If you pay close attention to presidential approval rankings since FDR you will notice two distinct patterns. First, presidential approval ratings are very stable. For the most part, roughly half of Americans approve of a president at any given point in time and about half disapprove. Second, there are sharp peaks and valleys in the approval ratings. Events like an economic crisis or a foreign conflict have an immediate impact on presidential approval ratings, but then the numbers shift back to their normal baseline average. Some presidents had consistently higher than average approval ratings and others consistently lower, but, for the most part, presidential approval ratings are elastic and generally stable.
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For decades, political scientists have offered sociological explanations for this phenomenon. These explanations tend to emphasize how presidential behavior influences attitudes based on individual demographics like education, income, party affiliation, gender and race. While this provides some theoretical traction, it does not really explain how people evaluate the performance of the president. Author’s warning: The research in this article may be considered highly controversial. Please leave comments below. My research suggests that people are genetically predisposed to evaluate presidential performance in particular ways. As such, I argue that a deeper understanding of the biological influences on the ways that people evaluate the president is imperative to our theoretical models.
If you think about it for a moment, none of us really has any idea how President Obama is actually performing at this moment. Imagine that your work supervisor had only the information about your performance that you currently possess about Barack Obama’s job performance and was asked to evaluate your job performance relying solely on that information. Do any of us know if Obama is punctual, organized, manages his time well, or manages his staff well? Much of what the President does in his daily work is highly classified and impossible to evaluate in the present. Only after a president leaves office and we have access to the archives can we really evaluate his performance.
How then, do people decide what they think about the president? More than 50 years ago, political scientists noticed remarkable similarity in the political views of family members. View historical presidential approval ratings at Gallup. As a result, the dominant approach assumed that political attitudes are taught in the home through processes of social learning. That is, people who come from the same family tend to think the same about politics because they were raised together, taught the same thing in the home and lived in communities where others shared their political beliefs. However, over the last few years political science has experienced a biological revolution. Aside from party affiliation (which is taught at home) almost everything we assumed was the result of social learning appears to be the result of genes we inherit at birth. If you and your family members agree on politics, it is most likely because you share genetic material.
Of course, the popular understanding of genetic heritability is much different than the way that geneticists think of it. When geneticists talk about genetic heritability, they are thinking in predispositional, rather than deterministic terms. To say that political ideology is genetically heritable does not mean that one has no choice in their political ideology. Rather, it suggests that biological mechanisms interact with the environment you experience to formulate the strength and direction of your political ideology.
Here is one example of how this might work. We know that about 24 percent of the genetic material that predisposes a person to value religion also predisposes them to social conservatism. The two have a common genetic basis. The dominant explanation for this is that some people have a psychological propensity to approach life based on an organized set of beliefs, but the cultural and political environment determine how these needs are expressed. The United States has a long history of combining religion and politics, so it is not surprising that this predisposition would be expressed in both religious and political attitudes in the U.S. However, this same predisposition would manifest itself differently in more secular systems, or in systems that do not protect religious liberty. Thus, the expression of politically relevant genetic predispositions strongly depends on the institutional and cultural context in which one lives.
As such, we should not be surprised if presidential approval evaluations operate in much the same way. What you expect of the president and how you evaluate the job performance of someone you do not know personally, much less work with on a daily basis, is much more likely to be influenced by your biological makeup than it is by how you were raised. To test this, I analyzed data gathered during the 2008 election using the Minnesota Twin Registry as a sample.
Everyone in the study sample was either an identical or fraternal twin. Because we know that identical twins are genetically the same, we can measure the differences between identical and fraternal twins’ attitudes and views toward the president. Some of the differences will be explained by an individual’s unique environment (E), some will be explained by their home environment (C), and some will be explained by shared genetic material (A). After running the numbers, the proportion of variation in presidential approval evaluations explained by the home environment (C) was zero. The proportion explained by unique environment (E) was 0.38, and the proportion explained by shared genetic material (A) was 0.62.
This means that genes can help explain nearly two-thirds of the variation in presidential approval evaluations. In addition, family learning accounts for none of the variation. If you and your siblings have similar views about the president, it is likely because you share similar genes. Again, I want to reiterate that these findings are not deterministic; of course you have a choice in how you think about the president. However, these findings suggest that our biological makeup has a much stronger influence on our political attitudes than the dominant view suggests. I think this means that future work on political attitudes should incorporate biological explanations and move past the sociological explanations.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.