If you are cursing Arvind Kejriwal for throwing away a golden opportunity, you are wrong

The Aam Aadmi Party has done the impossible. One month ago, the Facebook class of India loved them for showing what Indian politics really needs. Now they hate them for doing things that we won’t expect even corrupt politicians to do.

To understand this schizophrenia that the AAP has created among the educated middle class of India, we need to look at our own expectations. The success of Kejriwal in the Delhi elections, we thought, was the result of our disgust of the current political class. We hate those politicians who go after vote banks only so that they can fill up their own pockets with bribes. We wanted someone who could clean the muck and put worthy leaders in charge. Like Obama, he was the beacon of hope in a mess that had been decaying for decades.

As soon as he took up his place as Delhi’s chief minister, we expected Kejriwal to behave like a model chief minister—honest, sober and efficient. We wanted him to get things done. But unlike Obama who crushed the American dream after being re-elected, Kejriwal’s party members seem to be on track to crush our dreams within months of being in the government.

The law minister Somnath Bharti was accused of taking law into his own hands. The resident poet Kumar Vishwas was caught on camera making racial comments. And the leader Kejriwal was blamed to act un-statesmanlike when he resorted to protesting against his state’s police—something no chief minister had ever done before .

And yet, we must realise that Kejriwal is smart to know that pandering to our desires is impossible in the few months he has before national elections. He is partly right to blame the media for creating a hate campaign, for whom he has been a bonus. With Kejriwal, the media has one more top politician to poke beyond Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

Kejriwal’s best strategy for the national elections is going to be the same strategy he had going into Delhi elections—try to get enough seats so that AAP can be a trouble-making opposition. And for achieving that goal, it would be best to stick to the principles that won him Delhi. Something that even the Congress and the BJP have admitted to learn lessons from. The principles were to provide the people an alternative to the current crop of filthy politicians.

Of course, national elections are going to be a whole different game. Delhi’s population is all urban, but India remains largely rural.

In the Delhi elections, AAP got 30% of the votes, slightly behind BJP’s 33% and slightly ahead Congress’s 25%. He won not because of the few votes from the Facebook class, but mostly because of the votes from the poor—the rickshaw drivers, the slum-dwellers and lower middle class (which can afford mobile phones but has no use for the internet).

He succeeded because he acted as he had done for many years before—like a revolutionary. While it would be foolish think that he does not enjoy the power of being a chief minister, I would like to believe him when he says that he does not want that power if he has to compromise on his ideals. The Congress can pull remove their unconditional support and he won’t be chief minister anymore.

At this point I should disclose that I do not support Kejriwal’s economic policies, at least the ones he has shown so far. But I’m willing to experiment with having a clean politician who improves the functioning of the government and exposes its predecessor’s wrongdoings, even if the immediate effect on people’s lives will not be beneficial.

Rise of the muffler man

Be5Y2PhCQAAHwX_

I like Vir Sanghvi’s clarity of thoughts. That is why when he said, “Kejriwal has become no more than a media-blaming, vote-bank politician”, I entertained his well-laid arguments seriously. Sadly, the conclusion drawn is only partly right.

Yes Kejriwal blames the media, but he is no vote-bank politician. Sanghvi’s analysis fails because he is being short-sighted. He claims that giving free water and cutting electricity prices in Delhi will get Kejriwal votes at the national level.

Kejriwal got into politics to play the long game. He recognises that what few votes he can get at the national level will come from exposing the tainted politicians, offering a good alternative and listening to the vast majority of people. He is moving the debate away from pitting personalities against each other to talking about values and ideas.

Like in Delhi, there is no way that AAP can form a majority government at the national level this year. It would be lucky if it even played a small part in forming the government. Instead, the AAP is aiming for the election of 2019. In five years, the party will have matured and the country will have grown tired of Modi. That would be the time when AAP will be a serious alternative—something Indians have been wanting for decades.

Image credit: Kumar Vishwas (not original source)

Thinkers should wallow in the middle ground, but doers should choose a side

A widely-accepted definition of progress is that it is the improvement in the standard of living of the greatest number of people, and by that definition the world has progressed much since the beginning of civilisation.

6a00d83451b14d69e200e5509cfcff8833-800wi

As a crude indicator of progress, in the last 2000 years per capita GDP (gross domestic product) has increased from a few hundred dollars to about $7000 (in 2000). Even if on average humanity has been progressing rapidly, most of that progress has happened in fits and starts—in different times it has benefited different groups of people.

Consider, for example, the fact that real incomes in the UK scarcely doubled from the beginning of the common era to 1570. They then tripled from 1570 to 1875, and more than tripled from 1875 to 1975. Yet, from 1770 to about 1830, during the industrial revolution, real wages in Britain remained stagnant.

Ryan Avent, economics correspondent for The Economist, makes a case that technological progress disproportionately benefits those with capital, before raising everyone’s income in the long term. During these short periods of high innovation, the creation of inequality in society may be inevitable. (He further argues that we may be in just such a phase right now.)

