"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Myth Of Rationality–No Such Thing In Politics (Or In Anything Else For That Matter)

Many Americans consider the Supreme Court the most rational of the three branches of government.  The President is too political.  Congress is too beholden to narrow, provincial interests; but the Supreme Court, basing its judgments on  precedent, a learned reading of the Constitution, and a pledge to be removed from partisan argument and strife, rules logically.


Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course.  The Supreme Court Justices split predictably along lines of political philosophy – liberal or conservative – and therefore vote irrationally every time.  If there were such a thing as objective judgment, then there would be such political divisions.  The voting patterns would be unpredictable.

So if the Supreme Court cannot be counted on for logical, rational decisions; if the President, elected through partisan campaigning can always be counted on to repay his political debts; and if the members of Congress, elected every two years and therefore permanently on the campaign trail, must and do always respond to narrow parochial demands; there is obviously no rationality in government.

The New York Times has been called America’s ‘paper of record’ suggesting a non-partisan reporting of ‘all the news that’s fit to print’; but no reader can fail to notice the liberal drumbeat of its editorials and opinions of its columnists.  Such bias obviously spills over into the paper itself, for Times editors, avowedly liberal cannot help but choose those stories, headlines, and features which promote their points of views.


Fox News is more forthright about their conservative political bias.  Fox producers have shaped the network into the Right’s spokesman, and their political philosophy is pervasive in all news and commentary.   The Guardian is far to the Left, the National Review far to the Right.  Every news source on the Internet has staked out a political position and hewed to it consistently.

This should be no surprise to anyone, for newspapers and online journals not only reflect the views of their editors and producers, but earn their keep by satisfying their constituencies.  The Guardian would lose readership if suddenly it gave face time to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, presented pro-life abortion arguments, and defended conservative views of religious freedom.

Who is left? The Founding Fathers based their formulation of the new Republic on the ‘wisdom of the people’.  No one – neither cleric, Congressman, business, or  journalist should attempt to impose their will on those they represented or served.  Every institution whether public or private was constituted to be in the service of the people and respond to their wishes, needs, and values.
Alexander Hamilton wanted none of this, and was famously suspicious of the masses:
It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.
The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government. Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good?
Alexander Hamilton
The debate resulted in compromise – lower and upper houses – but Hamilton was never convinced that the House of Representatives, made up of uneducated, unsophisticated people, would never have the intellectual experience, breadth of vision, and rational skills to be able to rule beyond their own parochial interests.

Jefferson was far more idealistic and felt that the will of the majority was greater than any individual will, and that regardless of the insufficiency of any one member of Congress, collective decisions would always be right.

Thomas Jefferson

Many consider this era the most fractious and divisive of any in American history; but of course only a cursory look at the past shows – as Hamilton saw – that any congregation of ‘ordinary’ citizens would always be riven by dispute and characterized by venal and self-serving decisions. 

The level of American political debate has always been low-brow at best; and those who point to this election (2016) as the bottom of the barrel have not looked to the past.  The election of 1828 was about as bad as it gets:
The supporters of Andrew Jackson began spreading a rumor that Adams, while serving as American ambassador to Russia, had procured an American girl for the sexual services of the Russian czar. The attack was no doubt baseless, but the Jacksonians delighted in it, even calling Adams a “pimp” and claiming that procuring women explained his great success as a diplomat.
Jackson’s military glory was turned against him when a Philadelphia printer named John Binns published the notorious “coffin handbill,” a poster showing six black coffins and claiming the militiamen Jackson had ordered executed had essentially been murdered.
Jackson's wife Rachel had been married to another man before Jackson, and a question arose about when her first husband had divorced her and when she began living with Jackson. The explanation was that Jackson and his wife believed she had been divorced when they first married, but there was (and still is) some legitimate doubt about the timing.
Jackson’s marriage on the frontier nearly 40 years earlier became a major issue in the 1828 campaign. He was accused of adultery and vilified for running off with another man’s wife. And his wife was accused of bigamy.

The irrationality of politics is not only expressed in negative terms.  Ronald Reagan brilliantly exploited the nation’s malaise after four years of Jimmy Carter’s moralism, and his ‘It’s morning in America’ and ‘The shining city upon a hill’ were expressions of a new optimism, hope, and glory for the Republic.

Reagan was not the only Presidential candidate to resort to sloganeering and image making.  Barack Obama ran on a campaign of hope and ‘Yes, we can’, suggesting that he would lead America into a new, more tolerant, progressive, and strong union.


