Political Ideologies: A look at why we believe the things we do

Nicholas Cokis examines the factors that shape our political opinions and ideologies.

We now live in a world dominated by social media, a new rapidly expanding platform that allows us to connect with users halfway across the globe in a matter of seconds. Young people especially are being exposed to a wide variety of political views and ideas, now more than ever before. The implications of this new medium of exchanging political discourse on our future politicians and political landscape are still being discovered.

In light of this trend, I think certain questions regarding political opinions and ideologies are more relevant now than ever before: Why do we think the way we do about politics? What are the different factors that cause us to adopt certain political opinions, and how important are these factors relative to each other?

It’s not often that this question is examined outside of an academic context. Have you ever, for instance, thought about the combination of influences in your life that led you to supporting a particular political party, policy or ideology? Maybe you have, but it’s likely that either consciously or subconsciously you don’t want to. If everyone believes that their own political opinions are correct and justified, then to us, that should be the reason why we choose to adopt those opinions. To think instead that we hold a particular political view due to a clinical cause and effect relationship undermines our own sense of morality and raises the question of whether or not we willingly chose these opinions in the first place.

But then again, every action that we take as humans is only due to a long and complicated set of circumstances that led us to make that decision. Opinions on politics are no different. So, what exactly are these circumstances that lead us to forming a political opinion, or even more broadly, carry a long-term political ideology?

Most people would point to parental influence during childhood as an important starting factor. Political socialisation between parents and children is thought to occur in either two ways; through direct socialisation between a parent and child or through status inheritance. Direct socialisation refers to communication, whether explicit or implicit, between parents and children which will usually lead to a child adopting their parents’ views. This process is prevalent in some families more than others, it depends on the degree of politicisation in the family, the stability of the family and the homogeneity of political views between the parents. Interestingly, the second most likely alternative to adopting a parent’s political ideology is for a child to rebelliously adopt a more polar opposite view as a form of protest.

Status inheritance on the other hand is the notion that children generally inherit similar experiences and a common way of life, which leads to them independently adopting views and ideologies similar to their parents. It is hard to say which one of these theories is more correct, and its entirely likely that there is variation across different cultures and time periods. Despite this, there is general consensus that early childhood is a period where we are all greatly influenced to think one way or another.

This does not mean though that we are no longer influenced in our adult life. Evidence has shown that the experiences we have and the people we associate with will most likely shift our political opinions accordingly. For instance, research has shown that travel, education and occupations that require an individual to understand conflicting arguments influence an individual to adopt a more left-leaning political ideology. In contrast, those who come from a lower socio-economic status are more likely to work in a job with little to no autonomy, and correspondingly will have a higher obedience to authority which correlates to a more right-wing ideology. A study in the US also showed that long term periods of poor economic growth garnered more right wing sympathies, while periods of strong economic growth caused the opposite to occur. Another study showed how media preferences can ultimately form differences in political ideology. While none of these indicators can definitively account for or predict an individual’s political views or broader ideology, one thing is abundantly clear. From the beginning to the end, our lives are a constant mix of influences and ideas that shape who we are, including what political agenda we support.

But does this really answer the question of why we have a certain ideology? Perhaps not. Within the past decade, an increasing amount of research has suggested that there is a certain genetic component which correlates to certain political attitudes. That is, inherited from our parents and encoded into our genome, are elements which will make us more inclined to lean towards one political view over another. This has mainly been proven through the use of twin studies, comparing the similarity of political views between identical and fraternal twins. If identical twins, which share close to 100% of the same genes, are more likely to exhibit a certain political view than fraternal twins which only share around 50% of the same genes, then that trait is to some extent determined by genetics.

That is all well and good from an empirical perspective (if you have confidence in twin studies, a lot of people do not), but for humans to have a genetic predisposition to political ideology, this would have had to evolve over time. How would a preference for left wing views, for instance, increase the long-term survivability of humans with that genetic trait, especially when evolution takes tens of thousands of years to develop, and the idea of left wing politics has only been around for a couple thousand? Well, proponents of the theory would claim that certain attitudes towards groups and outsiders mutated by our ancestors a long time ago produced different evolutionary advantages, which led to the evolution of biological components which affect our political orientation in the modern world. Does this mean then, that we can analyse the genome of a newborn and accurately predict what political party they will vote for in their first election?

In reality, no. Skipping over developments and hypotheses tried and tested in this new field of study appropriately deemed ‘genopolitics’, we can’t predict political ideology in the same way that we can predict say eye colour. There is no single gene that corresponds to conservatism or liberalism. Rather, an exceedingly complex process of interaction between genes produces an affinity to certain political ideologies which may go on to be practiced or unpractised. A child born to deeply conservative parents in the American south, for instance, is more likely to have a subconscious affinity for right wing political ideas than say a child born to socialist parents in Stockholm. Even so, if the children were swapped immediately upon birth, this affinity could go completely unexercised and they could instead adopt the political ideologies held by their parents.

To further complicate things, while our genes cannot be changed after birth, our broader physiology can, and researchers have proved that there are links between our physiology and political opinions. One study showed that not only were there differences between size and activity of different parts of the brain between left wing and right-wing individuals, these parts of the brain expanded after involvement in partisan politics. The same study found that participants examined after 9/11 exhibited more activity in the part of their brain associated with fear response, which corresponded with an increase in more rightward political thought.

What this all means is that the genetic and environmental factors that influence our political ideals do not follow a simple ‘nature vs nurture’ antithesis. The relationship between your political views, genes and environment is quite more complex, and continues to be so throughout your entire life.

Knowing this, how then can we now answer our original question? Why do we think the way we do about politics? As I have shown, the answer to this daunting question is complex and still being discovered. Peter Beattie (whose study provided much of the research for this article), summarised it much better than I can when he said, “genetic and environmental influences may not always work in concert but may pull in different or opposite directions, thereby producing a kaleidoscopic pattern of ideological components”.

This may seem to you a vague and unsatisfying conclusion to an arguably important question, but what I take away from this is that we should strive to recognise not only the factors that caused us to adopt certain political positions, but more importantly to understand the same for the people around us. I think this is especially true for those that we fundamentally disagree with the most. Now that we have digital access to an increasing amount of diverse political opinions, perhaps it is better to meet this new situation with understanding more so than resentment.

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