Timothy Burke has a long piece up on the limits of rationality; Lance Knobel blurbs it as "the most fascinating post-Iowa analysis I’ve read", but it’s not really about Iowa, and although it’s mainly about politics it’s not only about politics.
Burke compares the views of many voters to "how southern Africans invoke ideas about witchcraft to explain how some people obtain wealth". People simply don’t necessarily vote for what they consider to be the most coherent argument or platform:
Offering a tangible plan that promises this tax incentive, that fact-finding commission, this reinvestment project, this funding for retraining doesn’t reach people who perceive the present as a slum left behind by a low-rent version of Benjamin’s angel of history. In fact, all it does is convince them that the candidate with the plans is one of those folks with his hands on the levers, one of them who always seems to come out on top. Yes, of course one of the things that makes me furious is that many Republican political leaders are exempted from this suspicion when in fact they ought to be the faces on the wanted poster, but that has something to do with the extent to which the Republican leadership since Reagan has largely avoided selling itself as the party of superior competency in policy-making, but instead as the party that can address the deeper spiritual condition of the nation, change the movement of the geist.
I would point out that the difference here is not binary; it’s a spectrum. No one this side of Robin Hanson is completely rational, and everybody – even Burke himself – has some kind of vestigial belief in witchcraft. He writes:
Southern Africans are right: some of the powerful are witches, if by that we mean people who illicitly manipulate invisible and hidden forces to produce selfish gains for themselves at the expense of everyone else.
Burke’s piece, for me, is the best explanation for Ben Stein, and his otherwise-inexplicable popularity, that I’ve yet read. Stein basically presents Wall Street’s bankers to his readers as latter-day witches, while extolling the virtues of ordinary God-fearing Americans who are duped by the powerful. So maybe my point-by-point rebuttals are always going to be wide of the mark. Weirdly, an ad hominem attack on Stein might resonate more with those who think there’s something to what he’s saying – I could point to his wealth and his high-powered connections and mutter darkly about how he managed to get to such a position.
On the other hand, maybe he is onto something after all. If you’re puzzling over the extraordinary profitability of Goldman Sachs, witchcraft does seem to explain a lot.