Wednesday, January 13, 2021

So Much For the Rational Political Interests Theory of Trump

Against Democracy came out in 2016 with Brexit, Trump, and the Five-Star Movement in the background, among other democratic idiocies. (Thanks to these and other democratic failures, the book has now been translated into 10 languages.)

At the time, I argued support for Trump was an example of democratic failure caused by rational irrationality and rational ignorance. Were voters better informed, Trump would not have been the Republican candidate, let alone the winner. 

Many prominent democratic theorists, ever ready to defend democracy and dismiss all empirical evidence to the contrary, claimed that no, Trump voters were probably rightly and genuinely upset about globalization. Globalization, they claimed, created winners and losers. Trumpers were the losers, or at least lived near and were concerned about the losers. They supposedly supported Trump because they believed he would fix the flaws of free trade.

At the time, this was already implausible, because economics studies did not vindicate and in fact falsified these claims. For instance, see here, here, and here. In fact, 2016 Trump voters on average receive a higher wage subsidy from globalization than average or than I do. (Back in 2016 and 2017, when I told theorists about these studies, they mostly said, yeah, well, just because lots of economists say this doesn't mean it's true.)

Now fast forward to today. Here are some fun facts:

1.77% of Trump voters think the 2020 election was rigged.

2. Most Trump voters believe in many of the absurd Q conspiracy claims, even when they haven't heard of Q.

3. About half of Republicans approve of the Capitol riot/attack.

I wonder, dem theorists, do you still wish to say that Trump voters' support is based on a rational belief that Trump will implement policies which will effectively promote their independent goals?

It's time for philosophers and "political theorists" to dispense with the sixth-grade theory of voter behavior.  The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the majority of voters are innocent of ideology and that most do not select political parties or candidates because they antecedently prefer those candidates' or parties' platforms or policies. People join parties and support candidates largely for identity-based reasons which do not track how well those candidates' policies support their interests. Even among the minority who do have more stable policy preferences, it is far more common for people to rationalize that they accept whatever the party supports today than for people to support a party because they agree with it. For almost everyone, politics is like sports fandoms. Adopting political beliefs, if they do it at all, is more about demonstrating fidelity to the in-group and expressing hatred toward the out-group than it is about identifying goals or policies to promote those goals.

I am a rational choice theorist, but a good rational choice theorist needs to understand the incentives. It is instrumentally rational for many Q supporters to believe the QAnon bullshit even though it's epistemically irrational to believe it. The reason is that they get social benefits from doing so, much as one derives a social benefit from playing along with fashion or music trends, or from following the dominant religion in a heavily religious locale. 

Indeed, the stupidity of the beliefs is part of the point. Consider: Human beings need to know whether they can trust one another and whether others are loyal members of the group. They need to know whether people will contribute to public goods or free ride on others' efforts. Expensive signals--such as loudly and enthusiastically expressing belief in bizarre things, or engaging in expensive, painful, and time-consuming rituals--help demonstrate such loyalty. It works. QAnon conspiracy theorists are epistemically irrational, but only because epistemic irrationality of this sort pays off with social rewards. They will stop when a new trend takes over or when the total costs exceed the total rewards.