Is Conservatism an Extreme form of The Male Brain?

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019

Is Conservatism an Extreme form of The Male Brain?

Arnold Schwarzenegger is an (Austrian-born) American icon who exudes an aura of testosterone from his very persona. Not only did Schwarzenegger win the Mr. Universe bodybuilding contest seven times, but he and his rippling physique also defined the role of the macho, Hollywood, male action star in films like Commando, Last Action Hero, Terminator, and Conan the Barbarian. His roles have typified masculine stereotypes such as strength, decisiveness, protectiveness, and conquering. As the sword-wielding Conan, Schwarzenegger paraphrased the words of Genghis Khan, words that epitomize the primary, driving (if not frightening) evolutionary imperatives of men—mate competition, territorial control, resource gain, and sexual rewards: “Happiness lies in conquering your enemies, in driving them in front of you, in taking their property, in savoring their despair, in raping their wives and daughters.”1

From the worlds of muscle contests and male action hero movies, Schwarzenegger zip-lined into American politics and became the Republican governor of California. With maleness so central to his previous career choices, one may wonder whether his choice of political party had anything to do with his hyper-masculinity. There is research on this question. Interestingly, while liberals are far overrepresented in Hollywood, one study found that right-wing orientation was far more prevalent among Hollywood stars who play male action heroes.2 These men of brawn included Schwarzenegger as well as Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, and five-term National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston, among others. In this study, right-wing orientation—as measured by things like political donations, party support, and support for military actions—was exorbitantly more prominent among action stars (56.3 percent) than among dramatic actors (4.2 percent), and the researchers also found that actors who leaned Right were actually more physically formidable than those who leaned Left.

Perhaps more telling, during Schwarzenegger's tenure as California governor, he repeatedly referred to Democrats as “girlie men.” While the phrase was originally a joke from a Saturday Night Live skit (poking fun at Schwarzenegger himself), it had such resonance that Schwarzenegger used it, for example, while campaigning for George H. W. Bush in 1988 and 1992, during the 2004 Republican National Convention, and in 2004 as governor during budget fights with the California legislature.3

The stereotype that political liberalism reflects a feminine orientation, and conservatism a masculine one, has been around for some time, and research on gender stereotypes has revealed interesting findings. Political scientist Nicolas Winter, for instance, looked at US survey data from the American National Election Study from 1972 to 2004.4 The researcher and his team examined the types of responses people gave in describing the Democratic and Republican parties and coded the responses into stereotypically positive masculine traits (e.g., “A military man; a good military/war record…. [The research participant] speaks of party/candidate as good protector(s); will know what to do”), and negative masculine traits (e.g., “Not humble enough; too cocky/self-confident…. Unsafe/unstable; dictatorial; craves power; ruthless”). The researchers also developed codes for stereotypically positive female traits (e.g., “Generous, compassionate, believe in helping others…. Listens [more] to people; takes [more] into consideration the needs and wants of people”), and negative stereotypes (e.g., “Speaks of party/candidate as bad protector[s]; won't know what to do…. Doesn't believe in work ethic; believes in people being handed things / in government handouts”). Overwhelmingly, the researchers found that voters used more masculine stereotypes to describe GOP candidates and more feminine stereotypes to describe Democrats.

One study systematically assessed the connection between gender and partisanship. Political scientist Monika McDermott collected the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) from 780 Americans, along with a series of questions about their political beliefs and behaviors. The BSRI is one of the most widely used instruments to assess gendered psychology. For feminine traits the BSRI asks participants to rate how much the following descriptors apply to him or her: “understanding, sympathetic, warm, loves children, compassionate, gentle, eager to soothe hurt feelings, affectionate, sensitive to needs of others, tender.” Masculine traits are captured by the following descriptors: “willingness to take risks, forceful, strong personality, assertive, independent, leadership ability, aggressive, dominant, willing to take a stand, defends own beliefs.”5

What McDermott found was that men and women who scored high on femininity were significantly more likely to identify as Democrat, and that men and women who scored high on masculinity were more likely to identify as Republican.6 Among those studied, vote choices in the 2008 US presidential and 2010 congressional elections were similar—“masculine” men and women voted Republican; “feminine” men and women voted Democrat. In this study there were sex differences too, along the same lines, but not as strong as the gender differences. While McDermott's study seems to corroborate the observations made by so many pundits in the popular media, far less has been proffered about why gender-based partisan differences exist.

