Summary of Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government


Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government offers a critique of conventional wisdom surrounding popular theories of democracy. Authors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue that the public, journalists, and political scientists rely on a group of common-sense understandings of democracy. The authors collectively refer to these beliefs as the “folk theory” of democracy. The folk theory presumes that people behave as engaged citizens and that election outcomes reflect public policy preferences. This assumption is inaccurate and misleading, and therefore presents a danger to democracy.

Political scientists have tried in various ways to validate or systematize the intuitions on which the folk theory in based. Anthony Downs put forward a spatial model of voting, which supposes that individuals vote for the politicians who are closest to their own policy preferences. According to that theory, victorious politicians are the ones who can best align their policies with those of the median voter. However, research has shown that most people have little knowledge or interest in policy and often will be unable to tell which politician is closest to their positions.

Political scientists have advanced a common-sense understanding that people vote based on their own economic well being. If they perceive their economic fortunes to be declining, they will vote out incumbents. However, researchers have shown that people are unskilled at evaluating national economic performance and often fail even at evaluating their personal economic well being. Instead, voters tend to punish politicians for events that happen shortly before elections even if those events are things over which politicians have no control.

Rather than voting on policy, people tend to vote on the basis of group identity. Group identities may be based in class, race, religion, or gender. Most of all, people vote on the basis of partisan identification. That is, self-identified Democrats decline to vote for Republicans not because of the candidates’ policy positions, but instead because of their group identification. Democrats first see themselves as a Democrat and therefore vote for Democrats regardless of the candidate’s policy positions. Group identity can thus lead people to change their policy positions or even to believe things that are demonstrably false.

Politicians and commentators need to acknowledge the many failures of the folk theory of democracy and devote more energy and discussion to the strong pull of identity in politics. More participatory democracy, as in voting referendums, does not necessarily empower people because impassioned groups or individuals can easily manipulate outcomes in the face of broader public indifference. Instead, more power must be shifted to marginalized groups. Accomplishing this will require more study into the workings of groups in democracies.

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