This is why techno-optimists (including myself) need to be careful. There is an expectation among this breed that technology will always lead to progress within their lifetimes—say that to the textile workers of the industrial revolution. When slagging off technocritics, like Evgeny Morozov, it is worth keeping in mind that neither extremes of the argument are correct.

Neither left nor right

Another place where disillusionment is common is on the left-right political divide. Those on the left think progress will come through reducing inequality and providing everyone with the same opportunities. Those on the right think survival of the fittest through competition is the only way humanity has progressed so far. History proves both of them wrong.

Take the example of US presidents. Republican presidents, widely representing the right, have had 88 years in power, whereas Democratic ones, widely representing the left, have had 85. In the UK the corresponding numbers for prime ministers are skewed slightly to the left, but not by a lot.

More often than not, however, in new elections people elect a party with an opposing ideology as they get fed up with the policies of the ruling party. Continuous power of the same ideology at the top for a long time is an exception than the norm.

This signifies that progress is often achieved by a mixture of left and right policies. Competition is good, but it can lead to crony capitalism. Egalitarianism is great, but it can lead to stagnation as the history of communist governments make clear.

(An exception here is that of the likes of China and Singapore, which have single party rule and have still done spectacularly well when it comes to “progress”. So what I’m proposing here must be taken to be applicable to countries which conduct free and fair elections, at least to a large extent.)

Being in the middle is not cool

Politicians on the left and right bring their own baggage of biases during their time as leaders. The flip-flop between the ideologies of those elected to lead, in some ways, shows that people try to correct for the biases of their leaders. When the left-leaning party pushes a country far to the left, say, by making it less competitive in the global market, people elect a right-leaning party to correct the situation. (There may be other factors at play, including randomness, but I would argue on the whole pre-election voter sentiment seems to agree to this hypothesis.)

So if this is the case, why is the following among centrist parties of the world so small? I’m not sure, but I think the answer may lie in the fact that human herd behaviour works best when people believe in a certain set of tenets very strongly. This must work better when there is a left-right divide than when those in the middle take beliefs from either side.

Another reason may be that it is easier to act in unison on certain kinds of beliefs, say by being a blind techno-optimist, than it is to be in a position where one is continuously re-evaluating which side to lean to. In other words, rationality among an individual or a small group matters less than rationality of a crowd which may be split into two moderately extreme sides.

All this leads me to conclude that, for a thinker, it may be good to wallow in the middle ground. But for a doer, it would be better to choose one side and stick to it.

Thanks to Alex Flint and Deeksha Sharma for reading a draft of this article.

The genetics of politics

Slowly, and in some quarters grudgingly, the influence of genes in shaping political outlook and behaviour is being recognised

In 1882 W.S. Gilbert wrote, to a tune by Sir Arthur Sullivan, a ditty that went “I often think it’s comical how Nature always does contrive/that every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive/is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.”

In the 19th century, that view, though humorously intended, would not have been out of place among respectable thinkers. The detail of a man’s opinion might be changed by circumstances. But the idea that much of his character was ingrained at birth held no terrors. It is not, however, a view that cut much ice in 20th-century social-scientific thinking, particularly after the second world war. Those who allowed that it might have some value were generally shouted down and sometimes abused, along with all others vehemently suspected of the heresy of believing that genetic differences between individuals could have a role in shaping their behavioural differences.

Such thinking, a product compounded of Marxism (if character really is ingrained at birth, then man might not be perfectible) and a principled rejection of the eugenics that had led, via America’s sterilisation programmes for the “feeble minded”, to the Nazi extermination camps, made life hard for those who wished to ask whether genes really do affect behaviour. Now, however, the pendulum is swinging back. In the matter of both political outlook and political participation it is coming to be seen that genes matter quite a lot. They are not the be-all and end-all. But, as a review of the field published in September inTrends in Genetics, by Peter Hatemi of Pennsylvania State University and Rose McDermott of Brown University, shows, they affect a person’s views of the world almost as much as his circumstances do, and far more than many social scientists have been willing, until recently, to admit.

Family values

The evidence for this claim comes from two types of source, one relatively old and one spanking new. The old is studies of twins, comparing identical and non-identical pairs. The new is a direct examination of people’s DNA, searching for genes whose variation correlates with observable behavioural differences.

Twins studies, which seek to control for the effects of upbringing by comparing identical twins (who share all their DNA) with fraternal ones (who share, on average, half), have been going on since the 1950s. In that time, quite a number, in many countries, have looked in part at political questions. Dr Hatemi and Dr McDermott pored over 89 peer-reviewed papers on the effects of genes and environment (both family upbringing and wider circumstances) on political matters. These included twins’ political knowledge, their attitudes to racial, sexual and religious questions, their views on defence and foreign policy, and their identification with particular political parties.

On all counts, identical twins were found to be more alike than fraternal twins. That knowledge, refracted through the prism of statistical theory, allows calculations of the proportionate influences of genes, family environment and general environment on particular traits to be made (see chart). Some show strong genetic influence. Some show little. Intriguingly, political knowledge and party identification are at opposite ends of the spectrum. As the chart shows knowledge (or rather, presumably, an innate predisposition to acquire such knowledge) is highly genetically determined. Identification with a particular political party, by contrast, is largely a question of family upbringing—much more so than are opinions about the sorts of policy that it might be thought would determine voting patterns.

