What Kind of Genes Did William Jennings Bryan Have?

Larry Bartels has a nice discussion of genopolitics research over at The Monkey Cage today. In it, he contrasts my new book “Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America” with the genopolitics research agenda.

In light of that, I thought I’d mention what I say in the book about genopolitics.

There is clearly evidence that some political attitudes — like many other human attributes — can be attributed to genetic background. People with certain traits are more likely to become modern liberals and modern conservatives (in the American senses of those words).

But ideology varies, across place and over time. We have to account for the fact that the late 19th and early 20th century progressives were, while very like modern liberals in many respects, generally among the most racist thinkers of their time. Something caused liberalism to evolve on racial issues (among many others), and that something probably isn’t biological evolution.

I don’t know what kind of genes William Jennings Bryan had. Or Theodore Roosevelt, or Herbert Croly, or Woodrow Wilson, or Abraham Lincoln, and so on. What I do know is that none of them had political views that would fit very easily into modern politics.

All of which makes it unlikely that there is a “conservative gene” or genes. (And there are few doing work in geopolitics who would claim that there is.) Something has to organize political ideology, even if the building blocks are, at least in part, biological.

That, in turn, means that genetics probably can’t explain things like polarization. Polarization is something that has happened, over the course of a few decades. Humans evolve, but not that fast.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Hans Noel

Hans Noel is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.