From the gut: The evolutionary roots of partisanship

SAGES from philosophers to pollsters have long struggled to explain what makes voters lean left or right. As political animals, people are unpredictable. Why do conservative poor people vote against their economic interests? Why do privileged young intellectuals stump for the welfare state?

Some political scientists like to believe political preferences are rooted in “rational choices”. Sociologists claim that political inclinations are informed by a person’s home, institutions and social groups. Now it is time for the biologists and psychologists to weigh in, argues Avi Tuschman in his new book “Our Political Nature”. An anthropologist by training, he claims that evolutionary instincts shape political preferences—and inform partisanship—far more than income or what people watch on television.

With an arsenal of data and studies, Mr Tuschman views political divisions through three main personality traits: tribalism, tolerance for inequality and views of human nature. These qualities are all quantifiable and rooted in biology, he argues. Xenophobia, for example, is a result of breeding preferences. In cases where infectious diseases are common—often in hotter regions—people are more sexually conservative and instinctively avoid partners from different ethnic groups.

Parenting style informs the views of the next generation, Mr Tuschman claims. He points to studies that show that leftists come from less disciplined and more egalitarian families in which children are encouraged to challenge adults. Younger siblings often swing further left than older ones, often because big brothers and sisters are forced to be more responsible, which encourages them to identify with parental authority—and perhaps authority in general.

Views of income inequality are divisive. Leftists blame uneven distribution on outside factors, such as poor education and corporate misconduct. Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to view these differences as a fair consequence of an individual’s choices and abilities. These beliefs have little to do with personal wealth: Mr Tuschman cites a California survey in which the poorest respondents were the most likely to say people get what they deserve, and were also the most religious. Yet he fails to explain properly why this might be.

The last section gauges hard-wired levels of altruism. Most people are kinder to others in the same tribe—political party, race, nationality, and the like. And motivations for such generosity often relate to a desire for status. Yet Mr Tuschman never sufficiently explains how altruism is either liberal or conservative.

Indeed, the author’s efforts to use “hard science” to illuminate partisanship often run aground. This book is long on juicy studies but short on insight. The political world Mr Tuschman describes tends to be remarkably binary and easily classifiable. Many of his examples come from those on the political fringes, such as Glenn Beck, a populist libertarian, and a group called the White Aryan Resistance. Meanwhile voters who occupy the middle ground get little credit for their unpredictability.

This may be because moderates do not sit comfortably in the political narrative of biological determinists like Mr Tuschman. In his view votes, like morals and values, have little to do with one’s capacity to reason and improve. Nowhere does he mention the rationale behind centrism, or why moments of extreme polarisation are often short-lived. To answer these questions, Mr Tuschman would need to return to the philosophers he overlooks. Darwin can help explain a lot, but not everything.

 From the gut: the evolutionaru roots of partisanship

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