“Political Analysis Needs More Witchcraft”

Brian Klaas writes for The Atlantic on a perspective foreign to most analysts and pundits:

Anthropologists note that nonrational, magical, or superstitious beliefs appear in nearly all human societies, helping to make sense of a world in which individual lives can feel like the playthings of larger, unseen forces or, sometimes, random chance. When, say, cancer strikes, people look for explanations, and some fasten on literal demons. Nonrational beliefs can also allow believers to feel that they are harnessing unseen forces for their own purposes. They use witchcraft, voodoo, or other forms of uncanny magic to assert control in a world that feels uncontrollable. As a result, such worldviews tend to be most prevalent among those who feel powerless and face relentless calamities. Many believers view magic pragmatically, unsure of how an amulet or a talisman might work, but willing to try it nonetheless. As the Oxford historian Theodore Zeldin put it, superstition is a bit like the “modern car-driver, who does not know how his car works, but trusts it all the same, interested only in knowing which button to press.”

Mystical beliefs are not mere outliers to be edited out of our “rational choice” understanding of how and why political actors and voters behave, or how and why societies change over time. Rather, such nonrational beliefs have decisively shaped domestic and global affairs in countless cases.