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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/22/13

What Makes a Republican?

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Bob Burnett
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After two months of the 113 th Congress, it's clear there's a cadre of Tea Party Republicans blocking most meaningful Federal legislation -- jobs, taxes, global climate change, immigration, and gun control.  These ultra-conservatives are intent on dismantling the federal government.  Where did these Republicans come from and why do they believe government is their enemy?

There's substantial research indicating differences in liberal and conservative brains.  The definitive study, published by Hatemi et al, analyzed the DNA of 13,201 Australians and found several genes that differentiated between liberals and conservative.  A literature review, by Jost et al found personality factors that distinguish between liberals and conservatives: threat sensitivity and openness to experience.  ABC summarized, "Democrats had larger anterior cingulate cortexes, which are associated with tolerance to uncertainty, while Republicans had larger right amygdalas, which are associated with sensitivity to fear."  Liberals ask, "Why can't we all get along?  And conservatives respond, "Why are you threatening traditional values?"

Of course, heredity doesn't explain all differences between Democrats and Republicans.   If you were brought up in liberal Berkeley, California, you had different life experiences than if you were brought up in conservative Provo, Utah.  Both cities have approximately 112,000 residents.  However, Berkeley is 59.5 percent white and 10 percent black; Provo is 85 percent white and less than 1 percent black.  30 percent of Berkeley households are married, while the statistic in Provo is 55 percent.  2 percent of Berkeley households report as "same-sex couples" but there's no comparable indicator for Provo.  88 percent of Provo residents are members of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

If you grow up in Provo you are more likely to be raised in a conservative family that owns a gun (43.9 percent). In Provo you are less likely to know someone who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender or a same-sex couple.

56 percent of Utah voters are registered Republicans versus 31 percent in California.  Therefore, if you grow up in Provo you are much more likely to be exposed to the conservative message -- via family, church, or media.

If you are raised in Provo you are more likely to have what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt termed a "conservative grand narrative."  For example, "Once upon a time America was a shining beacon but then the principles of the founders were subverted by liberals who instituted a massive federal bureaucracy and compromised traditional American values."  In Provo you are more likely to acquire what University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff termed the "strict parent" moral perspective where the world is viewed as inherently dangerous.

If you grow up in Provo, you are constantly exposed to a political perspective that argues: "President Obama is a proponent of global "one-world' government.  He intends to impose socialism on the US and have the federal government seize Americans' guns and destroy their liberties."  In Provo, you are more likely to believe Americans need their guns for self-defense against the federal government.

Growing up Republican is a blend of nature and nurture.  It's probable that some conservatives have a genetic predisposition because their brains make them more sensitive to fear.  This inclination is accentuated by a culture that is more fear oriented; that, for example, sees gays as a threat rather than as an expression of the diversity of nature.  If you grow up in a conservative culture, such as Provo, you are more likely to fall into an ultra-conservative "information silo."  (An information silo is a cultural system that operates in isolation from others.)  You are more likely to listen to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, "Focus on the Family," and similar conservative news sources.  You are more likely to be part of an email tree that sends missives such as, "Obama intends to impose Sharia Law."  And you are more likely to know someone who is part of a militia or hate group.

Given the extent to which congressional districts were gerrymandered in 2010, it's not surprising that some districts elected ultra-conservative Republicans.  Provo, Utah, elected Tea Party member, Jason Chaffetz. (Berkeley elected liberal congresswoman Barbara Lee.)  Not surprisingly, Congressman Chaffetz opposes same-sex marriage and voted no on legislation enforcing anti-gay sex crimes.  He opposes Federal aid for education and Obamacare.  He opposes gun-control legislation and immigration reform. The Provo newspaper noted Chaffetz: "Voted against raising the debt ceiling, arguing Congress and Obama weren't reining in entitlement spending" Chaffetz voted against the so-called fiscal cliff deal because it involved raising levies on those making more than $450,000 annually."

While liberals deplore the process that produced the ultra-conservative House of Representatives, the reality is that America is culturally gerrymandered.  There are toxic pockets, like Provo, where citizens believe, "Government is the enemy."  When you consider this grim reality, it's not so strange that the Tea Party has significant support and that Republicans are obstructionists.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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