The Progressive Virus

Last week, I referenced the idea that Progressivism is a meme virus, rather than a meme mitochondria, an idea I want to explore in a bit more detail. How do we know Progressivism is viral rather than mitochondrial?

Simply put, because Progressives do not reproduce themselves. Mitochondria can only reproduce themselves by being passed on to your offspring, and thus are incentivised to maximize your reproductive success. (Or that of close relatives of yours who also carry your mitochondria, like siblings.)

By “reproduce themselves,” I mean “have enough children to keep their population from declining,” or about 2 kids per couple. (Technically, the average has to be slightly higher than 2 just because occasionally, terrible tragedies do occur, and kids die.)

This is the point in the conversation where Progressives jump in and insist that they really do reproduce themselves. Maybe not personally, of course, but they totally have some gay friends who are going to get on that IVF and have a whole bunch of children now that gay marriage is legal.

I have actually seen this argued.

Of course, any common idiot on the street has noticed by now that there’s no atheist equivalent of the Duggers, and that Mormons have a lot of kids. But if you can’t believe your own lying eyes, maybe statistics will help:

From Jayman's Blog, "Liberalism, HBD, and Solutions for the Future
From Jayman’s Blog, “Liberalism, HBD, and Solutions for the Future

Only conservatives are above replacement. Everyone else, especially the extreme liberals, is being replaced by the children of conservatives.

If you don’t believe Jayman, because he’s too conservative or liberal or whatever for your ad hom tastes, here’s data from NY Mag, which definitely takes a liberal slant:

From NY Mag, "Tell me a State's Fertility Rate, and I'll Tell You How it Voted"
From NY Mag, “Tell me a State’s Fertility Rate, and I’ll Tell You How it Voted

If you’re curious about time, it wasn’t always like this:

From Jayman, "The Liberal/Conservative Baby Gap: Time Depth"
From Jayman, “The Liberal/Conservative Baby Gap: Time Depth” Confusingly, conservatives are BLUE in this chart, and liberals are RED.

Mass media, birth control, abortion, etc., are all very recent inventions.

(In case you’re wondering, this is a world-wide phenomena:

Total Fertility Rate by Country (Wikimedia file)
Total Fertility Rate by Country (Wikimedia file)

Afghanistan (TFR around 7) is not known for its progressive views on women’s rights or homosexuality. In Nigeria (one of the purpleist on the map,) homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death. In the slightly less purple Democratic Republic of the Congo, same-sex marriage is banned by the constitution.

A few other maps for comparison:

Picture 8 Trafficking of Females Green 2

1280px-Religion_in_the_world 800px-Analfabetismo2013unesco

Sources: WomanStats Map; Wikipedia: Religiosity, Literacy Rates. H/t Suchanek.

At least currently, all of the “nice” countries that people want to live in or move to have below-replacement fertility.)

But lest I be accused of comparing apples to oranges, let’s go back to our own countries.

What happens when conservatives outbreed liberals? The simple answer is that liberals get replaced.

If you still don’t believe me, I’ll run through it step by step. (If you do believe me, you can skip this part.)

Let’s suppose we start with a town of 10 liberals and 10 conservatives. The liberals have a TFR of 1 (1 child per woman,) for 5 total children. The conservatives have a TFR of of 3, for a total of 15 children. The second generation is therefore 5:15 liberals:conservatives. In the second generation, Liberals have 2 or 3 kids (it’s hard to actually have 2.5 kids,) and conservatives have 22 or 23 kids. Fourth generation, 1 liberal kid, 33 conservatives.

And yet, a quick glance at voting trends in the US over the past 70 years indicates that the country has been moving steadily more liberal. Take, for example, the shift over the past few decades in favor of gay marriage.

Liberals remaining 50% of the electorate isn’t just an artifact of having a 2-party system; liberals have been convincing people to become more liberal. Conservatives, meanwhile, haven’t been convincing people to become more conservative.

Meme mitochondria propagate vertically–from parent to child–not horizontally, and are unattractive to people who weren’t raised with them. Meme viruses propagate horizontally–from peer to peer–and so must be attractive to others.

Progressivism is therefore propagating virally.