But even family ties weaken when people leave home—and they do so in a way that helps disentangle genetic influence. Dr Hatemi showed this in 2009 when, along with a group of colleagues, he looked at twins aged between 11 and 75. His results demonstrated that until their late teens both kinds of twins had equally similar political views. Soon after they flew the nest, though, as might be expected, their views began to diverge. And, just as would be expected if genes have political influence, the views of fraternal twins diverged more than did those of identical ones. Between the ages of 18 and 20 identical and fraternal twins both shared nearly 70% of their political ideology. Between the ages of 21 and 25, that had shrunk to 60% for identical twins and 40% for fraternal twins. Clearly, then, genes matter.

Nor do they merely affect a person’s opinions. They also affect his level of political engagement. This was shown in a study published in 2008 by James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego. Dr Fowler and his team analysed the voter-registration records of identical and fraternal twins from Los Angeles, and also from a more nationally representative database. They found that identical twins are 53% more likely either both to register or both not to register than are fraternal twins.

Political signals

Twins studies like these unequivocally demonstrate the heritability of politically related behaviour. What they do not do, though, is explain the underlying biology. That is an area which is only now starting to be explored.

In 2010 a study published by Dr Fowler and his colleagues implicated a gene known asDRD4 in the development of political affiliation. DRD4 encodes a receptor molecule for a neurotransmitter called dopamine. (Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to another.) Those with a variant of DRD4 called 7R, and also a large network of friends acquired during their adolescence, tended to be (in the American sense of the word) liberals—ie, left wing.

One interesting point about this observation is that it requires both a genetic input (the 7R variant) and an environmental one (the network of friends) to take effect. DRD4-7R has previously been associated with novelty-seeking behaviour. The authors of the paper speculate that the interaction of that tendency with possible exposure to lots of different ideas held by lots of different people might push an individual in a leftwardly direction.

Following up on Dr Fowler’s work, research published earlier this year by a team led by Dr Hatemi found a further 11 genes, different varieties of which might be responsible for inclining people towards liberalism or conservatism in the way that Gilbert described. These included genes involved in the regulation of three neurotransmitters—dopamine, glutamate and serotonin—and also G-protein-coupled receptors, which react to a wide variety of stimulants. Most astonishingly, the researchers found that olfactory receptors are also implicated, giving a whole, new twist to the idea that someone’s political platform “smells” wrong.

The word “inclining” is important. No one is suggesting that there are particular genes, or versions of genes “for” liberalism or conservatism. But inclinations there do seem to be. Moreover, direct studies of genes also support what the twins studies suggest about political engagement, independent of opinion. In particular, work by Dr Fowler implicates another dopamine receptor, DRD2, and also 5HTT, which regulates serotonin levels, in influencing voter turnout. People with versions of these genes that increase the effect of the neurotransmitter are more likely to vote than those with low-activity versions.

The will and the way

The third part of the question, though, is how this all links up with the fundamental driver of biology, evolution. The suggestion of Dr Hatemi and Dr McDermott is that political action is the collective expression of some pretty primal biological motives: those of survival and procreation. Deciding whether or not to be part of a particular group, whom else to admit to your group, how to keep or share resources, and how much sexual freedom to afford oneself, one’s neighbours and one’s children are all, and always have been, lively matters of political debate. But they are also all matters that have an impact on the crucial Darwinian business of getting genes into the next generation.

Dr Hatemi and Dr McDermott are not suggesting genetic factors directly create ideologies that relate to these matters. They are suggesting, though, that genes assist in deciding which opinions an individual will find it most attractive to cleave to.

Unlike the social determinists of old, however, who frequently refused to concede even the possibility of genetic influence on behaviour, the new generation of genetic political scientists are perfectly happy to acknowledge nurture along with nature. Dr Hatemi’s own work, for instance, has shown that external shocks, such as unemployment and divorce, effectively abolish the genetic influences he has detected on many ideological questions as other responses, more appropriate to survival in the changed circumstances, kick in. These responses too, of course, are probably under evolutionary—and hence genetic—control. But they are different from the ones being looked for at present.

That sort of granularity, and the need to accept partial rather than universal explanations for biological phenomena, led the two researchers to one other thought. This is that part of the problem social science has had in the past in accepting biological explanations is that its practitioners do not understand the nature of the claims being made. There are, to repeat, no genes for socialism or conservatism, or for prejudice or tolerance, any more than there are genes for Christianity or Islam. But a person’s genes can sometimes propel him more easily in one direction than another. His free will is, if you like, a little freer to turn right than left, or vice versa. Gilbert was therefore not quite right. But he was not exactly wrong, either.

First published in The EconomistAlso available in audio here.

This story was mentioned on the cover page of the print issue and featured on the front page of digg.com.

Image credit: The Economist