Why does one person become a liberal and another a conservative? As we’ve written, many factors seem to come into play, including genetics, personality and even unnoticed cues from the physical environment.
A newly published study shows that, for at least one group of men, lifelong political affiliation was, to a significant degree, a matter of chance.
For young men coming of age in the Vietnam draft era, the likelihood they’d be sent to war — as determined by a national lottery — had both a short- and long-term impact on their party identification. Republican-leaning men with low lottery numbers —that is, those who faced a good chance of being drafted — were far more likely to abandon their party than those with high numbers.
“This luck of the draw shaped attitudes toward the war and conventional party politics for a matter of years and, in some cases, evidently a lifetime,” political scientists Robert Erikson of Columbia University and Laura Stoker of the University of California, Berkeley, write in the American Political Science Review.
Or at least into middle age. Evidence this pattern persisted decades later was found when the men were surveyed in 1997, when most were age 50.
Erikson and Stoker analyzed data from the Jennings-Niemi Political Socialization Study, for which a national sample of college-bound high schools seniors was interviewed in 1965. Follow-up interviews with the men were conducted in 1973, 1982 and 1997.
In 1969 — halfway between the first and second surveys — the U.S. government instituted the draft lottery. For young men born between 1944 and 1950, draft eligibility was determined by the order in which their birth date was randomly selected. September 14th was the first date chosen, meaning men born on that date were virtually certain to be drafted into the armed forces (unless they held a deferment or an exemption).
“During the 1969-1972 period, there was a good deal of uncertainty about just how high in the 1-366 sequence the draft call would go,” the researchers note. “Lottery numbers 1 through 195 ended up being called.”
Erikson and Stoker compared the men’s answers to the 1973 follow-up survey (which asked them about their party affiliation, ideological leanings, stands on major issues and most recent presidential vote) with their responses on the original 1965 questionnaire.
Remarkably, they found that for this group of men, “their lottery number was a stronger influence on their political outlook than their late-childhood party identification.”
“For men with safe lottery numbers, the continuity of party identification was relatively unaffected by the draft,” they write. “Although like all young voters at the time, they tended to move toward the independent category, their movement was similar to that of their college-bound female counterparts.”
In contrast, “Men with vulnerable numbers show evidence of totally rethinking their partisanship in response to the threat of the draft. Republicans in the group abandoned their party with unusual frequency, while even Democrats moved toward the independent category with slightly greater frequency than others.”
This “erosion of party identification already evident in the 1973 survey,” driven by high-school-age Republicans abandoning the GOP, could still be seen in the 1997 follow-up. This suggests “the immediate disruption of their party identification by the draft lottery number persisted not just for 1973, but evidently for a lifetime,” the researchers conclude.
Why did the prospect of being drafted make such a strong and lasting impact on the men’s ideological outlook? Erikson and Stoker suggest this may be a case of self-interest trumping abstract ideas. They note that the risk of being drafted provoked intense “anxiety and fear,” which caused many to rethink previously held beliefs, either as a direct emotional response or because it prompted them to get better informed.
So fear not only focuses the mind, it sometimes shifts core beliefs. At a time of hardened political attitudes and frequent demonization of the opposition, it’s worth pointing out that, given a substantial jolt at a key moment in your life, you might very well have landed on the other side.