To be fair, ideas that began virally can become mitochondrial. Christianity in its early stages was viral, but later became mitochondrial. For an idea to become mitochondrial, it has to confer greater survival benefits on people who hold it than on people who don’t. Right now, Progressivism isn’t doing that.

The interesting question, therefore, is what Progressivism will do over the next 50-100 years. Remember that this situation of liberals not reproducing themselves is (most likely) a novel result of recent technological innovations. Will society keep moving leftward as Progressivism keeps spreading successfully to the conservatives? Or will future conservatives, having been born to the conservatives least susceptible to Progressivism in the first place, become, essentially, “immune”?

Or will the immigration of people with much higher birthrates and very different values render the whole business moot?


16 thoughts on “The Progressive Virus

  1. Interesting idea.

    It’s got me thinking – people are largely apolitical when young, although they may inherit something from parents, etc. Then they become plastic around 18-25, and then I guess they’re pretty much set. People perhaps shift on certain positions throughout their life – some people hold views as “exceptions” to the mainstream but they still won’t change their core ideology.

    Actually – is that right? What about the undecided voters (or is that undecided whether to vote or stay at home). Hhmmm, not sure.

    Anyway, my point was going to be that it’s kind of weird really. Why not change every few years, or just have a single-issue approach, which could make you move one way or another. I mean I used to like the Simpsons now I’m just meh. Somehow our ideology becomes a part of our core identity.

    For example I used to like a basic income but now I’ve come down pretty much against it. So does that mean my politics have changed? No, not at all. My views on welfare have become a great deal more nuanced and subtle, and so in particular has my views on optimal tax policy. So what gives – quite large shifts but my ideology won’t budge.

    Maybe in truth political differences actually are real – conservatives, lefties, and Libertarians, really do see their ideal world quite differently. The role of the State, the role of elite’s, the role of individuals, the family, a quite different conception of “society”.

    And then there’s the “expressiveness” of ideology and voting. Which may differ from how people actually live. Like people say they’re Christian eg, but don’t really lead lives that are very Christian. Or how economists talk about revealed preferences being a better guide than what people say.

    And then there’s the way that people think that self-interest guides voting – but Bryan Caplan and others says it doesn’t.

    Most of the attempts to identify core personality or genetic traits of ideology have (so far) struck me as a bit unconvincing somehow.

    Not sure really – anyway, interesting stuff – keep it up!


    • Thanks!

      My opinion, in short and simplified form:

      I suspect that most people, for the most part, have certain “big factors” that motivate most of their political views, and unless something truly earth-shattering happens, those big factors will hold steady for most of their lives. For example, some people are really sweet, caring people who see someone suffering and feel immediately compelled to do something about it. By contrast, some people have a very strong disgust reflex; these folks tend to find things like gay marriage icky. Even if this person eventually decides that it’s none of their business if other people are disgusting, they’ll never really favor the gov’t doing anything they see as “promoting” it. Libertarians tend to be low on “disgust” and high on “consistency;” they hate lies and hypocrisy. So they want a gov’t that enforces laws consistently. etc etc.

      Obviously people can have more than one of these traits. So they may have to balance between multiple desires, like “freedom from interference” and “helping people.”

      The other big thing going on, IMO, is tribalism–people in the NE US tend to see themselves as “liberals”; people in the SE US tend to see themselves as “conservatives;” even when their views actually overlap. A lot of politics is driven by the desire to fit in with one’s own group and to oppose whatever the icky out-group is doing.

      Together, personality + tribalism tend to dictate most people’s political identities. Someone who lives in MA, likes gay marriage, and wants to stop global warming, will probably also favor gun control even if they’ve never really researched the subject, just because other people in their tribe favor gun control. Someone who lives in South Carolina, believes religion should be more prominent in public life, and thinks gay people are icky will probably be against gun control, even if they’ve never particularly researched the subject.

      You can convince people that Policy A will achieve their personal goals (say, help people) more effectively than Policy B, but it is very hard to convince them to change their core political identity, as that requires going against both their basic personality traits and their sense of tribal belonging. Getting someone to admit that their entire self-concept as a “good person” might be wrong is hard.

      As for age, I suspect people are actually fairly consistent from childhood to late adulthood, but they reason differently and have different amounts (and kinds) of information available to them at different ages. Young people are particularly constrained by not having learned everything yet and having most of their information filtered through parents and teachers.