As I elaborate in later chapters, these differences go far deeper than stereotypes, or societal gender role expectations, tying directly into reproductive strategies. Conservatism, I argue, is a male-centric strategy shaped significantly by the struggle for dominance in within-and-between group mate competitions, while liberalism is a female-centric strategy derived from the protracted demands of rearing human offspring, among other selective pressures. These aren't fixed or unitary strategies—that is, they can be adopted, or rejected, or even adapted tactically, depending on social and environmental circumstances, and both men and women can employ more or less male- or female-typical approaches. I explore this adaptability further in chapter 7 and explain conditions in which different pathways are taken. For now, let's take a moment to consider one evolutionary mechanism by which reproductive strategies can diverge within either of the sexes.

Frequency-dependent selection is an evolutionary process by which the fitness of some phenotypes depends on their frequency relative to the frequency of other phenotypes within a population. Take for example Uta stansburiana, a small reptile native to the western regions of Mexico and the United States, and more commonly called the side-blotched lizard. In a population of these lizards, there are different throat color polymorphisms among males, corresponding to different mate competition strategies. Males with orange throats have higher testosterone, are highly aggressive, and defend expansive territories with large harems of females. Males with blue throats are less aggressive and control smaller territories. Males with yellow throat stripes, which mimic receptive females, do not control territory. Instead, disguised as female lizards to avoid attack, they infiltrate other males’ territories and mate with their females.7 The fitness of all three morphs is dependent on the fitness of the others. The aggressive orange males are more energetic, and good at stealing mates from the blues, but are more susceptible to cuckoldry by the yellow-striped males and have lower survival rates overall. The blues defend a smaller harem and are usually better at defending against the yellow-striped, but they're prone to having their females stolen by oranges. Moreover, in response to the death of a nearby blue, the yellow-striped sometimes morph into blue and take over his behavior patterns.8 These dynamic interactions, which keep the three polymorphs in existence, reflect what biologists have called the rock-paper-scissors game of male mating strategy.9 And so, it is fair to say that being aggressive, amassing territory, and mating with as many females as possible is a male-oriented strategy among these lizards. But not all lizards take this tack. Similarly, not all females are inclined to mate with the orange guy and may use different tactics as well.

The same holds true for politics. Not all men enact a conservative strategy, nor do all women enact a liberal strategy. But we do see sex-based leanings. Imagine two bell curves, one tilting toward the (political) Right for men, and another to the Left for women, with significant overlap between the curves. And so frequency-dependent selection may be one force behind sex and gender differences in both mating strategies and politics. Among humans, there are profound societal or cultural processes that impact gender, mating, and politics, but they are not divorced from biology. Indeed, the tendency toward psychological differences between men and women, as well as between conservatives and liberals, are represented by distinct differences in brain structure and function.

Before we explore the evolved purposes for these differences, let us consider prior research that has attempted to understand the typical “male brain.” British developmental psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has developed an intriguing theory about autism spectrum disorders. He argues, convincingly, that autism, which is far overrepresented in males by a ratio of ten to one, is an extreme variant of the “male brain.”10 Here, I use many of the cognitive, emotional, and social differences between males and females that Baron-Cohen draws upon to prove his point about autism as a means to understand the very same kinds of differences between liberals and conservatives. I use his framework for several reasons. First, the differences examined by Baron-Cohen are specific, measurable, and supported by empirical research. Second, to understand individual differences, looking at extreme examples of a particular trait can make those differences emerge from the intuitive and often reflexive social backdrops against which they are so often camouflaged from everyday view. Third, I build on Baron-Cohen's existing framework because it has established that there even can be such a thing as an “extreme form of the male brain.”

Now, before we go any further, let me just acknowledge that evoking a heuristic used to understand psychopathology in order to explain political psychology risks giving the impression that I am pathologizing certain political ideologies. To the contrary, the range of diversity among the world's population of humans, including the personality traits that underlie our political diversity, has endowed us with great adaptability, allowing us to survive the incredibly harsh environments of our ancestral past. In fact, like other kinds of genetic diversity, it is fair to say that such diversity is one of the reasons why we, the naked apes, didn't dissolve away into extinction.

Here too, lest we also worry about the social implications of using the term male brain as a heuristic, it is also important to understand that men and women's brain morphology and function exhibit vastly more similarities than differences. Even so, existing differences have meaningful implications for our political psychology. Studying those differences in no way makes a rational case for gender inequality—something those making the moralistic fallacy may fear, and those making the naturalistic fallacy may seek to force upon others.

With all this being said, let's examine Baron-Cohen's argument. First, he clarifies that not all females have the female-typical brain and not all males have the male-typical brain, but that there are certain quantifiable, male-typical extremes evidenced in those with autism spectrum disorders. As it turns out, the numerous and important differences between females and males that Baron-Cohen uses to explain autism sequelae are glaringly present between liberals and conservatives on nearly every difference. Here I briefly pair together those differences for comparison and use some that have not been explicitly listed by Baron-Cohen.