Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Fish’

Is There an Irrational Voter?

March 9, 2008

With reference to our comment on the Politics of Identity, a number of readers have taken issue with our conceptualization of rationality and the claim that all voters are rational. In this post we respond to the issues raised by the readers. 

The gist of the points raised is as follows:

  • You have failed to stress that the rationality of the Pakistani voter is different from that of the liberal citizen who was the subject of the Stanley Fish column on which you commented. 
  • What about the frequent comments made that Bush was a great guy to have a beer with and that is why he was worth voting for? How do you view that?
  • Is voting always rational or is it sometimes visceral? Of course, one’s gut can be taken to be rational based on prior calculation.
  • The voter does not have the expertise to be rational; he cannot calculate, for example, what is best for the economy, etc.
  • It is important to take note of all the literature from behavioral economics. It does at least put into serious question many basic insights of microeconomics. It probably does the same to voting theory in political science. What is your view of this literature that essentially says that people are systematically irrational?

The first thing to reiterate is the point of departure in our previous post: “The starting point in this analysis has to be the conceptualization of the voter and the only one that can be supported (at least till it is disproved) is that the voter is rational and votes to advance his or her interests.” We take the rationality of the voter as a plausible starting hypothesis but are open to modifying our position if the hypothesis is disproved. So the question to address is whether the points raised by the readers are sufficient to disprove the hypothesis of the rational voter. 

The answer can be yes or no depending upon what one understands by the term ‘rationality.’ There is a generic sense and a specialized definition of the term. Both Professor Fish and ourselves used the term in its simple and generic sense in which rationality implies the use of the process of reasoning. Thus a voter is rational if he or she uses reason as a basis for his or her choice. It is important to note that it is an entirely different issue as to whether the process of reasoning itself is flawed or based on incomplete or incorrect information.

In this interpretation of the term, the Pakistani and the American voter cannot have different rationalities since both use their reason. But the reasoning is applied to a different set of issues. And the different nature of the issues can make a lot of difference to the nature of the resulting politics as we argued in our comment. The bottom line is that the rationality is constant; the issues vary. We will elaborate on this and present a surprising twist in a subsequent post.

We have already mentioned above that in this interpretation the quality of the reasoning is a separate dimension. It is quite obvious that the quality would vary considerably across individuals. The spectrum can stretch all the way from the very informed voter who has meticulously studied the position of all the candidates on all the issues to the uninformed voter who feels that if the candidate is a Republican it is enough assurance that the voter’s interests would be advanced. In between there can be the lazy voter who thinks that a fellow who is a good beer companion will also be a good political representative. And there can also be the rational non-voter who feels that the candidates are so much alike that it does not matter who one votes for or if one votes at all.

We now address the question pertaining to the existence of the visceral voter. Of course, such a voter can exist. Every time one hears the words “over my dead body” one can safely assume that one is in the presence of a visceral decision-maker. One can imagine a black voter in a constituency with a white candidate just after the bitter apartheid struggle in South Africa. The white candidate may be the best placed to advance the material interests of the black voter and yet the voter might say “over my dead body.” So one can think of situations in which the pain a voter inflicts on himself is outweighed by satisfaction obtained from the prevention of any gain to the ‘enemy.’ Is Hillary playing to the visceral voter by slyly hinting that Barack Obama has a Muslim middle name?

Such behavior can be categorized as irrational. But it is important to keep in mind that no theory applies to all individuals or any specific individual. If a theory adequately describes the behavior of a good percentage of voters it can serve a useful purpose. So the question is how many visceral voters are out there in the situation under consideration? If the number is very large, the rational voter theory needs to be replaced by something that better captures the reality of the situation. Our own sense is that the percentage of visceral voters is small in the contexts we are discussing and can be safely ignored for our purpose.

We now turn to the specialized definition of rationality as it is employed in neoclassical economics and choice theory. Without going into details, it is sufficient to state that in these theories rationality is not just a process of reasoning but a specific process of reasoning that satisfies a number of postulates. When those postulates are violated the behavior is said to deviate from rationality. As our readers have pointed out a lot of research in the behavioral sciences has shown that the postulates are systematically violated in some cases. One set of experiments shows that while all factual information remains the same, just the way a decision is framed (say in terms of lives saved versus lives lost) can cause individuals to switch their decisions.

This is indeed true but all this implies is that the specific definition of rationality is inadequate for some purposes. Neoclassical economic theory and choice theory are weak in incorporating the psychological dimensions of reasoning in their model. It is not that individuals are irrational; rather the model of decision-making is not rich enough to cover all types of situations. This is a specialized area but interested readers can type the names of the leading researchers (Kahneman and Tversky) in Google to find the links to the relevant literature.

So, the conclusion remains that it is adequate to believe that the large majority of voters are rational and that rationality (understood as the use of reason) is the same everywhere.