      I wouldn’t expect a 10 yr old to say anything intelligent on issues like “women’s reproductive choices” or “the Israel-Palestinian conflict”–they will tend to just repeat whatever their parents say. But you can get answers to questions like, “is it moral to steal in order to save a loved one’s life?” or figure out who thinks its important to divide up all of the french fries equally, etc.

      Thanks for dropping by!


      • “I wouldn’t expect a 10 yr old to say anything intelligent on issues like “women’s reproductive choices” or “the Israel-Palestinian conflict”–they will tend to just repeat whatever their parents say.”

        One thing that really bugs me (but which I need to be quiet about in polite company) is when people praise children for being politically active, since it’s pretty obvious the kids are taking cues from their parents. It’s especially annoying when the same people/parents talk about kids from the other side being used as pawns… (In my experience, the kids campaigning for liberal causes are “brave” and “following their hearts” or whatnot, and the kids doing the same but for conservative causes are brainwashed pawns. I imagine if I’d spent most of my adult life in Oklahoma rather than the northeast, my cynicism would likewise be reversed…)


      • My parents occasionally mention what morally-insightful essays I wrote back in middle school on topics like abortion. It’s sweet that my parents like me and all, but I was just writing the opinions I’d heard from them! Of course they agree.
        I look back on the teachers encouraging us to be politically involved at those ages and think, “But we were idiots!” Who the hell let me write letters to the editor at that age? :(


  2. Liberal places are nicer places to live than conservative ones. Liberal social policy attracts intelligent and creative people, who in turn create businesses and jobs, which attract more people. In the US, Oregon is better in both living standards and business environment than Kansas. France and Denmark are a lot nicer than Afghnistan or Poland. Successful conservative parents — i.e people who have good jobs — will move to cities, and cities are more liberal than the country and big cities, where people make money, are a lot more liberal than conservative cities. So, conservative parents move to cities or suburbs of cities for their jobs, and consequently their kids grow up in a liberal environment. I live in Austin, and my conservative friends are all astonished tht their kids are, this year, enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders and support gay marriage.


    • Liberal places are nicer to live because they extract taxes from conservative areas and pour them into the cities and universities. Tax money is used to brainwash conservative children while ensuring all employees tow liberal orthodoxy or risk losing their job.

      Liberalism is nothing more than modern communism and is wholly unsustainable, but is having a good run at the expense of the nation.


  3. Nope, what is happening with liberals is so called ”sub-collective existential depression”…

    people who are memetically affected by philosophical genius realism…. and become ultra-aware about the life mistery and misery and pass to behave like a ”philosopher-leaning” people, living existentially immediatist and hyper-morally-‘rational’.



    a categoric artfact

    i mean

    people who, today, is defined such as ”liberal” are not the same who was define liberal in the past…

    different criteria for different periods resulting in different people being agglomerated in the same ideological/political label.

    maybe both

    maybe more the first hypothesis

    maybe more the second hypothesis


  4. So, liberalism over a few generations = darwinism. Interesting.

    Perhaps when people move to cities, get rich, and such, they simply become full of themselves. Money is a funny thing. It makes us seem smarter and more powerful than we really are.

    I kinda predict a major crisis this century due to a combination of escalating technology growth, financial and political volatility, skyrocketing wealth, global interconnectedness, etc… Peace is not here to stay. When? prob in this decade, but really cant say for sure.


      • “Even the Roman Empire fell. The only questions are how”

        They ran out of Romans.

        That begs the question as there is no agreement as to why they ran out.


  5. I and I forgot to mention, progressivism incl. economic and social progressivism will also be perhaps the central factor in this global reset.

    Be sure to contact me if I end up being right ;)


  6. […] Now, this blog was practically founded on the idea that this technological shift in the way ideas (memes) are transmitted has a profound effect on the kinds of ideas that are transmitted. When ideas must be propagated between relatives and neighbors, these ideas are likely to promote your own material well-being (as you must survive well enough to continue propagating the idea for it to go on existing,) whereas when ideas can be easily transmitted between strangers who don’t even live near each other, the ideas need not promote personal survival–they just need to sound good. (I went into more detail on this idea back in Viruses Want you to Spread Them, Mitochondrial Memes, and The Progressive Virus.) […]


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