The Paradox of Rationality: Administrative theories and the rise of the ‘Popular Demagogue’


Foreign policy begins at home, and yet no nation can independently manage the challenges it brings in its wake. Climate change, political instability, financial volatility, terrorist activity, food security and religious conflicts are challenges that do not limit themselves to national borders. These challenges call for international cooperation. However, since 2016, a game changing year in which political developments in the United States of America redefined the global political and economic landscape, there has been a rise in geopolitical rivalry, populism and protectionism all of which are complicating multilateral policy coordination.

The United States is a charter member of the United Nations and one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. In addition, it has been, and will continue to be one of the world’s largest economies by its sheer size. The power of the United States as a hegemon however has reduced in the recent past. Apart from the rising power of the BRICS nations damaging the super power status of the country, the biggest threat to America lies within itself. On the 9th of November, 2016 the world witnessed businessman turned television personality turned politician Donald John Trump elected to office as the 45th President of the United States. Globally, citizens were swept over, displaying disheartenment, fear, apathy, anger and plethora of other emotions attempting to draw a sense of understanding and meaning of what a ‘new’ America meant to the world. A narcissistic billionaire with grandiose plans and a disagreeable demeanour, in the time period spanning the first hundred days to six months of his presidency, Trump has taken stances that have left not only the international community but also denizens more disenchanted and disillusioned than ever before. With the discussed global developments as a backdrop, the administrative theories of Herbert Simon and Max Weber can be used to analyse the rationality governing organisational politics and the use of authority and power as a decision-making tool in the global political landscape.

Herbert Simon’s perspective

Here the behavioural approach to organisational theory provides an insight into the interplay of human behaviour in social systems. It is in this arena that Herbert Simon lay emphasis on the idea of administration as a core function of decision-making. He was instrumental in separating factual scientific judgements from ethical or value judgements in viewing administrative action. In understanding the several layers that the state of political administration is in today, the spirit of true democracy has been slowly losing its sheen to the populism wave. Thus it has left a void in the understanding of the role of political leadership in administration. Has power and authority subverted the framework and structure of an organisation to become a one-man show of critical decision making that is neither factual nor moral? While it is becoming increasingly evident from instances witnessed, a close look at models that explain the spectrum of rationality or even so to say encompassing irrationality. Simon propounded a theory of bounded rationality that has its roots in economic decision making. However, Simon preferred to call it as a combination of to satisfy and to suffice, making it ‘satisficing’. According to him, it was important to set the boundary of rationality before setting any administrative ‘principle’. However, contrary to economic theory, he believed that human capacity is restricted and it is not possible for an individual to derive maximum benefit from a course of action as its scope to even understand could be far-reaching. Therefore, bound by ‘cognitive limits’, decisions are so made.  Simon, rejecting the theory of total rationality, examines the spectrum of rationality along the boundaries from the standpoint of an administrative man. An administrative man, not in a position to perceive the exhaustive set of alternatives or solutions resorts to ‘muddling through’ policy framing, as described by Charles Lindblom. However, with respect to ‘good enough’ decision and solutions, the possibility of the area being subjective and grey is higher. If political decisions have an impact on a global level, is there legitimacy in the bounded reasoning by an authority?

Incidentally, ‘Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, the “economic nationalist” wants to sharply curtail immigration, erect trade barriers, reduce U.S. commitments overseas and destroy what he calls the “administrative state”. (Robinson 2017) Their inward looking, populist and nationalist agenda is now being touted as “Trumpism” and includes moves such as attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, imposing travel bans on immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority nations, increasing defence spending and aggressively promoting protectionist trade policies. Far from making America “great again”, this “Trumpism” coupled with the rise of BRIC nations, climate change, nuclear proliferation and terrorism is slowly but surely eroding the very foundation of the power of the United States. Following Bernard’s ‘zone of indifference’, Simon establishes the concept of the ‘zone of acceptance’ when authority lies within this realm. As a new presidential elect, it could be said that Trump may be basking in the glory of the ‘zone of acceptance’ and it may not be long before the zone shrinks in size. Given, the support from the electorate that he has garnered, as Simon puts it, ‘organisational loyalty’ may be a key driver for the support in the short run but may fail to manifest in the longer run with the zone of acceptance blurring out.

However, as Simon’s critics reinstate that Trump and his compatriots are not merely guided by factual economic judgements, but also use the sentiments of the masses for propaganda and mobilisation. Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate in Economics, remarked on Trump’s victory saying, “people like me – and probably like most readers of the New York Times – truly didn’t understand the country we live in” (Mishra 2016). This is true, even in the national context of India. The 2014 elections that brought Narendra Modi, a man with the history of the Godhra riots, to power still managed to strike an emotional connect with the masses garnering some sort of faith and support in power of authority.

At this juncture, it is also interesting to draw on the Weberian theory of the foundational structure of authority where traditional authority, charismatic authority and legal rational authority form the tenets of the theoretical base governing bureaucracy. Global politics, however, in recent times has been turbulent, a flight from the liberal rational democratic setup. Trump as well as Modi signal a wave of ‘charismatic’ leadership and authority in the society. Weber’s philosophy explains this phenomenon.

