. "And you'd think: 'the aggregate (that is, the employment rate) is just a bunch of people who are unemployed, so what's the big difference here?' But somehow at the aggregate level is matters but at the individual level it doesn't matter a whole lot. The fact that it doesn't is just kind of jaw-dropping." 


The next time you need to know how a candidate really feels, you might want to look at their kids. A study of the 105th congress compared the voting record of congressmen and found that those with daughters were far more likely to vote in favor of reproductive rights legislation. The impact also seemed to grow along with the daughter, according to economist Ebonya Washington, who also noted that "parenting daughters increases feminist beliefs." 

So how does personal experience turn into policy? 

Part of it is about a feeling, says Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University and the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. When an individual hears a policy that matches their feeling, politics start to take (or change) shape. 

Personal experience and emotion can also turn into a political movement through what Westen calls "a cohort effect" - a similar effect to what makes unemployment numbers so important for voters. The Great Depression, he points out, shaped the role of government for an entire generation of Americans.

"Those kinds of cohort effects in terms of political sensibilities are actually deeply personal," he said.



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Comments [1]

Corinne from Brooklyn, NY

With the exception of my fairly apolitical siblings, I am the only liberal in my family. I've always assumed this was a function of environment: I grew up in New York, they in the Soviet Union. Their distrust of government, their belief that the individual should be left to fall or flourish without bureaucratic manipulation, comes from a lifetime spent trying to evade communism's reach into all aspects of their lives. My belief that the government's role should be to help, to provide fundamental services, to alleviate inequality, comes from a childhood spent in NYC.

But I remember, as a kid, drawing a "Four More Years" sign for Bush senior as I watched the Republican Nation Convention with my family. In a middle school presidential debate, I chose Dole over Clinton. Despite my preteen leanings, when I voted for the first time at 18, I voted the Democratic ticket, no longer sharing any common beliefs with the Republicans. What I assumed was the inevitable product of my environment may have been my critical thinking skills catching up to my genetics.

At the heart of a political argument there is often an unshakeable gut belief about what the role of government should be. Perhaps it is that core belief that is the result of genetic chance, and then the environmental and experiential information you pick up along the way is made to fit.

Nov. 14 2011 11:02 AM

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