Were You Born a Democrat or a Republican? The Historical and Biological Factors That Could Lead Your Vote
With only one day left before America votes on its 45th President, Hillary Clinton's polling lead over Donald Trump has narrowed significantly in recent days and the presidential race looks as heated as ever before. Millions of Americans have already decided who they are voting for and it’s really easy for one to notice the United States' obvious divided political climate. But what does this divide say about their supporters? Why do some of us identify as conservatives, and others as liberals? According to some scientists, the answer lies partially in the make-up of our brains.
Despite most people thinking that this happens solely because of the socioeconomic and ideological built-in differences between Democrats and Republicans, a number of scientific studies have found that biology may be linked with political orientation as well. Further, scientists suggest that history and biology not only could possibly be factors in political orientation, but may also mean that the ideology a person identifies with changes a person's ability to perform certain tasks.
The History behind the Democratic Donkey and the Republican Elephant
In case you happen to be one of those people who wonder how everything started, you would be amazed to learn that the two extremely popular party animals have been on the political scene since the 19th century. Specifically, the Democratic Party’s donkey started as an insult during Andrew Jackson's 1828 presidential campaign, when his political opponents labeled him as a "jackass." Known for being stubborn and obstinate, Jackson decided to use the insult in his favor and began putting the strong-willed animal on his election posters. As it turned out, Jackson defeated incumbent John Quincy Adams and became America’s first Democratic president. In the 1870s, influential political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who’s widely considered the father of the modern political cartoon, helped popularize the donkey as a symbol for the entire Democratic Party.
Nast cartoon of Democratic donkey, from "Harper's Weekly", January 19th 1870. ( public domain )
Although, Nast wouldn’t be happy until he would also invent another famous symbol: the Republican elephant. In a cartoon that first appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1874, Nast drew a donkey clothed in lion's skin, intimidating the rest of the animals at the zoo. One of those animals was the elephant that some labeled “The Republican Vote.” That's all it took for the elephant to become associated with the Republican Party. During the 1870s, Nast used the elephant to represent Republicans in additional cartoons, and by 1880 other artists were using the same symbol for the party.
1874 Nast cartoon featuring the first notable appearance of the Republican elephant ( public domain )
Scientific Study Shows Brain Differences Between the Supporters of the Two Political Parties
Today, Democrats claim that the donkey is a very smart and brave animal, while Republicans say the elephant is extremely strong and dignified. Obviously, their favoritism has a lot to do with the fact that these two animals are seen as the absolute symbols of their political parties, but it makes you wonder if the selection of these two animals, and one’s affiliation to one or the other, is as random and simple as it appears to be.
The theory that nothing happens coincidentally in politics, seems to be verified by a 2011 study conducted by cognitive neuroscientist Ryota Kanai's group at University College London published in Current Biology, and which found a connection between differences in political views and differences in brain structures in a convenience sample of students from University College London. The scientists involved to the study performed MRI scans on the brains of ninety volunteer students who had previously openly indicated their political preference on a five-point scale ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative”. Students who reported more conservative political views tended to have larger amygdalae, a structure in the temporal lobes that performs a primary role in the processing and memory of emotions. Further, they found clusters in which gray matter volume was significantly associated with conservativism in the left insula and the right entorhinal cortex. There is evidence that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust and the insula is involved in the feeling of disgust. On the other hand, more liberal students tended to have a larger volume of grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a structure of the brain associated with monitoring uncertainty and handling conflicting information.
In an interview with LiveScience, Ryota Kanai said, "It's very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions", and that, "more work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude." Kanai and colleagues added that is very important to conduct a detailed study to find out whether the changes in brain structure that they observed lead to changes in political behavior or whether political attitudes and behavior instead result in changes of brain structure.