April 4, 2014
Thomas Jefferson was a smart dude. And in one of his letters to John Adams, dated June 27, 1813, Jefferson made an observation about the nature of politics that science is only now, two centuries later, beginning to confirm. “The same political parties which now agitate the United States, have existed through all time,” wrote Jefferson. “The terms of Whig and Tory belong to natural, as well as to civil history,” he later added. “They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals.”
Tories were the British conservatives of Jefferson’s day, and Whigs were the British liberals. What Jefferson was saying, then, was that whether you call yourself a Whig or a Tory has as much to do with your psychology or disposition as it has to do with your ideas. At the same time, Jefferson was also suggesting that there’s something pretty fundamental and basic about Whigs (liberals) and Tories (conservatives), such that the two basic political factions seem to appear again and again in the world, and have for “all time.”
Jefferson didn’t have access to today’s scientific machinery—eye tracker devices, skin conductance sensors, and so on. Yet these very technologies are now being used to reaffirm his insight. At the center of the research are many scholars working at the intersection of psychology, biology, and politics, but one leader in the field is John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln whose “Political Physiology Laboratory” has been producing some pretty stunning results.