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The Politics of Identity in Pakistan

March 1, 2008

This is a companion piece to The Politics of Identity in which we outlined the views of Professor Stanley Fish on identity politics. In this post we present a critique of Professor Fish’s analysis, apply his framework to politics in Pakistan, and try to demonstrate the importance of context in such matters. 

Professor Fish’s articulation of identity politics is most easily understood in the concrete context of the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. An ideal non-identity voter would be one who behaves as if he or she is completely unaware of the “skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker [of identity]” of the two candidates. The voter (visualized as an abstract “citizen”) selects the candidate best qualified to lead the country and advance the policies (say on the war in Iraq, the Middle East, immigration, free trade, abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.) compatible with the citizen’s judgment of what is best for the future of the country. 

On the other hand, there can be two types of identity voters. To simplify, if a black voter votes for Obama or a female voter votes for Clinton, independently of any consideration of their leadership ability or position on issues, the voter is practicing “tribal” identity politics. However, if a female voter votes for Clinton because she feels the interests of women have been neglected in American politics and a female President would best redress the imbalance, the voter is practicing “interest” identity politics. 

Professor Fish argues that “interest” identity politics is acceptable because it is based on a process of reasoning (“that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to”). The crux of his argument is contained in the following paragraph:

[Your vote] will always be in the service of some set of policies you either favor or reject. It is those policies, not the probity of their proposer, that you will be voting for. (If your candidate is also a good person, that’s a nice bonus, but it isn’t the essential thing.) You will be voting, in short, for interests, and those who do not have an investment in those interests will be voting for someone else…. And that is why identity interests, as long as they are ideological and not merely tribal, constitute a perfectly respectable reason for awarding your vote.

This provides us the opening to question Professor Fish’s analysis. If a voter always votes “in the service of some set of policies you either favor or reject,” what is the set of policies that the “tribal” voter is voting for? The “tribal” voter is really a straw woman because it is hard to argue that a female candidate would advance a female voter’s “interests” even if the candidate’s positions on the interests were diametrically opposed to those of the voter. The argument can only hold with a very unnatural, tortured and irrational definition of “interests” which contradicts Professor Fish’s own model of the voter.

The starting point in this analysis has to be the conceptualization of the voter and the only one that can be supported (at least till it is disproved) is that the voter is rational and votes to advance his or her interests. From such a starting point, there can be no such thing as the purely “tribal” voter. 

Now let us apply this framework to Pakistan and we would be able to see the importance of the context immediately. Professor Fish equates a voter’s “interests” with the set of policies that the voter favors. This is perfectly correct in the context of American politics but very debatable in the Pakistani one. (This is not a critique of Professor Fish who was writing about the American context.) The Pakistani reader would not need much convincing on this observation but may still benefit from a discussion of the reasons for the divergence.

A good explanation could rely on the articulation of the hierarchy of needs by Abraham Maslow in 1943. To simplify, Maslow postulated that human beings had a hierarchy of needs – at the bottom were the needs of survival (physiological and security needs) and at the top were the needs of esteem and self-actualization. The important point in the hypothesis was that lower order needs had to be satisfied first before an individual could devote attention to higher order needs.

Now, in the case of the typical American voter, the lower order needs have long been met and he or she is operating at the level where “interests” can rightly be equated with self-actualization and thus with the choice of policies. In the Pakistani case, the majority of voters are still grappling with issues of survival (food, housing, jobs, security, justice) and their “interests” are quite naturally concerned with these issues. 

In such a situation the rational voter is seeking a representative who would best ensure his or her survival needs. And it often turns out to be the case that the representative who shares an identity with the voters (usually in terms of clan or caste) is most empathetic to their needs. A winning candidate in the recent Pakistani elections articulated this best when he said that his unwavering support rests on the fact that he shares the “joys and sorrows” of his constituents. 

This “joy and sorrow” model represents a completely different political context. Note that the candidate doesn’t attribute his strength to how well he represents the political choices of his constituents. Indeed, the candidate has no consistent set of policy positions – he continuously shifts his party loyalties to be on the winning team. And this too makes sense because he can deliver most to his constituents (in terms of jobs, justice, security, etc.) when he is a part of the ruling group. And his constituents admire his political skill in always being able to guess right or to work his way into the right camp. 

So, the bottom line is that in the Pakistani context the voter remains very rational and practices “interest” identity politics except that the “interests” are not related to policies. Looking at it from another perspective, it explains the virtually complete absence of the politics of ideas or policies in Pakistan. Neither the candidates nor the voters (nor indeed the parties) have policies as the principal focus of their “interests.” 

In fact, in a socioeconomic situation like that of Pakistan, electoral politics repeatedly morphs into a variant of patron-client politics. Constituents seek the strongest local patron aligned to the ruling coalition they can elect (which is where choosing right matters since a patron aligned with the opposition has diminished powers of patronage) to serve their “interests” that are dominated by the needs of survival. In such a situation, it is not possible to separate the role of the patron from the role of the political representative. Only when survival needs are satisfied, and a patron becomes redundant, does the realm of ideas assume an independent identity and rational voters vote for candidates who best represent their policy preferences.

