Is Democracy as Bad as Achen and Bartels Say It Is?

A Review of
Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government
(Authors: Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels)

We all know already that our democratic system today has its flaws. To hear the political scientists Achen and Bartels talk, though, you might think it’s a giant farce.

(It’s not that A&B don’t bring out big, important problems, and their research and scholarship is really impressive. Their goal, it should be admitted, is less about suggesting fixes to our democracy and more about how the research in their field ought to change. In a nutshell, here is the academic side of it: their methodological proposal is to focus the research more on group identity, and to move away from the rational individual assumption that was borrowed from 20th century economics thought.)

The centerpiece of their analysis is what they call the “folk theory” of democracy:

In the conventional view, democracy begins with the voters. Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy— a highly attractive prospect in light of most human experience with governments.

They then proceed to show how gapingly inaccurate the folk theory is. After reviewing the evidence, they summarize:

…real people are not much like the citizens imagined by the folk theory. Numerous studies have demonstrated that most residents of democratic countries have little interest in politics and do not follow news of public affairs beyond browsing the headlines. They do not know the details of even salient policy debates, they do not have a firm understanding of what the political parties stand for, and they often vote for parties whose long-standing issue positions are at odds with their own. Mostly, they identify with ethnic, racial, occupational, religious, or other sorts of groups, and often— whether through group ties or hereditary loyalties— with a political party. Even the more attentive citizens mostly adopt the policy positions of the parties as their own: they are mirrors of the parties, not masters.

I pulled the following off of a particularly incisive review on Amazon (a reviewer named A.J. Sutter):

The “folk theory” is dispatched quite early in the book. A long train of other victims follow, including such notions as that political primaries take power from politicians and give it to the people; that initiatives and referenda give voice to the wisdom of crowds; that elections give voters the power to evaluate politicians’ performance retrospectively; that voters favor Presidential candidates who will improve the economy; and that a voter’s ideological self-knowledge precedes her or his choice of which party to support. Each of A&B’s arguments is supported by statistical data, including election returns, economic statistics, and survey data.

Perhaps rhetorically, A&B emphasize how impossible it is for any voter to get it right:

…the task of being a good citizen by the standards of conventional democratic theory is too hard for everyone. Attentive readers will already have surmised our view of intellectuals in politics, but for clarity, we spell it out here. The historical record leaves little doubt that the educated, including the highly educated, have gone astray in their moral and political judgments as often as anyone else. … Thus, when we say that voters routinely err, we mean all voters. This is not a book about the political misjudgments of people with modest educations.

It almost sounds as if no one should vote!

A&B are conscious that the picture they paint is quite negative, and they do list a few reasons to like democracy. They accept Winston Churchill’s argument that democracy is better than authoritarianism, but they think that the positive outcomes in democracies have little to do with the folk theory. Near the end they suggest, rather lamely, that reducing special interest money in elections may help to make our system more democratic; though, given the portrait they just painted of the ignorance of voters, it’s not clear why they would think that is such a priority.

In the end, A&B can only conclude:

…Just as a critical step toward democracy occurred when people lost faith in the notion that the king had been anointed by God, we believe that abandoning the folk theory of democracy is a prerequisite to both greater intellectual clarity and real political change.

Fair enough. Viewing democracy through rose-colored glasses can lead to complacency, and even to cynical political actions “in the name of democracy”…

I am persuaded that party members usually align with most of their party’s positions, rather than independently evaluating each issue. And, further, that accountability is limited once a candidate wins office, and that voters tend to assess incumbents’ performance only by considering the circumstances of the months prior to the election, or assigning credit or blame for circumstances outside of the government’s control.

There is nothing wrong with research and analysis, but this book and other academic books leave a detrimental impression of pessimism and hopelessness.  Which is wrong—there are a lot of things that could be done to make the system work better.  Why is it impossible to help citizens understand policy debates?   Why not help them to better understand the motives of their party?  Why not work on better ways of making politics interesting to more citizens, and eliminating some of the turn-offs and cynicism?

I certainly would never advocate trying to turn voters into policy experts.   However, I do believe that getting more knowledge into voters will have significant effects. Even if their knowledge about an issue increases just a little, their ability to detect bullshit about the issue (from both sides) will also increase a little; and their better comprehension will (at least slightly) increase their interest in news stories about the issue, leading to (at least slightly) more accountability.

And not just knowledge about policy issues – if voters understand basic economics, if they understand what political parties are about, if they understand what’s going on with persuasion tricks, if they’re familiar with the things their government does… all of these will have the net effect of keeping politicians more in line, and will apply greater pressure towards doing the right thing in more situations.

I’ve noticed that some authors seem to equate democracy with voting. That the only thing that matters is what gets dropped into the ballot box. While that obviously determines which leader gets the office, I’d argue that is only a very small part of democracy.

The largest part is the public dialogue.  Including: the news reporting, the speeches, the internet, the kitchen table. That’s where the action is, and if we can improve the quality of that dialogue—even a little—we’ll get better governing outcomes.  The faces and the personalities – a side show.  It’s not that it doesn’t matter which candidate wins.  But what the winners do is always constrained by public scrutiny and opinion, and leaders take their cues from the nature of the public dialogue, informed or otherwise.



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