By Steven Philp
According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University College London, people may hold certain political views simply because they were born that way. The survey of politicians and students found that there are marked structural differences in the brains of people with different political viewpoints. These differences were focused in two primary areas; participants with conservative political views generally have a larger amygdala, which regulates fear and related emotions, and a smaller anterior cingulate, which is associated with courage and optimism.
In a Time Magazine article, lead researcher Professor Geraint Rees explains that the results were unexpected: “It is very surprising because it does suggest there is something about political attitude that is encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that there is something in our brain structure that determines or results in political attitude.” However, he noted that because the research was conducted on adults it is difficult to determine whether these differences were present from birth or had been formed through experience. It is also unclear how quickly these changes take place, and whether it is possible to induce significant shifts in opinion after the formation of these features have become manifest.
Yet this begs the question: if our political viewpoints–through nature or nurture–are hardwired in to the brain, is debate productive? According to an article published by the New York Times, Republicans gained more than 690 seats in state legislatures across the nation in the November election, giving the party their strongest representation at the state level in 80 years. It would appear that national political opinion has bifurcated, with more conservative candidates gaining over their moderate peers in certain races; take Tea Party favorites Rand Paul (R-KY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), for example. Yet in other races, such as Nevada and Delaware, the extreme politics of Republican contenders caused significant shift in favor toward the Democrat candidate. If the recalcitrance of political opinion holds true, then we now face a legislature that will experience deadlock to a greater degree than its predecessor. Yet this past December we saw a Congress that worked against partisan divisions to pass significant legislation–the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the 9/11 First Responders Bill, for example–making this a particularly successful lame duck session for the Democrats. It was the ability to secure votes from both parties, through difficult and–at times–emotional debate, that allowed for forward movement. This is not to say that the past few months have not lacked their disappointments for the liberal minded; the failure of the DREAM Act was one such instance. However, we do know one thing: debate can be productive, and minds can–to a degree–change.
As we enter a period of divided government, we can expect sharp differences between Republican and Democrat officials. Already we see a lack of bipartisanship in the new Congress; efforts to overturn healthcare reform in the House accentuate the split between the Republican-dominated House and the Democrat-controlled Senate. Looking at the next two years, we must not let the recalcitrance of the political mind let us forget the efficacy of debate. As Jews we have inherited a tradition of discourse, crystallized in texts like the Talmud. In this way we have a particular role to play in the current political environment, sharing this heritage of debate to ensure continued progress.