A hundred Internet sites present and discuss the campaign slogans and images used by US Presidential campaigners since the early days of the new nation.  No candidate ever won by focusing on ‘the issues’.  Political campaigning is very much a matter of winning the hearts of the electorate.
In order for such image-making and sloganeering to work, the American public must be susceptible to emotional appeals and to leave rationality aside.  Many women, for example, will vote for Hillary Clinton because she is a woman or Bernie Sanders because he is a man of the people and will look after the interests of the common man. 

Few care about Donald Trump’s policies on immigration.  His supporters on the other hand are wildly excited by his loud, insistent, and unapologetic stance against those entering and residing in America without papers.   His brazen attacks against political correctness go far beyond issues of free speech and are aimed at the arrogant, self-important, sanctimonious Left. 

In other words, the electorate is incensed by the cloture of open discussion on campus; the juggernaut of race, gender, and ethnicity; the dismissal of religious concerns; and the calls for dismantling capitalism.  We created Donald Trump, not the other way around.

It would take years to even begin to chronicle the conspiracy theories viral on the Internet.
In an excellent article on the origin of conspiracy theories in The Psychologist (July 2010) Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles have detailed the sociological and psychological determinants of conspiracy theories.  There are an astounding number of conspiracy theories that abound today; and for just about every current event, there are many who believe that some dark cabal is behind it. 
The truth’, the TV show The X-Files told us, ‘is out there’. Millions of people worldwide seem to agree, disbelieving official accounts of important social and political events. In the United States, for example, scholars have noted a steady increase in the number of poll respondents who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in killing John F. Kennedy.  In the wake of 9/11, commentators highlighted the proliferation of conspiracy theories about the event, with polls suggesting that more than a quarter of respondents believe the US government knew in advance, participated in, or took no action to stop the attacks.

The authors suggest that one conspiracy often feeds others:
A ‘monological belief system’ allows conspiracy theorists to easily assimilate explanations for new phenomena that would otherwise be difficult to understand or would threaten their existing beliefs. Those, for example, who more strongly endorsed 9/11 conspiracy theories were also more likely to believe in other, seemingly unrelated conspiracy theories.
This is perhaps the most insidious aspect of conspiracy theories – once you have adopted one theory on the basis of internalized feelings, selective ‘evidence’, and socio-pathological needs, you easily adopt others. 
Worse, conspiracy theories go viral instantaneously; and ‘the more you see a reference to something, the truer it is’.  In other words, if 100 websites and 1000 bloggers comment on the fact that John McCain is a Manchurian Candidate, brainwashed by the Communists during his days at the Hanoi Hilton, then it must be true. 

Rational arguments to counter conspiracy theories will not work.  Compared to the passionate, emotional, life-altering convictions held by conspiracy theorists, dispassionate, documented arguments pass unnoticed.

Of course even the wildest conspiracy theorist will claim that he is rational.  The facts he has discovered are the real facts and all others false, contrived, or invented. 

It is amusing to note that the Sanders campaign has promoted the candidate’s rationality.  He is the one who has studied the facts on immigration, taxation, income inequality, health, and economic mobility; and his policies reflect that considered, thoughtful analysis.  The contrast with the overblown, erratic, emotional appeals of Donald Trump is made perfectly clear.  Trump is a madman, infected with irrational zeal at best and xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia at worst.


Nonsense of course.  Sanders’ rhetoric is pure image-making.  His proposed social programs to redistribute wealth would bankrupt the Treasury even though taxes on everyone – not just the rich – would have to rise to the sky-high rates of the Eisenhower years to fund them.  His foreign policy in an age of international terrorism, separatism, and the erosion of liberal democracy and the nation-state would put America at great risk.

In other words Sanders has been long on the images of equality, justice, compassion, negotiation, peace, and understanding and short on specifics.  No one cares, for the electorate wants to feel good about themselves and their candidate.

Hillary Clinton is short on image and even shorter on ideas which change with the breeze.  Yet because of Trump’s b0mbast and Sanders’ pie-in-the-sky idealism, she knows that if she runs a steady course and says nothing either emotional or rational, she will win by default.

None of this should be surprising.  All of us make irrational decisions which we pawn off as rational.  The way we value goods and services; the way we feel about social justice or the lack thereof; our sense of individualism or cooperation; our religious beliefs and social convictions are all subjective.  We have been conditioned by genes, environment, and upbringing; and although we may think we have arrayed the facts before us and choose based on a rational analysis of them, we are only fooling ourselves.

So, no candidate is a rational candidate; and no voter is a rational voter.  As we pull the lever we have an image of Hillary, Trump, or Sanders, not a spreadsheet of costs and benefits.  In that both candidate and voter are well suited.

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