Heresthetics

William Riker was one of the leading scholars "positive political theory," or the Rational Choice School of political science. He developed a theory of political action based on a skill he called heresthetics: structuring the world so you can win.

Positive political theory has three central assumptions: 1) Rationality-individuals make reasoned decisions; 2) Component analysis-only small parts of a system are important in predicting human behavior; and 3) Strategic behavior-individuals take into account what others may do before making decisions (interaction as opposed to action). All three assumptions play an important role in his model and attempt to answer the question: Does a distinctly political kind of behavior exist? Riker's answer is yes: heresthetics. Riker coined this term from a Greek root meaning "choosing and electing." For Riker, the rational political person wants to win at the game of politics. How they win is using rhetoric (verbal skill in persuasion) and heresthetics (structuring the process so one may win) to build effective coalitions.

Riker begins his foundation with David Easton's model of allocations. Easton claims politics is the authoritative allocation of value. Demands, resources, and support enter the decision-making process and the outputs become the allocation of values, the allocation of costs, the mobilization of resources, and the maintenance of the system. Within the decision-making process, Riker says decisions on such allocation may be classified as:

A. Those made by individuals
B. Those made by groups
        1. Those made by conscious process
        2. Those made in a quasi-mechanical way

B.1. represents the acts of coalitions, which make up most decision making in political settings (even in authoritarian regimes). Within groups, smaller groups make the actual decisions. These smaller groups are called coalitions. So Riker focuses his study of the decision-making process on coalitions. Riker found a model for decision making in coalitions in the Von Neumann-Morgenstern theory of n-person games, in which agents attempt to "win" by creating groups, i.e. coalitions. Game theory also involves the idea of zero-sum games, in which only two agents compete and one must lose. N-person games allow for a distribution of value--a group can win without necessarily taking value away from the opposing group(s).

Riker's political model works on two assumptions:

1- The zero-sum condition. While hardly useful by itself, the concept of zero-sum plays an important part in Riker's thinking. By abstracting only conflict, it is possible to concentrate on the problem of winning. And it is in the idea of winning that the importance of rhetoric and heresthetics emerges.

2- The condition of rationality. Von Neumann-Morgenstern define rational action economically. People act to gain money or an equivalent commodity to meet their desired satisfaction or utility. To do this is to act rationally. But the problem is, as Riker says, we "all know of instances in which persons behave as if they prefer less money to more" (Coalition 17). To eliminate this objection, especially for using this definition in social and political contexts, Riker suggests that it be stated this way: Given two courses of action leading to different outcomes, people will choose the course that leads to the preferred outcome (18-19). But this restatement is a problem because it is creates a tautology--all human action becomes rational by definition. Riker says: "It must not be asserted that all behavior is rational but rather merely that some behavior is and that this possibly small amount is crucial for the construction and operation of economic and political institutions" (20).

Institutions, like people, when behaving rationally "behave in a maximizing way," Riker says. This follows the Von Neumann-Morgenstern definition. Riker claims that, politically, people and institutions want to maximize power. But he prefers the "notion" of "winning" instead of "power" because it is a more specific statement of what a political person wants (Coalition 21-22).

So, Riker restates the definition of rational behavior this way: "Given social situations within certain kinds of decision-making institutions…and in which exist two alternative courses of action with differing outcomes…, some participants will choose the alternative leading to the larger payoff" (23). The larger payoff, like a jackpot, is a coalition's winnings. The question now becomes: How do people win? And Riker's answer is: People win politically through the skilled use of the arts of rhetoric and heresthetics. Of heresthetics, Riker says it is true that people win politically because they have induced other people to join them in alliances and coalitions. But the winners induce by more than rhetorical attraction. Typically they win because they have set up the situation in such a way that other people will want to join them--or feel forced by circumstances to join them--even without any persuasion at all. And this is what heresthetics is about: structuring the world so you can win.

Riker's The Art of Political Manipulation shows how politicians have used heresthetics to win using a series of political stories told in chapters, each with a specific how-to lesson. There are generally three categories of heresthetical strategies:

1- Agenda control: manipulating the agenda for favorable voting outcomes.
2- Strategic voting: using voting procedures to control outcomes.
3- Manipulation of dimensions: redefining the situation to create a stronger coalition.

Rhetoric, the art of verbal/written persuasion (as defined by Riker), plays a crucial role in setting up an heresthetical maneuver. The difference between the two, as Riker sees it, is that heresthetics, as opposed to rhetoric, is a direct manipulation of the political structure to win a specific outcome. (As a social-epistemic rhetorician, I do not think that direct manipulation of a process can ever be divorced from a speech act. Riker's theory of rhetoric appears to accept the medieval split between rhetoric and logic, which leads to a theory that cannot accept language use as the prime mediator between mankind and reality or as the prime creator of human experience. No matter. I contend that Riker's heresthetics has made an important contribution to the study of rhetoric and the discipline of political science.)

The irony of Riker's model is that his search for a science of politics led him to the art of rhetoric and the art heresthetics, which is "not a science. There is no set of scientific laws that can be more or less mechanically applied to generate successful strategies" (Manipulation ix). Riker thought the same way about rhetoric, saying that "our knowledge of rhetoric and persuasion is itself minuscule" (Strategy 4). Instead, we can apply only examples we are given from history. In The Strategy of Rhetoric, Riker begins his search for a science of rhetoric and heresthetics. He died before he could complete the task. The book was published posthumously.


Riker, William. The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962.

____. "Implications from the Disequilibrium of Majority Rule for the Study of Institutions." APSR. 74 (1980):       432-46.

____. Liberalism Against Populism. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1982.

____. "The Heresthetics of Constitution-Making: The Presidency in 1787, with Comments on Determinism and    Rational Choice." APSR. 78 (1984): 1-16.

____. The Art of Political Manipulation. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

____. The Strategy of Rhetoric. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.
 


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