On the Spectrum

Photograph Source: wonderferret – CC BY 2.0

Those who pay attention to mental and emotional states, and their multitude of disquieting effects, recognize the notion of a spectrum. For instance, autism is not a one-size-fits-all condition. Some people who are diagnosed with autism function well, getting along in society, while others cannot successfully function without assistance. In other words, there is a spectrum of autistic behavior. Another example comes through in large studies looking at family histories of those diagnosed with schizophrenia. Here it has been noticed that such families often have members with eccentric behavior showing up in a sporadic fashion. These folks are not schizophrenic, and they are socially functional, but nonetheless not exactly “normal.” Again, there is a spectrum when it comes to mental states.

We can apply this same concept to what we call rationality. Just as is the case with “sanity,” the notion of rationality covers a lot of territory. It would be a mistake—actually you would have to gloss over a lot of history—to just claim humans are all “homo sapiens” or “wise people” and leave it at that.

A Spectrum For Rationality

A spectrum along which to rank alleged rational behavior and decision making must take into consideration context. Thus, within Western “liberal” societies (there are, of course, many other types of societies), the context against which rational behavior is measured may not be uniform. For instance:

Context number 1—Where civic values are primarily capitalist ones; economics will play a dominant role in shaping alleged rational choices. The United States is the home of a stereotypical Wall Street mentality, and is idealized just because the country is seen, for better or worse, as a place where personal enrichment is a national goal. In such a context, other considerations such as honesty, promoting societal issues of fairness, doing away with racial prejudice, and addressing environmental concerns may not be seen as important when compared to economic security or advancement. And this can influence choices when it comes to, say, political candidates and their policies.

Context number 2—On the other hand, in the same liberal societies, the context of civic values usually includes democratic standards and notions of right and wrong that do not consider economics as a singular, isolated, value. This context promotes, at least in theory, ethically based regulatory standards and the concept of the rule of law. In this case, rational behavior would require consideration of more than personal advantage. It will demand choices attuned to idealized “community values.” To the extent that the U.S. is such a liberal nation, it must promote such community values as equity, truthfulness, and fairness.

In most cases, Americans believe that they take into consideration both contexts when making what they consider rational choices. But this is not always the case. And, in the last decade, the two contexts have become more distinct. Thus, how an American interprets his or her place on the spectrum of rationality may depend on which context they favor. If you adhere mostly to number 1, you will be less likely to see the value of the criteria put forth by number 2. You may, in fact, understand “rational” in terms of personal cost/benefit ratios. You may come to see the values represented in context 2 as obstacles to making rational choices. Just so, it may be hard for those adhering to context 2 to see the choices promoted by number 1 as truly rational if they stand alone and disregard other aspects of ethics and the greater community’s well-being.

Are Trump’s Supporters Rational?

In the United States, the phenomenon of Donald Trump has made clear this relationship of rationality and context. You will often hear those who see as primary the values embedded in context number 2 ask the question, are Trump supporters really rational? There is more than one answer to this question. Certainly, those Trump supporters enmeshed in conspiracy theory thinking, racist white supremacy or proto-Nazi ideologies, as well as radical Christian beliefs (i.e. Trump is God appointed) can be considered so out of touch with reality that it is hard to see their thought and political choices as rational. And, indeed, there may be millions of Americans who see the world in such distorted ways—because of such beliefs, they are off the rationality spectrum altogether.

However, in the 2020 election, some 71 million American voters supported Donald Trump. And, as Nesrine Malik puts it in a 11 November 2020 essay in The Correspondent, “ignorance and immorality [or, if you will, irrationality] simply cannot account for 71 million votes.”

Malik believes that it is important for those who did not support Donald Trump to recognize that some Trump supporters are “rational.” However, it would appear to be a rationality based exclusively on context number 1—the one where decisions are made for immediate economic, self-interested reasons.

Malik goes on to give examples of “rational” Trump voters:

Corporate leadership and other entrepreneurs both large and small. Corporate tax cuts did the trick here. “65% of business owners thought that the new [Trump] tax regime was the best thing the government did for their companies last year.” Deregulation was also popular.

It is interesting how some of these folks dismissed Trump’s shortcomings in the area of ethics and race. Malik quotes one such supporter as saying that “small-business people try not to get political. We stay in our lane. We go to the office. We work.” And, according to former representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida, “one of the reasons that the president is having success with Latino voters is because he is trusted by them on the economy. The Hispanic community, especially here in the state of Florida, is an entrepreneurial community.”

High earners and stock market investors. Trump’s policies sustained a very bullish stock market rally which generated huge profits for this group. This is “a cross section of society that will vote to preserve and increase their wealth.”

