The End of the Enlightenment?

What’s the matter with Kansas? wondered Thomas Frank [1]. They don’t seem to vote in favor of the programs and candidates that would benefit them most. I like the way Frank framed the question, but I’d like to take it back a little. How is it that we think we would decide to do the things that are in our best interest? Isn’t that an excessively rational kind of expectation?

Enlightenment 3

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about recently.

In this simple little figure, I want to represent the part of the Western experience of rationality for which we use the name Enlightenment. Societies based on the Enlightenment in one way or another—I have several possibilities in mind—are above the line. The two parts of the arc that are below the line represent our past (to the left) and our future (to the right). They represent, in other words, where we have been and where we are going.

Dismal, isn’t it?

A generous dating of the beginnings of the Enlightenment starts it around 1620 C.E. [2] The Enlightenment is often characterized as the establishment of Reason as the basis for society. But “reason” rather than what?  Here, pondering an answer is Thomas Aquinas, who thought “just price” would do it.

Enliightenment 4Historically, Reason was contrasted with Authority, particularly the authority of the Catholic Church, as an alternative basis for society. I don’t think that is the best set of alternatives for today, but even that set is suggestive. Consider, for instance, that “God says everyone shall be paid enough to live on.” We might even throw in “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treads the grain. Deuteronomy 25:4 and several New Testament citations). We would say that this is ordering society on the basis of “revelation,” as the Church understands what God is commanding. That is not rational in any narrow sense of the term. [3] On the other hand, the market system isn’t rational either. “People will be paid whatever employers are forced to pay them to insure for themselves a skilled and stable supply of labor” is not rational. Even in an un-distorted market it would not be rational and no one thinks that the current market for labor is “un-distorted.”

Between those irrationalities—the pre-Enlightenment and the post-Enlightenment, there is a rational path. I am not recommending it because it didn’t work well, but it does have the virtue of rationality. It is the “just price” doctrine, which was once devised and enforced by the church. The Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and China tried the same thing, using social rationality as their argument, and discovered what the Church discovered—nobody knows enough to decide what is “just.”

So in this little parenthetical example, I have placed the inaccessible sources—God on one side and the Market on the other—as bearing the same relation to rational choice. I have put the Church and the Communist Party in the center as examples of rational means of establishing prices. I do not count their failure against them; they did proceed rationally.

There is a way for democracies to proceed that follows this same course. In it, too, there is a brief moment of bright sunlight between a promising dawn (Enlightenment) and a disheartening dusk. Let me describe this period of sunlight briefly.

In order to do it briefly, I will have to caricature the various players. I think it is the only way to proceed, so, with apologies to all, I will grotesquely simplify the last several hundred years of experience.

Making social decisions has nearly always been thought of as a team sport, of which there are two versions. In one, you are a powerful person—a clan chieftain, let’s say—or you are a member of the clan who trusts your chieftain to make the best judgment. This is rational, or could be, on the part of the chieftain, but it is not rational in that same way on your part. Trust in your leader is the virtue on your part. You are part of the social group which operates in the backwash of the leader’s decision and your membership in the social group so affected defines you. If there is a rationale to it, it is that you need to be a member of the team in order to function effectively and being a member of the team means supporting the chieftain’s decisions.

good enough 2This meets the broader standard of “rationality” you will notice—the one that was met by saying that doing what the Church said God wanted you to do is “rational”—although it does not meet the narrower standard.

Now comes democracy with its “enfranchisement” of “the people.” [4] The notion of “the people” gradually opened out to include everyone over 18 years of age and was further insividualized by the secret ballot. So I go into the polling booth all by myself and I decide all by myself which rulers will serve us all best. Or I decide which rulers would serve me best and the system of democratic equality adds all the personal preferences together and comes up with an approximation.

