John Hibbing has long been a venerable voice in the world of politics, often fielding interviews for local and national media, parsing the data and making sense of things where it seems there’s little.
Additionally, his research, especially inquiries into genetics’ and psychology’s role in political views and the physiology of politics, has garnered national headlines, and punctured through to popular culture with appearances in “The Daily Show,” NPR’s “The Hidden Brain,” and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “StarTalk.” He’s also caught the ire of those on both sides of the aisle.
After a prolific four-decade career — all of it at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln — Hibbing, Foundation Regents University Professor of Political Science, announced he will retire from academia in June and pursue home projects, travel and time with his family, including his grandchildren.
Hibbing will deliver a last public lecture, “Reflections on My Career and the Current State of Democracy,” at 5 p.m., May 3, in Nebraska Union’s Swanson Auditorium. The lecture was organized and is being hosted by the Political Science Student Advisory Board.
Since 1981, Hibbing has taught and conducted his abundant research here, earning awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the University of Nebraska System’s Outstanding Research and Creativity Award, and numerous accolades for teaching. He’s published nine books, more than 100 journal articles and chapters, and given invited talks around the globe.
Hibbing first found his interest in political science as an Iowa kid who liked to debate, especially with his dad. After graduating first from Dana College as a secondary education major — where he was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame — he earned his doctorate from the University of Iowa.
“I decided high school teaching wasn’t for me, and I didn’t really have a plan B, but I’d always enjoyed politics, so I thought I’d go to graduate school and see what happened,” he said.
Hibbing said he chose Nebraska as his first job in part because of its proximity to home, especially for his wife, Anne, who is from Blair, Nebraska, and stayed because of the wonderful support and collegiality of the Department of Political Science and the university community more generally.
He started out as a scholar of Congress, examining such topics as the retirements of politicians in their prime.
“There was a spate of that in the 1970s, and I had a grant to talk with everyone who retired from the U.S. Congress in 1978,” he said. “I’d ask if they retired because they were concerned they wouldn’t have been re-elected, and that was the wrong thing to say, because they’d get upset and assure me that everyone in their district loved them. Still, the data showed that retirees’ margins of victory tended to have diminished substantially prior to their decisions to quit.”
That congressional research led to Hibbing wondering about the physiological and psychological underpinnings that might be at play.
“I realized that, even if untrue, the retirees had really internalized the belief that their constituents all adored them and that they had no electoral concerns,” he said. “It occurred to me that as humans we aren’t always privy to what’s going on inside us and that physiological and psychological measures are needed alongside of simply asking people why they did things.”
Hibbing also examined term limits and was invited to testify before Congress on the topic. His data showed that experienced legislators were often more productive than junior members and that, therefore, term limits came with a definite cost.
It was a telephone conversation with a colleague, John Alford of Rice University, who was thinking about the same approaches and topics, that helped launch Hibbing’s new inquiries into the connections between genetics, physiology, neuropsychology and politics.
“It was really important to have another political scientist, and one I greatly respected, jumping off this bridge with me to go in a different direction,” Hibbing said.
Encouragement of colleagues, including then-Chancellor Harvey Perlman played a role, too. In order to retool, Hibbing became a student again, taking courses, sometimes alongside his own students, in genetics, biology, and neuroscience. He soon launched a new course, Political Science 250: Genes, Brains and Politics, and he’s taught it ever since.
In 2005, he and Alford published the article, “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” in the American Political Science Review, and it gained national attention from the press, including a major story in the New York Times, and from colleagues across the United States and beyond.
That first article, which demonstrated that political ideologies are transmitted in part by genes, led to many more, and eventually the book, “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences,” which Hibbing co-authored with Alford. The third co-author on the team was Kevin Smith, current Olson Chair and professor of political science at Nebraska, and someone who, Hibbing says, “has been absolutely essential to the work I have done.”
At the time, the research drew considerable scorn and even disbelief, Hibbing said, but more and more evidence, along with a societal shift in understanding genes, heredity and DNA — thanks, in part, to the popularity of DNA ancestry tests — has changed minds.
“I have to say, it was controversial. Some people really didn’t like the notion that genes could be relevant to political orientations and wrote to tell us that in forceful and often profane terms,” he said. “But I think time has been on our side; I can say for certain that students today are much more open to the possibility.”
The launch of the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior in Memorial Stadium allowed his team to research more of the neuroscience behind politics, and opened new opportunities for an easier interdisciplinary approach to the work.
With the rise of a political movement surrounding former President Donald Trump, Hibbing was fielding new questions when he gave public talks and interviews. As a result, he started exploring the particular type of conservative mindset that reveres politicians such as Trump, and eventually published his last book, in 2020, “The Securitarian Personality: What Really Motivates Trump’s Base and Why it Matters for the Post-Trump Era.”
“A lot of popular discourse describing his block of intense supporters claimed they were authoritarians, and I make the argument that they are not,” Hibbing said. “In fact, many of them hate authority. They sure didn’t like Obama when he would issue executive orders unilaterally, and during COVID they didn’t like being told what to do in terms of wearing masks and getting vaccinated. These are individuals who don’t exactly love to follow rules.”
To finish up his academic career, he is working with his “Predisposed” co-authors to ready a second edition, which will publish before the 2024 general election.
“My last bit of research is to update ‘Predisposed’ because, to say the least, a lot has changed in politics since the first version of that book came out in 2014,” he said.
“I often get asked if I’ll stay involved in research, but I don’t think I will. It’s not that I won’t miss it, but I have a lot of plans, especially travel and working on our acreage outside of Lincoln. We’ll go to Morocco and Spain first, because we haven’t been overseas since COVID. We have grandchildren in California and in St. Louis and also hope to take many more trips to see them. They’re growing up way too fast.”