Red Kids, Blue Kids: How Environmental Influences Are Coloring America’s Politics

Environment, we now know, plays a greater role in how children think and behave than was once believed possible, including whether they grow up to be Conservative or Liberal.

At last night’s Democratic forum, Senator Bernie Sanders rattled off a few questions for white, working-class Americans. Questions such as, Why do you keep voting against your own best interests? Why are you voting for people who are going to deny you health care, send your job to China, and not going to raise the minimum wage?

I’ve often wondered the same thing myself.

Young Boy voting

Of course, listening to Conservative (read xenophobic) talk radio doesn’t help.

Some of these wingnuts – the ones who vomit toxic waste at the very mention of the common welfare – like to say they’re being patriotic. Or they say it’s the church’s job.

The truth is, the development of empathy – or the lack thereof – starts in early childhood. And the capacity for empathy determines whether a person believes in cooperation – or every man for himself. Whether low-income kids deserve reduced/free school lunches – or should just sit there and watch other kids eat; whether elderly people on a fixed income should be able to fill their prescriptions – or be forced to cut back on groceries. And whether a mother abandoned by her spouse deserves a safe place to live – or is turned out on the street because she can’t afford the mortgage.

I find it ironic that many anti-government types not only want others to do without reasonable and necessary benefits, such a programs that help people get back on their feet;  they will gladly deny themselves those same benefits, as Bernie pointed out. Even if they haven’t a single job skill to their name and their teeth are rotting out, they still think of all human service programs and entitlements as a bunch of “socialist” crap. I guess they’ve never driven down an interstate highway or visited a public library or zoo – all socialist crap.

And of course, they’re telling the truth. Their truth. As they see it.

So let me paraphrase, and summarize, Bernie’s questions.

"Bernie Sanders September 2015 cropped" by Miller Center - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons -

“Bernie Sanders September 2015 cropped” by Miller Center –

How do children from white, working-class families turn into adults who align themselves with political leaders who do their best to disallow social programs that most  advanced countries have taken for granted for decades? Even when those same political leaders vote time and again to allow huge corporations to take their profits off-shore, where they pay no U.S. taxes.

Here’s what I think: many adult members the ultra-conservative working class grew up in a world where they did not get enough of the things kids need to feel safe, especially love and nurturing. Feeling emotionally safe and loved are important because they lay the biological foundation for what we call thriving – not just surviving.

It all happens in the brain.

Here’s the general mechanism: kids raised around domestic violence, for example, or who experience frequent changes in care-providers, or come home to an empty refrigerator every day, experience a kind of stress that is chronic. It’s called toxic stress. And it results in elevated levels of stress hormones, primarily cortisol, which can adversely impact brain development, causing cognitive and behavioral disorders, along with a variety of other issues, that can potentially last across a lifetime.

Persistent-Fear-and-Anxiety-Can-Affect-Young-Childrens-Learning-and-Development-1024x764 (1)

Harvard Center on the Developing Child













What does all this have to do with politics?

If children’s fear and trauma – based on constant worry over who’s going to protect them and meet their needs – can alter their neurology, it stands to reason that it can also cause a tendency toward certain ways of thinking and behaving, including ways that tend to protect them.

According to Differences in Liberal and Conservative Brains, Conservatives have a bigger right amygdala, indicating a stronger sensitivity to fear.  Studies show they rely more on “low-effort thought.” Thoughts that don’t ruffle the status-quo.

We know that the frontal lobe of the brain can be negatively impacted when a child endures chronic stress. The frontal lobe is involved in higher mental processes, such as meaningful speech, decision making, and planning.

It’s also where the personality is formed.

I’m sure Bernie already knows this stuff, being such a savvy guy, but here’s how it happens. The following is excerpted from “The Amazing Brain: Trauma and the Potential for Healing,” by Linda Burgess Chamberlain, PhD, MPH:

“When children feel unsafe or threatened”

“The building blocks of the brain develop from the bottom to the top. When children feel safe and nurtured, they spend more time in the upper building blocks of the brain where they do their most important learning such as bonding with you, learning to talk, and getting along with others. When children feel unsafe or threatened, they spend more time in the lower building blocks of the brain—focusing on survival. This can lead to changes in the brain including:

“Less development of the upper brain

“Smaller brain size

“Fewer brain connections”

It makes sense then that the toddler who feels free to explore his or her environment – pulling out pots and pans, for example, squishing a banana, or taste-testing the dog’s ear – makes more brain connections than one who feels unsupported, or under threat of punishment. Because it is in emotional safely that children are free to take risks. And taking risks, however small they may be, is how children learn.

But problems arise when fear – an emotional response – is detected in the amygdala, activating the stress hormone cortisol. That’s when the prefrontal cortex is negatively impacted, affecting kids’ ability to do things like explore their surroundings, make new friends, solve math problems, write a story, etc. In short, fear messes with neurological wiring.

The way I see it, fewer brain connections sounds like code for, “Reliance on quick, efficient, and ‘low-effort’ thought processes,” which yields conservative ideologies. “[W]hile effortful and deliberate reasoning yields liberal ideologies.” (Differences in Liberal and Conservative Brains)

Are you connecting the dots?

Indeed, at the root of it all is acceptance of an infant’s needs, not only for nurturing, but self-expression. When parents respect these basic needs, the child is then able to self-initiate (which, by the way, begins with nuzzling the breast).

Why is this important politically? Because a child whose needs are respected is more likely to self-initiate, extending himself to new situations and ideas, which are Liberal traits.Mom and nursing baby

Perhaps not surprisingly, the idea of government aid seems to be a metaphor for the benevolent parent. But I think this concept creates too much cognitive dissonance for right-wingers who never had a functional family. They see anyone who accepts help as a hopeless loser, never getting off first base. (Note: in most functional families, young adults eventually cut the cord. It’s a lot like weaning off the boob. As a mom who breastfed her babies for an embarrassingly long time, I can honestly say that not one of them took my milk to school in a lunch box.)

However, kids who are neglected or abused, similar to children with with attachment disorder, sometimes push away, and even try to destroy, those who attempt to nurture them. As a teacher and Girl Scout leader, I witnessed this type of anti-social behavior on many occasions.

It’s important to realize that the political coloring of children happens over time. However, the apple isn’t likely to fall far from the tree. “During childhood and adolescence, individual differences in political attitudes are accounted for by a variety of environmental influences…However, at the point of early adulthood (in the early 20s), for those who left their parental home, there is evidence of a sizable genetic influence on political attitudes which remains stable throughout adult life.” (Differences in Liberal and Conservative Brains: “Genetic and Environmental Transmission of Political Attitudes Over a Life Time,” The Journal of Politics, July 21, 2009)  

But there is still hope, should you feel that you have not done enough to influence your child’s future voting habits. Chamberlain writes, “We can rewire and grow our brains over our entire lifetime. Every day, we are learning more about the brain’s amazing ability to heal. The way we live and the quality of relationships we have can either help or hinder the potential of our brains to grow and heal. Depression, high levels of stress, and substance abuse can reduce the brain’s ability to recover. However, physical activity, developing new skills, healthy relationships, and being socially active help our brains to form new connections. It’s never too late to get help and start healing.”  FFG

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