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March 15, 2005


I was all geared up to write a long think piece about the gay marriage decision in California and its implications and blah blah blah barf, but then I decided that even the thought of typing that out made me want to bathe my eyeballs in lye. And if I don't even want to type it, I don't see why any of you would want to read it. I'm pleased with the ruling and that's about that.

Instead, I want to leave you with a thought about politics, which is that I think the real fault lines in politics today do not lie along the traditional conservative/liberal lines but along rational/irrational lines, and the real war in politics these days is along the latter rather than the former. This is why, for example, I'm far more comfortable with some conservatives than I am with some liberals, even though my own positions tend more liberal than not. I'm rather more comfortable dealing with someone whose politics I disagree with, but I can see how they got to where they are, than someone who politics are in line with mine but who appear to have arrived at those politics without an intermediary step of, you know, thinking about those politics.

The real tragedy of politics today is not that we have a conservative in the White House, but that we have an irrationalist there -- someone whose policy positions can't be seen as divorced from reality, if only because that would imply they had ever been based there at all. Bush's irrationalist tendencies have fundamentally little to do with his conservative tendencies, which is to say that the former are not spawned from the latter. God knows irrationalism lies on both sides of the conventional political spectrum; the irrationalists of the left who tried to expunge "dead white guys" from curricula back when I was still in school to my mind walk arm and arm with the irrationalists on the right who are now busily trying to expunge evolution. An irrationalist liberal in the White House would be no better than Bush, that's for sure.

There's a more common name for irrationalists in politics: "wingnuts." But I think that particular word is both inaccurate and falsely comforting, since it suggests that irrationalists are marginalized on the edge of political discourse. A hint for you: When an irrational politician sleeps in the White House, irrationalism is not exactly marginalized. Irrationalists aren't wingnuts; they're not even the wings. They're the damned fuselage of political discourse at the moment, and I think that's pretty damn scary.

The big problem with irrationalists is that they expect rational people with the same surface politics as them to fall into line, and get confused and angry when they don't. The delicious irony of the judge in the California case being a Republican, appointed by a Republican, isn't irony at all when you look at it along rational -irrational lines. Of course the judge ruled that California couldn't bar same-sex marriages; rationally speaking, there's no good reason to do so. That the judge happens to be Republican is immaterial to this sort of rational line of jurisprudence. When you're irrational, you don't get that, and so you become angry and enraged.

The big problem with rationalists is that they continually underestimate the irrational, assuming, in that charmingly smug way of theirs, that no one really thinks like that when it's rather blatantly obvious that they do -- and there's a lot of them. Rationalists get stuck inside their own echo chambers and forget that outside the echo chamber there's a whole bunch of people who are all-too-easily swayed by the ambitiously irrational. At this particular moment in history the really busy irrationalists are on the right, but it wasn't that long ago that they were on the left, and no doubt they'll be there again before I die.

Irrational politics are dangerous; I don't need to recount my general litany of complaints about the Bush administration's policies to make that point. Rational conservatives should be aware that the irrational conservatives are not your friends; rational liberals, the same (rational moderates, rest easy; for some unfathomable reason, there don't seem to be very many irrational moderates). Indeed, the rational all along the political spectrum should realize they have far more common cause with other rationalists, in terms of effective governing, than they do with the irrationalists who ostensibly share their politics.

I mean, I know it won't happen. But wouldn't it be nice.

Posted by john at March 15, 2005 11:14 PM

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» R's vs. I's - a New Political Spectrum from Jim Flowers' Radio Weblog
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Tracked on March 23, 2005 12:49 PM

» The real divide? from Pacific Views
Writer John Scalzi thinks that if you analyze US politics in terms of liberal vs. conservative, you'll have trouble making sense of what's going on — especially since Dubya and his minions took control of the wheel of state. According... [Read More]

Tracked on April 21, 2005 01:51 AM


mythago | March 16, 2005 02:51 AM

One acquaintance of mine favors the term "wackaloons" for these people.

