The Left Turns Right and Other Political Pirouettes

I’ve spent a lot of time this past week sitting, reading and thinking. Doctors forbade heavy lifting, but even big ideas don’t have measurable mass, so I’ve been collecting a few and rolling them around. Playing marbles with mental medicine balls has taken my mind off actual medicine, which can make you crazy if you stop to think about it.

Scientists say they have located what’s been dubbed the “liberal gene.” Researchers at Harvard and the University of California were poking around the chromosome 11 on the human DNA and looked more closely at sequence DRD4. This gene helps build a protein called dopamine receptor D4. One variant of the DRD4 gene, DRD4-7R, is associated with “novelty seeking.” Turns out, people with that particular variant are more likely to seek out more points of view, because their receptor translates the dopamine as excitement or pleasure. The DRD4-7R crowd, especially if they had a more varied group of friends in adolescence, craves this sort of stimulation. Presto, you have the makings of political liberalism.

Note the role of a diverse cultural milieu in the formula. Without exposure to a wide variety of social norms and lifestyles during those (literally) formative years, the dopamine rush can carry too much excitement, experienced instead as fear.

Fear hits the second mental marble. I also read that scientists have identified a linkage between fear and conservative political views. They studied physiological responses to a perceived threat or sudden stimulus, measuring respondents’ skin moisture and involuntary eye blinks. They found that participants with stronger “startle responses” correlated strongly with a more conservative views of the world. Those with a hair-trigger response reflex were more likely to want access to real triggers.

Conservatives, the study shows, seem to be wired to be resolute. Liberals are more attracted to ambiguity. Granted, these distinctions are cartoonish. But cartoons can be useful.

Leaders are looking for a political center after the last election. Voters flipped control of the U.S. House of Representatives and narrowed the margin in the U.S. Senate. The Oregon House is perfectly divided between Democrats and Republicans; the state Senate is nearly so. Even the Lane County Board of Commissioners is as evenly divided as it can be with five members.

So it’s timely to see that middle ground looks more attractive to the political left. Their opponents have learned to use that attraction against them. Liberals track further and further right, helplessly drawn to the siren call — the dopamine fix — of a nuanced center position. As the tragedy always has it, only they can hear the siren.

It’s not a fair fight, so is there no hope for liberals?

Enter here a third marble, a third stream of scientific discoveries, these having to do with “Game Theory.” John Nash, made famous by the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” discovered the mathematics of win-win scenarios. Understanding the formulas of collaboration better the odds for complex solutions. The trick is to incorporate your opponents’ actions into your own response.

For example, President Obama wants the Bush-era tax cuts extended only for those earning less than $250,000 per year. Republicans are employing political judo, using the Democrats’ hard-wired craving for compromise against them.

As long as the outcome is defined as a static, “up-or-down” vote, the dynamic will favor the more resolute right. But Obama also wants bipartisanship and he wants a solution quickly. He should add those variables to a more complex solution he will support.

Continuing the example, Obama could say he will support raising that ceiling for tax relief by $10,000 for each Republican Senator who signs on before December. If every senator agrees and quickly, tax cuts would be extended for those making less than $660,000, accounting for 41 Republican votes. If the vote cannot happen until December, then the value of each cooperating Republican vote drops to $2,000 apiece, lowering the highest acceptable tax break ceiling to $332,000. And so on.

Democrats will cringe at the blatant gamesmanship of this approach, but they lose because they haven’t studied their opponents or the rules of the game. The other side has, so they’re winning more marbles.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.