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Political Rationality...

Is evidently divorced from rationality properly so-called, by which it is meant that tribal loyalties usually function as substitutes for actual thought, as sketched by Ezra Klein, in a post discussing the core finding of a political science paper published by Larry Bartels, It Feels Like We're Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy:

In it, Bartels and coauthor Christopher Achens examine simple factual questions for evidence of partisan interpretation bias. Their first example comes from the 1996 National Election Survey, which asked whether the budget deficit had increased or decreased during Clinton's first term. The correct answer what that it had decreased. By 90 percent. But they found that only one-third of the public recognized that the deficit had decreased at all. Republicans found the question especially tricky: More than half thought the deficit had increased.

The next question asked whether the economy had improved or worsened during Clinton's term. During this period, GDP grew quickly, unemployment dropped, and wages rose. By any measure, the economy had improved. But only one-third of Republicans agreed with that statement. And Republicans, unsurprisingly, were twice as likely as Democrats to say that it had worsened.

Bartels and Achen go further, however, and break their results out by the voters' political information level. What they found was startling: The more an individual voter knew, the more they self-deceived. "Among the least well-informed respondents, neither objective reality nor partisan bias seems to have provided much structure to perceptions of the budget deficit," they dryly note. "Uninformed Republicans and Democrats were slightly, and about equally, more likely to say that the deficit had increased than that it had decreased." But travel up the information scale, and the situation dims. Partisan bias exerts its pull. Objective reality does not.

Succinctly formulated, the core finding of Bartels' research is that those in possession of more comprehensive information - and presumably, the intelligence to utilize it, though this is not addressed - are not more grounded in objective realities, but merely more adept in manipulating data to buttress pre-existing ideological commitments. It is sufficient to cause one to question whether Thomas Kuhn's theory of scientific paradigms, problematic though it might be in that domain, might not be more applicable to political ideologies and alliances; partisans will torture data and information in order to render these consonant with ideological affiliations, until, perhaps, the epicycles and unprincipled exceptions become so cumbersome as to bring the entire apparatus to ruin. We find political tribes whose explanations cohere with our own intuitions and experiences, and abandon them only when we lose the ability to conform our perceptions of realities to the strictures of the tribe. Like religious conversions, often motivated by a complex of factors, not all of which are conscious, political conversions and deconversions are complicated, essentially social processes, having to do with identity, and not rationality as we like to think of it.

Political rationality is often opportunistic, and reflective of the plurality of ethical discourses in our fragmented modern society, at least to the extent that these enable cynical pols to target argumentation to distinct demographic groups, even if the arguments paraded before one group contradict those paraded before another. John Quiggin terms this moral arbitrage:

So, if you want to raise the moral value of a particular action, what you need to do is make sure that the positive aspects of the action are valued in markets where the price is high, and the negative aspects where the market is low. For example, an advocate of the Iraq war can be a virtue ethicist as regards their own heroic standard against Ba’athist dictatorship, a deontologist regarding obligations to punish the criminal behavior of their enemies, regardless of the unintended effects on the millions of people living in the general vicinity, and a consequentialist regarding the necessity to excuse the criminal behavior of their leaders for fear of subsequent bad effects on the polity.

Of course, all that transpires in such cases as these, aside from pols making a demonstration of the fact that they ought to imbibe a little more logic and philosophy, is - to return to an earlier observation - a utilitarian groping about for arguments that will best serve the ends provided by an ideological - tribal - commitment, regardless of their mutual coherence. Reason and evidence are instrumental, and ends stand in no necessary relation to any recognizable reality.

These are observations that at once validate the conservative suspicion of rationalist attempts at the reconstruction of human nature and society - for, even when we adopt ideologies, we do so in a tribal fashion - and confirm that ideology is what we have claimed it to be, namely, a straitjacket for the complexity of experience - otherwise, we'd not find it necessary to torture the facts, or to proffer incompatible arguments in order to get what we want. And, in light of the conservative Ragnarok of the past eight years, these observations should be taken as cautions.

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