Byron | March 16, 2005 04:07 AM

I think campaigning in general, especially its modern incarnation with "fast-paced" (to use a local news program's tagline) news reporting and equally pathetic debates (You're going to debate "healthcare" in two minutes per side? Yeah. Right.) favor the irrationalist. Its a whole lot easier to squeeze "from my ass to your ears" into a soundbite than any sort of well reasoned argument where you can't assume your audience knows anything about the subject. It seems that the rationalist needs to abandon rationality, at least for the duration of the campaign, to have a chance at all (and hire the most cold-blooded, manipulative bastard they can find while they're at it). It makes the rest of the rationalists less comfortable with you, but they are also apparently in the minority.

Colm Mac | March 16, 2005 05:02 AM

Well written post John.

I can't help feeling that the rise of the Irrationalist has a lot to do with the fall of the newspaper as the primary source of news, people seem to think more about things when they read them in their own time. Now assuming that trend doesn't reverse (and there is no reason to think that it would) does it suggest that the rise of the blogs should increase the amount of political thinking being done?

I wonder about that quite a bit, especially in my own blog reading. Or are we all still in the same echo chamber?

Of course it might be nice to increase the size of the echo chamber by hoping that rationalist conservatives would link to their rationalist mirrors on the liberal side and vice versa.

PiscusFiche | March 16, 2005 07:06 AM

It might happen. I mean, if you are dealing with rational people, you have a higher chance of them realising that it would be RATIONAL to deal with the other rational people, regardless of political ideology. There's still a chance that people won't listen, because we do have our gut reactions and emotional attachments, but there's a better chance than if we were all irrational.

Kevin Q | March 16, 2005 07:23 AM

Good post, John. It brings up a couple of thoughts in my own mind.

When I was doing anti-death penalty volunteer work, I worked for one of the "rational" groups. We sent letters and press releases, we arranged press conferences, and attempted to sway reasoned debate. But we were well aware that what got the press was the crazy, shouting, disrupting protesters of the death penalty. But that was okay. We figured that if we let them draw attention, sooner or later somebody's going to want to have a reasoned discussion, and there we were with facts and figures. The group I worked for shut down about a year ago, for lack of interest in a reasoned message.

Also, the worst irrationallist in the country, on either side of the spectrum, might just be currently on the Supreme Court: Justice Antonin "Things Must Never Change" Scalia, who fervently believes that nothing at all has changed anywhere since the writing of the Constitution.


Dave | March 16, 2005 07:30 AM

Great post. I think that one form this takes is jingoism. There's a lot of people who relate to their politics the way that they relate to their sports teams, supporting "their guys" through good ideas and bad... and rejecting the "other guys" no matter what they actually say or do. Changes to the ethics rules in the house are one example. It's hard to imagine anyone who thinks it's a good idea, unless you think of it as a defense for "your guys" who are under attack from "their guys".

Of course, the problem with this (as with the rational/irrational divide in general) is that taking the high road is a lot more work. Your party will have an easier time if you have a solid cadre of true believers who will accept whatever you say without dissent.

Both teams do it, but one guess as to which side is better at it. (For some evidence, from the blog side anyway, see Kevin Drum's summary of an academic analysis of blog linking.

John Needham | March 16, 2005 10:25 AM

My biggest concern:

What reason could conservatives (applying the term, loosely, to George Bush's apoligists/fans/supporters) have to engage rational liberals (like me, at least I hope I'm rational - certainly I'm liberal!)? They've already got the White House, both chambers of Congress, and the Supreme Court.

Conservatives (at least in the person of, say, Tom De Lay ) have stated outright that their plan is to solidify contral of Congress for generations to come. And they'll stop at literally nothing to achieve that.

Have an irrationalist at the helm only helps them, at this point. They'll have less interference from the top with George Bush in charge.

I'm very, very concerned.

RooK | March 16, 2005 11:07 AM

Listening to President Bush answering questions to the press core this morning - for the bit uninterrupted by me screaming at my radio or temporarily changing stations to diminish the urge to ram other cars - irrational is probably the kindest way to describe the man. Every time he would say, "an important thing you've got to understand is..." then babble something essentially meaningless like, "it's getting good-er" would drive me nuts. He wasn't even trying to make sense.

mythago | March 16, 2005 11:29 AM

Good point, Dave.

