Rational Choice Theory and the Study of American Politics
The purpose of this chapter is to assess the role that rational choice theory has already played and can hope to play in the study of American politics. Concomitant with posing a question about positive influence is posing one about negatives, specifically to investigate the current and looming limitations of this enterprise: How might rational choice theory overcome these problems and limitations, and how, if at all, does rational choice theory relate to other approaches and ways of formulating questions useful in the study of American politics. This chapter, then, is more about theorizing than about American politics per se, and leans more toward "positive," that is, scientific, than normative theory. After presenting some of the very basics of rational choice theory, we move to examination of three substantive topics: mass political behavior, institutional politics, and political history.
Rational choice theory has unquestionably assumed a very prominent place in political (and social) science generally, and this is especially true in the field of American politics. It is a theory of how individuals choose and of the consequences of those choices for political outcomes. Thus, it is quite possible, and appropriate, to develop a rational choice theory of peasant behavior applied to South Vietnam ( Popkin, 1979) or a rational choice theory of political-economic outcomes in nations that have neither democratic governments nor market economies ( Bates, 1981). Nonetheless, it is fair to say that rational choice theorists have made their mark in the study of liberal democracies in general and of American politics in particular, and the theory has been originally, most richly, and most fully developed in American politics.
I argue here that the importance that rational choice theory has assumed in American politics is due to the scope of its inquiry and, perhaps more important, to the dynamic character of theory development. Rational choice theory, as a theory about individual and social choices, natu