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Margaret Wente

Are your politics hard-wired? Add to ...

My liberal and conservative friends are doomed eternally to disagree. According to the liberals, Stephen Harper is a fear-monger who panders to the basest instincts of the electorate. "Look at his 'tough on crime' stance," fumed one. "Typical conservative strategy. It caters to entirely emotional, irrational fears that are totally impervious to fact, evidence and common sense."

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The other bunch (a brave minority here in downtown Toronto) don't care all that much for Iggy, either. They think he's an opportunist masquerading as a populist. "If I hear him sticking up for hard-working families one more time, I think I'll throw up," says one. "Also, he should keep his poor old mother and her Alzheimer's out of it."

All of these people are convinced their views are the product of a clear-eyed and astute assessment of the situation. It's the other side that's blinded by ideology and emotion. But our political inclinations have a great deal less to do with the rational part of our brains than we'd like to think. And there's mounting evidence that they are to some extent biologically rooted deep in the subconscious part of our brains.

"Neuroscience shows differences between conservatives and liberals," says David Amodio, a social psychologist at New York University who investigates the neural underpinnings of political ideology. He argues that our ideological leanings are related to fundamental neurocognitive processes, which work differently in different people. His and other studies claim to show, for example, that conservatives are more unbending and more sensitive to threats than liberals, and that liberals are more flexible and responsive to new information. (That would explain why conservatives tend to be more tough on crime.)

Neuropolitics - or political physiology, or whatever you want to call it - is hot. Scientists are frantically wiring people up, peppering them with images and scanning their brains in efforts to figure out why they react the way they do, and political strategists are paying close attention. Let me weigh in here with a cautionary note. Brain science is in its infancy, and some of these inferential leaps are truly breathtaking. Perhaps it's just coincidence that these studies (which, as the researchers themselves admit, are usually designed by liberals) wind up making liberals seem far smarter and more attractive than conservatives. (Or perhaps, as my liberal friends insist, that's just the plain, unvarnished truth.) Nonetheless, it's undeniable that both biology and genetics play a far greater role in shaping our beliefs than the Fathers of Confederation could ever have imagined.

The best evidence of this comes from twin studies, which show that identical twins are highly likely to share political beliefs, and to have similar engagement levels in politics. "Political reactions are gut responses rather than a rational weighing of pros and cons," Kevin Smith, a University of Nebraska political scientist, told The Boston Globe. "Our biological makeup contributes to our political attitudes."

Modern political strategy is crafted to trigger a chain of emotional reactions among voters and exaggerate the differences among the parties. Political campaigns are not about debating policy, but about affirming emotions. Yet even the most hardened strategists are rattled by some of the new evidence about how people decide. In one study conducted at Princeton University, people were shown black-and-white photographs of the faces of rival political candidates. After viewing each pair of photos for a mere half a second, they were asked which candidate looked more competent. In fact, the candidates they judged to be more competent had won their races two-thirds of the time. One split-second impression was more predictive of success than any other factor.

Variations of this research have been conducted around the world, with the same results. Even five-year-olds could pick winners. In other words, you can ignore all that expert post-debate analysis you endured this week. All you need to know is that after the English-language debate on Tuesday, Stephen Harper was judged most competent of all the leaders by 48 per cent of those polled. Michael Ignatieff should keep an eye out for another job at Harvard.

Other research shows that your beliefs are influenced by the tribe you join, not vice versa. Maybe you used to have no views on crime at all. But if you tell me how you're voting, I'll tell you what they are. Or how about the prospect of a coalition (or, as we used to call it in Ontario, an "accord")? Would a governing alliance of minority parties reflect a fine old Canadian tradition? Or would it be a betrayal of the popular will? Your opinion on this matter probably depends more on your allegiance than on your deep knowledge of political history.

Voters are both rational and intuitive. But to some extent, they are also born. I must confess with some chagrin that I once rooted passionately for Richard Nixon. When he lost to JFK, I shed bitter tears. In my defence, I was only 9 at the time. Yet my centrist, small-c conservative leanings more or less endured. My ideal political party (which, of course, does not exist) believes in modest government, self-reliance and a decent social safety net. I regret that when it comes to politics, many people are swayed by emotion, and are impervious to facts and common sense. Unlike me, of course.

 

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