This is an exercise in “rationality” in the narrow sense. Candidates run for office and make the promises they think they have to make, knowing that they will have to fulfill at least some of them. Voters choose the candidates who make the most plausible promises, knowing that not all of them will be fulfilled. That meets the notion of “rationality” in the narrow sense, as I am arguing the case. [5]

I am considering the election of Donald Trump as a signal that the “day” of Enlightenment is just about over. We are returning—have returned?—to the clan members who support the decisions of the chieftain because that is how we know we are clan members.

I was thinking about this development in May of 2014 when I wrote about Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Flight Behavior. You can see the long version of that post here. The short version appears below. Ovid represents “rationality;” Dellarobia is speaking for the clan members.

Ovid says, “You think…it’s a territory divide? We have sorted ourselves as the calm, educated science believers and the scrappy, hotheaded climate deniers?”
Dellarobia replies, “I’d say the teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around.”
“Team camo,” she says, referring to Cub’s team. “We get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. T
“The other side,” she doesn’t even know what to call the other team but contemporary conservatives call them Limousine Liberals, “wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattés and as many second chances as anybody wants.”

If what Dellarobia says is a fair characterization of how President Trump was elected, then I think we need to consider the possibility that decision making in large societies simply puts more stress on our rational capacity than it will bear. “Being a member of the team”—Team Camo in Dellarobia’s description—has been important for a long time. Individual rationality has been the mechanism for making social choices for a relatively short time and was not even considered as a possibility before the Enlightenment.

I take the election of President Trump as an indicator of how bad things have gotten. IEnlightenment 4 am thinking of it as analogous to the death of the canary in the coal mine, which is a major event for the canary, but for the miners, it is only an indication that things are not safe. But we have decided, apparently, to vote with our hearts, not our heads. And we have decided not to elect someone who will do what the office requires, but instead to take actions that make us feel good. And we have decided that words and acts—anything, really—that shows how angry we are is all we will require of the person we choose to organize the domestic economy and to deploy the military. That is how the majority that chose Donald Trump was assembled.

Democratic voters who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because he was black and for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because she was female, fit this same logic perfectly. Not that Obama = black and Clinton = female is the same argument as Trump = angry. The policy consequences, of course, are different, but the way of casting a vote is the same. None of those logics is aimed at an outcome, which is supposed to be the virtue of democratic voting systems.

We have arrived back, in this way of looking at it, at a way of making decisions as clan members. We call them “lifestyle votes” but voting that way is the way you broadcast that you are a member in good standing of this group. And speaking of broadcasting, the little matter of what you call “news” and where you get yours is crucial to group membership. [6]That does not meet the standard of rationality—even as forgiving as I have been about the narrow use of that term.

That is social solidarity voting and it means, so far as decision making in complex societies is concerned, that the sun is setting on the Enlightenment. And after such a promising dawn.

[1] In his book of the same name, published in 2004. The subtitle is “How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.
[2] The Enlightenment is such a complex movement that imagining that “it” started at any particular time is just a useful fiction. Still the ideals that began to be prominent were distinctly different from those before it and, I will argue, with those after it.
[3] It’s probably not a good idea to say that obeying God’s word is not rational, so I pause to distinguish the narrow meaning—following the rules of evidence and of logic—from the broader one.
[4] The quotation marks are richly deserved, of course. “The franchise,” i.e. the right to vote, was limited to white male property owners. No manufacturers, no women, no blacks. But still, the white male property owners are being considered as individual decision makers.
[5] Political scientists have long been enamored of a party-centered model called the “strong party system” in which the party, not the candidate, does the promising. Even political scientists have mostly given up on that, but we did it after the voters refused to be interested in it. We thought it would simplify rational choice for the voters. The voters didn’t like to have their personal preferences rationalized.
[6] I was surprised to see that Fox News was on all the TVs at Dallas/Fort Worth airport. And then I was surprised that I was surprised. The clan in Dallas is defined to include travelers. You could call that Southern Hospitality if you really wanted to.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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