Bob | March 16, 2005 12:08 PM

[Deleted due to rather pedestrian stupidity]

Hey, Bob, if you think you might want to rephrase the sentiment in your comments in such a way that it doesn't suggest you have the IQ of a pillbug, then go ahead. -- JS

JJ | March 16, 2005 12:18 PM

Interesting post John. I agree with some of the comments that the nature of our political discourse, ie 2 minutes for each side to present, leads to more irrationality, however you haven't completely convinced me that its a battle between rational/irrational.

To quote from Terry Goodkind's fantasy novel, 'Wizard's First Rule', People will believe anything, either because they wish it to be true, or they fear it to be true. I believe politicians know this and play of people's prejudices and fears.

That being said, I also believe that as human beings we're all mostly irrational....the majority of the time we end up rationalizing our behavior after the fact to fit our preconcieved notions of how the world/life operates.

I'm open to debate on these points. I don't have any proof, just anecdotal evidence from my own life...I know, not very rational. :-)


DPWally | March 16, 2005 12:35 PM

There are plenty of irrational moderates. The majority of the population is irrational moderates. They're the people who don't vote or venture an opinion believing, irrationally IMO, that it doesn't matter or doesn't apply to them or all those polyticians in warshington are the same.

John Scalzi | March 16, 2005 12:48 PM

I wouldn't call those people "moderates." They're just idjits.

Jim | March 16, 2005 01:26 PM

Good points, John... and I think I essentially agree with you -- these remarks in particular and various comments you have made regarding political positions over the four years or so (Athena was an infant -- time flies!) that I've been reading your online musings. We also disagree on some positions or have different takes on certain issues, but usually I can see the merits of your viewpoint.

When I come upon someone ranting and raving about the evils of gay marriage and how these evil homosexuals must be stopped before they destroy the institution of marriage -- well, I'm just baffled -- How sad that their own marriage is so weak that it can be broken by the union of two other people who are in love but of the same gender.

But turn to the left and there's a collection of moonbats chanting "Bushitler" as if it is logical political discourse and is also a sign of their brilliant political wit.

Ah well.... despite the best (worst) efforts of both these groups, I think the republic will continue to survive.

Ken | March 16, 2005 02:43 PM

When you label a political figure an "irrationalist," do you assume that his or her expressed justification for an action is the same as his or her [i]actual[/i] justification for action?

Politicians may use irrational justifications for policies. But that may be because those irrational justifications [i]sell.[/i] It doesn't necessarily mean that the polician's true motives aren't rational but, for want of a better word, evil. Say for the sake of argument that the Bush administration wants to boost the fortunes of the rich at the expense of the poor. Say also that the Bush administration uses tax cuts as the means to this end, and that it justifies these tax cuts with the (for the sake of argument) irrational proposition that they will boost the economy. Is the Bush administration irrationalist? Maybe, but only in a way that strips the word of the meaning that I sense you want to attribute to it. It's more precise to call them Machiavellian. Calling Machiavellian politicians irrationalist threatens to promote underestimating those politicians and misjudging their motives, making it less likely that their aims can be countered.

Mark Ensley | March 16, 2005 05:09 PM

If mathematics is any guide, and it probably isn't, there are infinitely more irrational numbers than rational ones...

John Scalzi | March 16, 2005 05:10 PM

But both sets are infinite, Mark!

Mark Ensley | March 16, 2005 05:21 PM

Yes, John, both sets are infinite but infinity comes in more than one flavor. The cardinality of the irrationals is larger than the cardinality of the rationals. The rationals are what's known as a "countable" infinity, and the irrationals an "uncountable" one. No matter how you match up the rationals and irrationals in a one to one correspondence, you will always have irrationals left over, infinitely many of them.

Was just trying to be silly, sorry about the derail.


John Scalzi | March 16, 2005 06:37 PM

It's a delightful derail, Mark. Don't be sorry.

