Saturday, September 08, 2007

Politics and Rationality

The Argument - Matt Bai - Books - Review - New York Times

With the possible exception of the Republicans, is there a major political party more stupefyingly brain-dead than the Democrats?...Seventy years ago ... visionary Democrats had distinguished their party with the force of their intellect. Now the inheritors of that party stood on the threshold of a new economic moment, when the nation seemed likely to rise or fall on the strength of its intellectual capital, and the only thing that seemed to interest them was the machinery of politics.” The argument at the heart of “The Argument” is less about vision and more about strategy.

Why are these people so stupid? Because somewhere along the line we got it into our heads that stupidity was normal and inevitable, and that it was clever to accommodate and pander to stupidity: psychology, not economics, provided the most sophisticated explanation for human behavior and rhetoric, not logic, set the norms for discourse.

There are innumerable variations on the theme, from the Left, Right and Center. In the beginning there was Psychology, anointed Queen of the Sciences during the 1950s. At the popular level, the fundamental doctrine of Psychology was that the representation of people as rational choosers calculating costs, benefits and risks was utterly and tragically false--even as a idealization. We were complicated, convoluted and fundamentally irrational. There was no point in trying to be rational or attempting to explain the behavior of others as rational--rather we should study the elaborate (and ever-changing) roadmap Psychology provided to understand ourselves and "use psychology" to manipulate others.

Then there was the pop Marxism of the Vietnam era Counterculture, in which I was nurtured. Its fundamental doctrine was that rational argument was just a smokescreen thrown up by the Enemy to obscure the exercise of material power. As activists we were cautioned never to allow ourselves to be drawn into arguments--to argue was to lose: we couldn't take down the masters house with the master's tools. Our business was strategizing, politicking and the exercise of power; ideas were epiphenomenal--at best a distraction.

And then there was Training. Training was based on the assumption that all intellectual activity could, and should, be mechanized, processed, canned and organized into a structure of bite-sized pieces. Instruction would be made cheap, efficient and accessible to all through pedagogical technology--from low tech "materials" in three-ring binders, stuffed with sheets of various colors and fill-in-the-blanks exercises, to elaborate computer-based systems. Strategies, mechanics and packaging were the whole show. The assumption was that with enough pedagogical technology neither trainers nor trainees needed any degree of intelligence. Trainers, equipped with canned curricula, would do PowerPoint performances (no more than 5 bullets per slide) and put trainees through their paces, flipping through materials and filling in the blanks like pop stars lip-synching. Anyone could do it: you just needed someone who looked good, could feign enthusiasm and put on a slick performance.

And in politics there are focus groups. And advertising campaigns, strategies, consumer research, endless politicking, and always, always striving to second-guess the Market. No wonder most Americans distrust politicians. Everyone knows it's a fake, like the training sessions and pep rallies at work geared to ginger up employees and instill "corporate culture." Politicians know that voters know it's a fake but assume that if they can only refine the technology further, get better data from the focus groups, be more careful, put on a slicker performance, find the buzz words to which the public will respond, use the right rhetoric, exploit the "metaphors we live by" they could succeed. So, when Lakoff came up with his drivel about the Strict Father and Nurturing Parent metaphors driving political behavior, Democrats jumped at it: another new piece of psychological technology--maybe this bag of tricks would work. The assumption was that voters would not respond to rational argument. Advertising, consumer research, packaging, strategizing, training, and manipulation were sophisticated; reasoning with people was too, too naive.

This was the new paradigm which rested on the assumption that people were irremediably stupid and invincibly ignorant replacing the old paradigm which assumed that people were were fundamentally rational and educable. In the Meno, Our Founder showed that a slave boy "really" knew geometry. With a little effort, a teacher could draw out that knowledge because all humans, even illiterate children, were rational and responded to argument if given the opportunity. Now politicians assume that all humans, including literate adults, are irrational and will not respond to argument. They're impressed by the results advertisers, trainers, and the like get using manipulative techniques.

I suspect though that these techniques are getting diminishing returns because they're become so familiar that people know what's going on, know they're being manipulated, and resent the manipulators for being patronizing and dishonest. "Using psychology" has its limits: when the public recognizes a technique as such it doesn't work any more so manipulators have to develop another trick, and then another, until the public becomes so jaded and cynical that they assume everything is a trick, and nothing works. I suspect that most voters have gotten to that point and squeezing out the last bit of juice to appeal to the few who haven't isn't good enough. No one was impressed by Kerry's goose-hunting and Bush's cowboy act has worn thin.

Rationality never wears thin. If Democrats have any sense they'll try it and maybe even better, if they have the guts, expose the manipulative, patronizing program of Republican politicians.


MikeS said...

Rationality is a piss poor excuse for reason. Rationality is solipsistic tat which insists on an a priori dualism. The whole point of the Wittgensteinian 'smell the coffee' trope is that we are in the world, not creators of the world.
I suppose I should stop posting these positivist comments on your admirable blog, but it seems to me that the content would be much improved by admitting an existentialist underpinning to your moral philosophy, rather than the bankrupt theism that supports rather than undermines the tribalism you so obviously deplore.

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