Low income and the unemployed. “Unemployment not only fell since Trump came to office—in 2019, but it also fell to the lowest rate in the country for 50 years. And within that fall, there was another, even more dramatic drop: for those without a high school diploma, unemployment fell to the lowest it had been since records began, and a whole 3% lower than before he became president.” As we will see, there may be a qualitative difference in the “rational” nature of this group’s choices as against the others Malik lists.

U.S. Americans threatened by low-skilled immigrants. “Between January 2017 and July 2020, the Trump administration took over 400 executive actions on immigration. This was a benefit to Trump voters – both in real terms as well as in terms of perception. According to research in areas where there was a decline in the population of people born overseas, wages began to rise at a rate of 5% a year.”

Malik’s conclusion from all this is that the outlooks of “those 71 million voters aren’t just a fad.” Many of them are voters who are “motivated by immediate self-interest.” Immediate is the operative word here, that is a subgroup whose narrow definition of self-interest makes them prone to short-term thinking. Nonetheless, from Malik’s standpoint they are also trapped “in a political system that makes few other transformative offerings, [and so] economic prosperity is the most immediate benefit.” She sees this as a message that speaks “far louder than any other regarding Trump’s incompetence in handling the pandemic or his collusion with foreign powers, or even his racism.”

Binary Rationality?

Is Malik correct in her assertion that these Trump supporters are acting rationally? Maybe. However, one can argue that the narrow basis upon which these voters made their political choices were not as rational as Malik makes out. Their behavior, as she describes it, was exclusively economic and we have historical experience of the consequences of such confined choices—choosing to just “stay in your lane.” One modern example is given by Malik herself. She is of Egyptian heritage and references the behavior of similar classes who have chosen to support the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Their decision is that he is “good for the country’s business and commerce sector.” She also mentions that fear of the civil war it would take to remove the Egyptian dictator causes the same entrepreneurial groups to view the struggle for democratic values as “too risky.”

Actually, what Malik is describing here are rationalizations for sacrificing the rule of law and other cornerstones of a civilized society. Rationalizations do not necessarily reflect rational decision making. In the case of Egypt, it is evident that, despite the wealth of certain classes, long-running dictatorships have ruined the country. Similar exclusively economic patterns of decision making by entrepreneurial classes, combined with the “too risky” argument, sustains other dictatorships around the world.

The American context is not quite the same. The context for rational choice should not be seen as a binary one. Properly understood, for most citizens it should be an admixture of contexts 1 and 2. To consider only capitalist advantages to the extent of potentially sacrificing the rule of law, truthfulness and other ethical values is, in fact, extreme selfishness. This is particularly true for voters who have a viable livelihood even without the enrichment Trump might offer. For these people to disregard and thereby place in danger long standing community ethical standards reflects a rabid narcissism. The overall costs of this attitude render their choices both irrational and immoral.

What allows for this extreme binary view of things is the often-self-imposed myopia of the individual within subgroups who choose not to see beyond themselves—some label this identity politics, but its seduction ranges far and wide. For instance, the quote above by the small businessman who said “small-business people try not to get political. We stay in our lane” is a good example. Then there is the “head of the Finance Board in Greenwich Ct. He is a Republican who supported Donald Trump. “Asked if he was bothered by the way Trump talks about women, the way he talks about immigrants, he replied, look, I care about the 60,000 people who live in my town. That’s what I care about.” This seemed to suggest that he is able to devalue the approximately 30,000 females as well as the immigrants residing in his community—along with those who live outside it. When it was suggested that, as a citizen, he has broader responsibilities, he shrugged and claimed that “I can’t worry about things outside of Greenwich.” Is this outlook rational when choices have important national consequences?

Conclusion: Do Not Stay In Your Lane!

America is a land of multiple contexts within which to make one’s political choices. It is only those who live in poverty who can make such choices primarily for immediate economic advantage and call them rational. For the rest, rational choices require taking into consideration multiple factors—ethics, truthfulness, racial and gender equity, the rule of law, and the earth itself—factors that underpin long-term wellbeing for everyone.

Keep in mind that voting is a community act. One might feel it is just a self-referencing choice—nobody’s business but your own—but you are wrong. Particularly in the winner-take-all system of the United States, one must act as if one’s choice is for the whole country. If you choose to support a sociopath for the sake of self-enrichment or, because you think he is selected by God, because you believe the other guy will raise your taxes or take your arsenal of automatic weapons away, or just because you have come to “hate liberals,” you fall somewhere on the lower end, the aberrant end, of the rationality spectrum.

In this sense, the threat of mass irrational behavior at the ballot box is very real. In truth, if enough Americans choose to just “stay in their lane” and refuse to think of the broader consequences of their political choices for the community, they may well, once again, elect a sociopath and his minions. Then, as Malik suggests, the USA, in its own unique way, will come to look like today’s Egypt.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.