Andrew Wade | March 17, 2005 12:54 AM

My browser ate my comment. :Grumph:


Scalzi wrote:
An irrationalist liberal in the White House would be no better than Bush, that's for sure.
That would rather depend on what the irrationalist liberal was like. Certainly there's worse than Bush to be found on the left. (The communists putting up posters in my city calling for revolution spring to mind, though I don't know if they'd qualify as "liberal")

Colm Mac,
I do think us humans do have a tendency to seek out opinions like our own and to participate in echo chambers. And I have seens blogs that are very much like echo-chambers. But, there are also blogs that are quite amenable to discussion and thought (such as this one). And I think the blog format is quite good for thoughtful discussion. Part of it is that we can read on our own time, as you point out, but also I think it's that new people stumble into comment threads all the time (probably because of promiscuous linking between blogs). And the comment threads in this blog last a couple of days. While it's not the months that threads can last on usenet or discussion boards, it is enough time to get some quality thinking in.
As for an echo chamber of the rational, that describes this blog to very well. I daresay most of us know the basics of scholarship. I've been on discussion boards where that has not been the case, where people have not had the intellectual tools for rational discussion. (Fortunately, the internet is a pretty good teacher in that regard).

John Needham,
I too am very concerned, I'm concerned that the wrong type of people are gaining power, and with the anti-intellectual strand in american politics, the wrong type of people will continue to gain power. And by the wrong type I do not mean conservative, I mean idiots, and those that don't care about the lower classes (or the future).
But I do not believe that everyone that voted for Bush was an anti-intellectual or a fan of Bush. Many of them may well find common cause with some liberals on many issues, even if they are not able to stomach the thought of a Democratic Congress or President.

I'm not sure that I disagree that "we're all mostly irrational", or that "we end up rationalizing our behavior after the fact to fit our preconcieved notions of how the world/life operates." But, BUT -- however poorly we may do it, many of us do have a commitment to intellectual honesty, to seeing the world as it is rather than how we want it to be. And, despite our irrationality, I don't think those of us who try do that bad a job at rationality. I'd trust a conservative with that sort of attitude, sprinkled with some humility, not to completely destroy the economy. Or the environment. In short to have some basic competance. Despite some of their loathsome positions, I think the United States would be better off if the current administration were competant.

gerrymander | March 18, 2005 03:18 PM


I'm curious as to what metric you're using to declare the President irrational. On one hand, I can see some aspects of the administration's domestic policy which fit the description -- faith-based education, for example. On the other hand, his foreign policy appears increasingly rational, based on the amount of change for the better worldwide. What demarcation are you using to discriminate potential irrational behaviour from rational behaviour based on information we don't possess?

John Scalzi | March 19, 2005 11:40 PM

"What demarcation are you using to discriminate potential irrational behaviour from rational behaviour based on information we don't possess?"

Well, one has to go with what one has, of course. If an administration (this or any other) has rational basis for what appear to be irrational policies but chooses not to share them, it naturally runs the risk of being seen as irrational.

I am thrilled, like any (heh) rational person should be, that the Middle East does indeed seem to be opening up, and the actions of the Bush administration have clearly been a precipitant to that. That said, I would hesitiate to say that Bush's foreign policy vis-a-vist the middle east has been rational so much as lucky (so far) in the short-term outcomes, and adeptly opportunistic in its attempt to revise history. All the yak-yak about "Was Bush Right?" conveniently forgets that the rationales Bush et al gave for invading Iraq were (and are) emphatically wrong, as were their estimates for troop strength needed to adequately pacify the Iraq and throttle the insurgency.

It's in the administration's interest to project forward the idea that freeing the Middle East was the actual reason it invaded, but it's not (I wish it had been, as it would have been rather more in line with the reasons why I was not opposed to the US invading Iraq), and I'm not inclined, based on all the other evidence of the administrations' irrationality, to blandly accept that freeing the middle east was the plan all along. I chalk it up as a delightful bonus, not as a result of a rational policy.

Doug Hainline | May 25, 2005 09:22 AM

Since most of the comments here seem to be by rational liberals, I thought I'd add one by a rational conservative. And my comment is this: we need to talk.

I'd like to see a Forum on-line, maybe by invitation-only, where we could do that. Are there any? If not, anyone want to start one?

John Scalzi | May 25, 2005 01:36 PM

By all means, Doug, you should start one!

Muhammad | May 29, 2006 08:40 PM

Thanks for the well-written post. I think your characterization of the intellectual divide in this country is accurate.

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