We end with the following bottom line: Voters are rational everywhere; interests are contextual everywhere; the nature of interests drives the nature of politics; and Professor Fish has been unfair to tribes — the tribal is not irrational.

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The Politics of Identity

February 23, 2008

In setting up the next set of articles we use a thought-provoking op-ed by Professor Stanley Fish as the point of departure. Professor Fish deals with an issue, identity politics, which is of great relevance for us in South Asia. While the author’s application is to the election in the US (voting on the basis of color or gender), we can easily extrapolate some of the ideas to our context.

Here is Professor Fish’s definition of identity politics:

You’re practicing identity politics when you vote for or against someone because of his or her skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker that leads you to say yes or no independently of a candidate’s ideas or policies.

An identity politics voter says, in effect, I don’t care what views he holds, or even what bad things he may have done, or what lack of ability he may display; he’s my brother, or he’s my kinsman, or he’s my landsman, or he comes from the neighborhood, or he’s a Southerner, or (and here the tribe is really big) my country right or wrong.

Identity politics is illiberal. That is, it is particularist whereas liberalism is universalist….

[Identity markers are] not supposed to be the basis of decisions one might make “as a citizen,” decisions about who might best lead the country or what laws should be enacted or voted down. Deciding as a citizen means deciding not as a man or a woman or a Jew or an African American or a Caucasian or a heterosexual, but as a human being. 

In the context of the nomination of the Democratic candidate for the forthcoming presidential elections in the US, Professor Fish poses his critical question: Is it so irrational and retrograde to base one’s vote on the gender or race or religion or ethnicity of a candidate? And he has an interesting answer: Not necessarily.

Here is his reasoning for the answer:

If the vote is given (or withheld) only because the candidate looks like you or has the same religion, it does seem a shallow and meretricious act, for it is an act unsupported by reasons. “Because she is a woman as I am” is of course a reason, but it is not a reason of the relevant kind, a reason that cites goals and programs, and argues for them. But suppose what was said was something like this: “As a woman I find government sponsored research skewed in the direction of diseases that afflict men and inattentive to the medical problems faced by women, and it is my belief that a woman president will devote resources to the solution of those problems.” That’s an identity politics argument which is thick, not thin; the she’s-like-me point is not invoked as sufficient unto itself, but as it relates to a matter of policy. The calculation may or may not pan out (successful candidates both disappoint and surprise), but it is a calculation of the right kind.

And here Professor Fish makes a very fine distinction (which, by the way, is why we need intellectuals in society):

We should distinguish, I think, between two forms of identity politics. The first I have already named “tribal”; it is the politics based on who a candidate is rather than on what he or she believes or argues for. And that, I agree, is usually a bad idea… The second form of identity politics is what I call “interest” identity politics. It is based on the assumption (itself resting on history and observation) that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to. Not only is there nothing wrong with such a calculation – it is both rational and considered – I don’t see that there is an alternative to voting on the basis of interest.

[Your vote] will always be in the service of some set of policies you either favor or reject. It is those policies, not the probity of their proposer, that you will be voting for. (If your candidate is also a good person, that’s a nice bonus, but it isn’t the essential thing.) You will be voting, in short, for interests, and those who do not have an investment in those interests will be voting for someone else…. And that is why identity interests, as long as they are ideological and not merely tribal, constitute a perfectly respectable reason for awarding your vote.

There are two bottom lines here for those interested in the politics of South Asia. First, is the politics of South Asia “tribal” identity politics or is it “interest” identity politics, i.e., is the voter voting for a candidate regardless of the set of ideas the candidate stands for or is he/she voting for a candidate who would best advance the voter’s interests?

The second bottom line pertains to the nature of a voter’s interests: What exactly are the “interests” of the representative voter in South Asia? And it is here that we will articulate a surprising twist to Professor Fish’s argument in a subsequent post.

This is an issue of immense relevance for South Asia. Remember that a million people died and ten million were made homeless in India because of identity politics – because Muslims believed (or were made to believe) that in a democracy all Hindus, regardless of the myriad divisions amongst themselves, would vote on the basis of identity against Muslims turning the latter into a permanent and disadvantaged minority.

And in today’s South Asia, we have the same people elected again and again to parliament in Pakistan, there are alleged to be caste blocs in India, and Sri Lanka remains hostage to the politics of ethnic identity. So this is an issue we should spend time trying to understand and we are grateful to Professor Fish for suggesting a direction in which our understanding can be improved.

There is nothing more exciting than difficult questions in search of answers.

Professor Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His op-ed (When ‘Identity Politics’ is Rational) appeared in the New York Times on February 17, 2008.

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