- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Are political attitudes inherited? If so, it may be bad news for Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and his merry band of reformers as they try to push major campaign finance legislation through the House of Representatives this summer.
For if there is a genetic link to one's politics, as the latest research shows, then there's no need to ban political advertising or ban the political influence that soft money supposedly buys. You can't sway what's in the genes.
For decades, political scientists have claimed that a person's political opinions, attitudes, and ideological preferences were determined by that person's environment, the nurture argument.
Studies since the 1950s found that party identification, for example, primarily reflects socialization at home, at school, at work, and among peers, leading to particular voting preferences. Although the proportion of Americans identifying with a political party has declined significantly, myriad social, economic, cultural, and technological currents, each exerting degrees of influence upon individual voters, were found to have filled this causal void.
The latest research, however, casts considerable doubt on this environment-centered explanation. The current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, presents the findings into the link between genetics and attitudes. After studying the attitudinal responses of 336 pairs of identical and fraternal adult twins, a team of psychologists concluded that one's political attitudes may be partly attributable to genetic factors.
This research suggests that 50 percent of a particular policy preference may be predetermined according to highly heritable personality traits. The two categories of political attitudes with the strongest genetic influence are so-called "preservation of life" issues, such as abortion, voluntary euthanasia, organized religion and the death penalty, and so-called "equality" issues, such as immigration and racial discrimination.
Why is this research bad news for campaign finance reformers? It is bad news because it casts a serious shadow over the supposedly overwhelming (and overwhelmingly negative) influence ascribed to political commercials. Political support for a ban on soft money and restrictions on independent advertising campaigns — the central elements of current campaign finance legislation — is founded upon an objection to the preponderance of political commercials, especially negative ads, during election campaigns.
During campaigns, soft money donated to the major parties is used to support candidates, in part, through television ads; the independent advertising campaigns also stress television ads in their efforts to solicit support for, or stimulate opposition to, a particular candidate. Campaign reformers seek to minimize or, better yet, to eliminate the allegedly pernicious influence of these commercials.
In this reformist vein, Scott Harshbarger of Common Cause wincingly recalls that, "Both the Clinton and Dole presidential campaigns raised and spent millions of dollars laundered through the party soft money accounts during the 1996 election for TV advertising campaigns that … had the effect of influencing the presidential election." Furthermore, according to the Center for Media & Democracy's Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, "Business can spend secretly and directly to determine an election's outcome."
More ominously, Curtis Gans, of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, favors an outright ban on paid political commercials. In the same extremist vein, Mr. McCain has opined that, "If I could think of a way constitutionally, I would ban negative ads."
But what if the potential influence of the average political commercial is 50 percent less than the best media and political minds think it is? After all, that's this groundbreaking research's plausible implication for political media consultants and campaign reformers alike. The realization that political advertising's powers of persuasion may be real but inherently limited thereby requiring less, rather than more, government regulation is potentially devastating for Mr. McCain's reformist crusade.
In 1988, scholar Stephen Bates suggested that: "There is nothing magical about political advertising, positive or negative … It does not overwhelm the viewer's natural skepticism or subvert his rational faculties. It provides information that some voters accept, some reject, some ignore, and some misunderstand."
Thirteen years later, we now know (as Mr. Bates supposed) that the conventional wisdom of the best academic, media and political minds may be wrong about the potential influence of political advertising. Is it too far-fetched to assume that the conventional wisdom may also be wrong about the need for McCain-style campaign reform?

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.

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