‘There is the authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma), the absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership. This is ‘charismatic’ domination, as exercised by the prophet or — in the field of politics — by the elected war lord, the plebiscitarian ruler, the great demagogue, or the political party leader. …Men do not obey him by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him. If he is more than a narrow and vain upstart of the moment, the leader lives for his cause and ‘strives for his work.’ The devotion of his disciples, his followers, his personal party friends is oriented to his person and to its qualities. Charismatic leadership has emerged in all places and in all historical epochs. …Political leadership in the form of the free ‘demagogue’ who grew from the soil of the city state is of greater concern to us…’ (Weber 1919)

Trump is a gifted demagogue, appealing to the prejudices and desires, mirroring the sentiments of the section of the population rather than using rational judgement. Weber describes the historical transition of authority from charisma to tradition to bureaucratic authority. What we witness today with Trump is bureaucratic with underlying shards of charismatic authority that makes many questions the legitimacy of this authority. So is the case with Modi. How can the rationale of Modi being the face and voice behind demonetisation be justified, instigating the debate as to why the Reserve Bank of India did not announce the policy.

Thomas Jefferson, American Founding Father and the third President of the United States of America, opined that an informed electorate is the cornerstone to democracy. An informed electorate is based on the assumption of relevant information that is backed by facts. The voters are then in a position to weigh the available knowledge to arrive at a reasoned decision, which may not be the gold-standard but is the best available in the given scenario. This relates closely to what Simon called bounded rationality. The onset of Trump however, did not identify with the said assumptions. Instead, it was illusionary and situated itself on the turf of emotion. The use of the rule of thumb and heuristic reasoning in not only the rise of Trump but even critical issues of immigrant labour, healthcare policy et al approached through this channel lays a doomsday ahead for America and the global economy.

Cooperation to Self-Interest?

In this regard, the Paris Agreement of 2015 becomes a stark example. The Paris accord sets out a global action plan and collaborated effort to mitigate climate change. It is a signal from countries to their citizens and industries to collaborate towards low-carbon and greenhouse emissions. It is strange to note the decision of the United States to withdraw from the treaty at a time when the world is in the irreversible transition from traditional fossil fuels to renewable energy. Given this, the time was apt for the US to strengthen their economy for the potential gain of the green economic sector. As Rohit Prasad writes for Livemint, “It is possible the US could miss out on some of the $1.4 trillion global business opportunity that the global low-carbon economy represents. More importantly, it could lose its position as the leader of the liberal world order. The decision to make a visible and very public break reflects Trump’s proclivity to adopt sharp policy positions, his preference for hard military power over soft power, and his desire to compensate for the botched exit from Obamacare.” (Prasad 2017) This action viewed closely from the basis of rational decision making has several ramifications. The withdrawal by US, the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases is a severe international fallout. This is explained by game theorists as the collapse of organised coalitions and the rise of ‘self-interest’ driven players which serves no long-term benefit to the big elephant in the room, the insurmountable effects of climate change (Prasad 2017). The dichotomy is organisational theory behind decisions driven by self-interest and through cooperation and its failure in maximising efficiency is clearly visible. However, well-aware of the effect of the US exit, China, India, France, and other countries committed to the cause have reinstated their cooperation in the Paris Agreement. The means-end construct, that is, rationality in choosing appropriate means to achieve the ultimate purpose that Simon speaks of in organisational theory is largely amiss in the present case.


To conclude the ideas presented in this article, organisational desires and decisions are complex given the myriad issues that we face today. The wave of ‘irrationalism’ rooted in the economic suffering and dislocation of values has inhibited the power of reasoning in understanding the manipulative capacity of authority and power. With the growing concerns of citizenry and the need for international cooperation, expectations of rational motivation and plausible outcomes in both national and global politics remain a question to carefully ponder.

(Sattvika is pursuing Master’s Programme in Public Policy at the National Law School of India University. She can be reached at


Mishra, Pankaj. 2016. “Welcome to the age of anger.” The Guardian . 8 December

Prasad, Rohit. 2017. Donald Trump’s Paris Agreement pullout: Masterstroke, death knell, or farce? 15 June.

Robinson, Eugene. 2017. “We don’t know where Trump stands. Neither does he.” The Washington Post. New York , 13 April.

2017. “The tale of America’s hollow climate change leadership.” LiveMint, 7 June.

Weber, Max. 1919. “Politics as a Vocation.”

One Comment Add yours

  1. Shrikant says:

    Sorry to say, this piece is an excellent diatribe, but nowhere close to being a discussion on Simon, Weber, or even Barnard or Lindblom.
    It is astonishing that the author calls Lindblom’s “muddling through” as an act by Simon’s administrator. What analytical evidence prompts such connection?
    Also, the application of self-interest and cooperation dilemma with Paris agreement is not compelling enough to reach any conclusion.
    Can the author please pick one argument from this article and elaborate on it in detail with analytical depths that the subject demands?

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