Latest post on Left Futures

Ted Cruz and rational actor theory

Putting ‘rationality’ and ‘Ted Cruz’ together in the same sentence feels like I’m violating a law of nature. But now the USA has stepped back from the precipice … again, it’s worth looking at “abnormal” and “irrational” forms of social behaviour But I would like to do so through the prism of rational actor theory. On the face of it, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s no sociological perspective less suitable than one that pays strict attention to rationality, especially as Tea Party Republicans like Cruz subscribe to an irrational mix of conspiracy theory, Jesusland rapture-bothering; and think going off on a completely pointless 21-hour speech in the Senate before voting for the spending plan he opposed is smart tactics. But that is where you would be mistaken. Rational actor theory is well-positioned to make some sense of seemingly-evident nonsense.

Firstly, some words on what rational actor theory is not. One shouldn’t pay much attention to received wisdom in sociology. After all, it frequently has it that Durkheim’s a bit of a fossil and Marx was a crude economic, if not technological, determinist. In rational actor theory’s case, it is frequently confused with one of its subspecies, rational choice theory. Rational choice is an importation from economics, and is particularly big in political science. It holds that individuals are instrumentally oriented and will act rationally in pursuit of their aims. For example, rational choice individuals in economic settings would seek to maximise their competitive advantage by judicious deployment of resource and skill. In political science, the rational choice actors are political parties as discrete entities competing within the bounds of their respective party systems. Their rational behaviour comes most into play in the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary manoeuvres, during election campaigns, and in the horse-trading that makes up coalition negotiations or arrangements that keep minority governments afloat.

The problem with rational choice is its limited applicability. It might be alright for political parties and firms, but it’s not great for understanding social action. The problem is the individual in this schema is instrumentally-oriented toward economic or political reward, narrowly defined; and has all the information to hand they require to select an appropriate action. But the social world just isn’t structured like that. Real, flesh and blood humans daily undertake the sorts of counter-productive, self-defeating and plain bizarre actions that leaves the individual of rational choice a poor abstraction that barely matches the messy reality it tries to describe. Small wonder that when rational choice and rational actor theory does raise its head in sociology it comes in for a bit of a shewin’, as they say round my way. Hence rational choice can be safely written off.

Or can it? In his excellent if under-appreciated On SociologyJohn Goldthorpe forcefully argues that the rational choice theory that has been the target of so much sociological ire is not the same thing as rational actor theory, with which it is usually confused. I suppose it’s a bit like identifying Marxism with Stalinism – superficially similar but not the same thing at all. As far as Goldthorpe is concerned, there is a continuum of rational actor theory, from “hard” rationality to approaches that emphasise the rationality of the procedures a social agent goes through in the course of their action, to what he calls ‘situational rationality’ – a rationality that is a response to the situation an individual finds themselves in. This also allows for a bounded rationality, where an individual or a collective can pursue courses of action that are adequate enough, even if the information motivating them is incomplete. It follows therefore that rational activity can be founded on entirely false belief systems. This sort of approach for Goldthorpe is appropriate to what he sees as the sociological problematic:

… the phenomena with which sociologists are concerned are social regularities of some kind that can be established, on a probabilistic basis, within collectivities ranging from national populations, through variously defined subpopulations, down to the level of local communities, associations or households. The typical explanatory task is then to show how these regularities are created, sustained, or, perhaps, modified or disrupted through the action and interaction of individuals. (Goldthorpe 2000, p.116)

To paraphrase someone else, rational actors make their own history, but not under the circumstances of their choosing. And the way that individuals act is with enough rationality that at the aggregate level structures of inequality or patterns of behaviour are reproduced. Hence, from the condescending standpoint of the “new atheism”, for example, people engaging in acts of worship are actin irrationally. But for the believers themselves, their traditions of rites and observance are perfectly rational within the terms of their belief and biography.

Which brings is back to Ted Cruz. His band of fanatics are hellbent on using whatever they can to derail a mild health reform that reduces healthcare costs for America’s poor. Utterly baffling from a common sense point of view. But if you burrow into Cruz’s position with rational actor theory, things start making sense. American Conservatism is on the wrong side of profound demographic changes. Republicans regardless of their positioning are rightly worried that a new Democratic majority could lock them out of The White House for a generation. The Tea Party goes one step further and do not like what’s happening to their America. As the so-called flyover states slowly catch up with the rest of the Western world’s cultural mores it’s a case of trying to arrest those processes. Gay marriage, anti-abortion fanaticism, gun control, debt ceilings – each of these are flashpoint issues that require the Tea Party faithful to rally to save America from the modern world. Because they know their movement is ebbing, Cruz and co. are willing to use what limited time they have left to make a last ditch effort to pitch for the bucolic America they’re nostalgic for, which, of course, has never existed. Hence within the terms of rational actor theory, drinking in the last chance saloon has meant Tea Party senators are willing to go to the wire – upto and including debt default – to fight for their priorities. It’s a ridiculous position to be in, but is nevertheless a rational one taken within its own terms. And, of course, Obama and the Democrats’ decision to front them out is also entirely rational, framed by the exigencies of the situation.


  1. It is hard for us to see where the “Tea Party” get their historical perspective from?Surely not from any lessons that may be drawn from “The Boston Tea Party”?Their understandable grievance was that there should be no taxation without representation.Clearly there are no similar grievances today in what is modern USA.

    However I don’t think I am being to unkind when I say that they should remember another lesson from history,namely that of “The Gadarene Swine”.The lesson from that is that instead of Tea they threw themselves over the cliff!

  2. Andy Newman says:

    Thanks Phil, a useful arguement.

    I think what you are doing is restricting a definition of irrationality to only cases where a political response is not justified by its own predicates.

    This shifts the focus onto the more intersting question of how the Tea Party have derived their political positions, and what sustains their shared ideological community.

  3. Andy Newman says:

    This excellent analysis contradicts the idea of southern excetionalism:

© 2022 Left Futures | Powered by WordPress | theme originated from PrimePress by Ravi Varma