The irrationality of political beliefs

Why political belief is like supporting a sports team

People espouse all sorts of seemingly unfounded, crazy-sounding political beliefs. It’s led many commentators to think that political beliefs are just irrational. Others have argued that people don’t really believe what they say; they’re just supporting their political team, just like in sports. But if our political preferences are just as arbitrary as our choice of sports teams, we can hardly call them rational, argues Oliver Traldi.


Around the 2016 American presidential election, which saw the rise of Donald Trump and the ushering in of what was dubbed a post-truth era, both philosophers and pundits started to take very seriously the notion that politics and epistemology – the study of belief, rationality, and knowledge – had a lot to do with one another. Many commentators, as it turned out, began to wonder whether what was going wrong in American politics had something to do with problematic ways people were forming their political beliefs.

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Some blamed technology. We’re sorted into bubbles by algorithms that care about clicks, not truth, feeding us fake news, propaganda, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. Others blamed culture. We have entered a post-truth era, unmoored from any collective sense of objectivity; people espouse whatever they can get away with. Furthermore, we’re polarized, sorted socially and geographically along partisan lines, each group reading its own newspapers and magazines, and even consuming beverages from different stores. Still others have blamed our leaders. Irresponsible politicians, talking heads, and headline writers lead to crazy beliefs when people naively put their trust in them. We should have trusted the experts instead, the argument goes.

One of the most common culprits cited has been our psychology. We’re built for “tribal” conflicts, because of our evolutionary past, some theorists claim. In the two-party American system, this “tribalism” takes hold, leading us all to believe crazy things, seeming to blur our very perception, the way it might seem to be blurred during a World Cup soccer game when what looks like a penalty to one team’s supporters looks like it wasn’t a foul to the other’s. The mechanisms for this are cognitive biases, especially confirmation or “myside” bias and motivated reasoning.


We’re built for “tribal” conflicts, because of our evolutionary past, some theorists claim.


Probably the fullest story that’s been told about messed-up political psychology is Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory. Haidt has argued that liberals and conservatives have different political brains, and that it is this difference which determines their political stances.  According to Haidt, this difference originates in pre-rational moral intuitions, pushing politics beyond the realm of rationality.

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More recently, some writers, most notably Hrishikesh Joshi, have taken the opposite tack, arguing that no moral principles or factual claims unify the proposals of major party platforms. Our political beliefs are thus irrational when taken as a package; they don’t form a coherent whole, as we might like to think, but are probably derivative of our partisan loyalties, responsive neither to data nor to sustained moral reflection. This picture has not been without its critics, who try to demonstrate that our political beliefs are in fact rational.


Our political beliefs are irrational when taken as a package; they don’t form a coherent whole, as we might like to think.


One move is rationalizing by distinguishing the political sides. One side is super irrational, but the other side is super rational, and what looks like mirror-image polarization and partisanship is actually just the wrong side getting things increasingly wrong while the right side gets things progressively right. This isn’t impossible, but it seems pretty ad hoc as a philosophical strategy and even itself a product of tribalism and bias.

To my mind, the most promising move for the rationalizers – the critics of the irrationalizing project in political epistemology – is what I call rationalizing by redirection. The redirection theorists argue that what looks like an irrational political belief is not in fact what people believe. Some
philosophers who argue by redirection point to people’s material incentives to misrepresent their beliefs. For instance, Megan Hyska and Olufemi O. Taiwo have separately argued that what looks like persuasive political propaganda and pervasive political ideology can often be in actuality a bunch of people going along with the views that it benefits them to express – whether because they are part of a powerful group that wants to promulgate such views or because they are part of a powerless group in which dissent can mean punishment or death.


Redirection theorists argue that what looks like an irrational political belief is not in fact what people believe.


Michael Hannon, perhaps the philosopher who has expressed the boldest redirection thesis, has argued that our apparent political beliefs tend to be for “cheerleading” and “badmouthing” – just expressing which side we’re on, again much as in a sports game. Hannon appeals to a variety of evidence to justify this: our apparent political beliefs change quickly when party platforms change; our private behaviour when asked to bet on our political beliefs is much more centrist than our public expressive behaviour, and so on.

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It is an open question, though, just how rational such redirection makes us look. If all our political arguments are mere matters of cheering and booing various teams, then the energy we expend on them seems poorly spent, and our rationality in belief is saved only by irrationality in action.

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