Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well

Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well

by Danny Oppenheimer, Mike Edwards

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Why democracy is the most effective form of government despite irrational (and sometime oblivious) voters and flawed (and sometimes inept) politicians.See more details below


Why democracy is the most effective form of government despite irrational (and sometime oblivious) voters and flawed (and sometimes inept) politicians.

Editorial Reviews

John J. Pitney Jr.
Democracy Despite Itself is a useful corrective to the cynicism that pervades so much political commentary. It lays out scholarly findings in engaging, nontechnical language that makes it very suitable for general audiences and introductory classes in political science.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
As Churchill famously asserted, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Princeton professor Oppenheimer and founder Edwards provide a succinct brief in support of these words, with the first half discussing the flaws of American democracy and the second defending democracy as practiced today. Unfortunately, the authors set the bar low by comparing democracy to various authoritarian systems, and not to representing the needs and interests of the electorate. In a basic methodological flaw, they apply insights from social psychology to the political realm without enough care. For example, they write of the “wisdom of crowds” in, say, guessing the number of candies in a large jar—the average estimate is often spot-on—and apply this to voters picking the supposedly right candidates. More seriously, they pay only glancing attention to voter apathy and the corrosive influence of big money on the electoral process. Though Oppenheimer and Edwards provide fascinating, and adequate, evidence that democracy works because it “encourages the flawed people and their flawed leaders to continually work toward building a better society,” they fail to make the case that it “works so well.” Agent: James Levine, Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. (Feb.)

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Democracy Despite Itself

Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well
By Danny Oppenheimer Mike Edwards

The MIT Press

Copyright © 2012 Daniel M. Oppenheimer and Michael A. Edwards
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-262-01723-7

Chapter One

Don't Know Much About ... Well, Anything, Really

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. —Winston Churchill

Here's a fun experiment you can try out on a friend before the next election. First, ask your friend what the most important issue will be in that election. Then find out which candidate your friend is supporting. Next, ask your friend how well he understands his candidate's position on the aforementioned issue. Your friend will undoubtedly tell you that he understands it quite well—it is, after all, what he considers the most important issue.

Now ask your friend to explain his candidate's stance on that issue. Depending on how much you enjoy poking fun at your friends, the results will either be humorous or disturbing. (Just make sure that you actually know the answers, otherwise you will only embarrass yourself.)

No, we don't think that the readers of this book have remarkably ignorant friends; ignorance is the rule rather than the exception. New York University Business School professor Adam Alter and his colleagues ran this study on a group of New Jersey voters in the week following the 2008 presidential primaries. At the time, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were in a heated contest for the Democratic nomination, and John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney were fighting for the Republican nomination. Passions were running high and partisans were fervent in their beliefs that their favored candidate was the best for the position. However, when asked to describe their candidates'positions on their self-described "most important issue," people were dumbfounded.

Although most people could give at least cursory answers (e.g., "she wants to improve health care"), very few could explain anything substantive about the specifics of the candidate's plans. And despite strong differences in opinion about who would be the best candidate, almost nobody could explain how the candidates differed on any issue. In fact, after attempting to describe a candidate's policy position, the vast majority of people in this study acknowledged that they didn't know as much as they had initially believed. This pattern held true of both Republicans and Democrats across all issues. It was even true for people who claimed that the primary factor influencing their choice of whom to support was the candidate's policy positions. In other words, while people believe that they understand the policy positions of their candidates, this belief is not supported by their actual knowledge.

Modern democratic theory is based on the notion that people vote in line with their interests and principles. To be able to do this, people need to understand the key issues, the important facts relevant to those issues, and the positions of the candidates on those issues. However, voters are rarely so well informed. What we know about the issues is often biased, incomplete, lacking, or downright false. We lack the information and expertise needed to make good decisions about issues and candidates, we have trouble finding that information, and we can't even remember it once we've found it. There's an old saying that knowledge is power; but in democracies, the people have the power, but are largely missing the knowledge.

Facts of the Matter

Pop quiz: For every 1 million babies born in the United States, how many legal abortions are there? Stop and think about it for a second. How high would that number have to be to surprise you? How low would it have to be to surprise you? When University of California, Berkeley, professor Michael Ranney and his colleagues asked this question of college students, the average estimate was 10,000. Does that seem high to you? Low? About right? The correct answer is 335,000, more than 30 times larger than the average estimate.

Ranney and his colleagues have been running estimation surveys for over a decade. They've looked at such diverse issues as immigration, education, crime, and the environment. They've taken surveys from a broad range of people: liberals and conservatives, students, the general population, and even professional journalists who cover these issues. Across it all, estimates are typically woefully inaccurate. (See table 1.1.)

These aren't just " gotcha " questions about useless trivia. People need this information to make informed policy decisions. A person who thinks the immigration rate is 150 times the true rate is going to have uninformed opinions on immigration policy. Somebody who thinks there are 65 times more people in jail than are actually incarcerated is likely to support different policies on crime and punishment than if he had accurate information. And indeed, there is evidence that people are strongly influenced by their incorrect beliefs about the facts.

For example, over 60 percent of Americans believe that the United States spends too much on foreign aid. The average voter believes that we spend 20 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid and that we should only be spending half that much—about 10 percent. But in reality, less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid! If the U.S. government were to spend as much as the average American seems to desire, then that would be a tremendous increase in spending on foreign aid. Yet most Americans want to dramatically decrease the foreign aid budget. It isn't necessarily the case that increased foreign aid is the correct policy. The important point is that when " We the People " do not evaluate policies with correct information, our desires and our policy preferences may not match up.

Similarly, our ignorance of the truth can have a dramatic impact on Election Day. In October 2004, a month before the U.S. presidential elections, the Program on International Policy Attitudes surveyed the electorate about their knowledge of issues, policies, and candidates. The results were disturbing. For example, even though there was no credible evidence that Iraq provided significant support to Al Qaeda, nearly 40 percent of voters believed that clear evidence of support had been found. Importantly, this (false) belief was highly related to people's political attitudes. Nearly two-thirds of Bush supporters believed that a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda had been found, but only 15 percent of Kerry supporters held this belief. Similarly, a majority of Bush supporters believed that Iraq did actually have weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), when in reality both the Senate Intelligence Committee and Chief Weapons Inspector Charles Duelfer had concluded the exact opposite. Voters who correctly believed that no WMDs had been found were much more likely to support Kerry. It may very well be that Bush was the better candidate in this election—there were certainly other valid reasons one could have had to vote for him. But voters who based their votes on the mistaken impression that WMDs had been found were not expressing their true preferences.

Democracy is supposed to work because voters will choose the candidates with the best ideas. But how can we vote for the candidate with the best ideas if we don't have the information necessary to evaluate those ideas?

The Devil Is in the Details

Regardless of your political affiliation, you probably believe that having nuclear missiles landing on your house is a bad thing and would prefer government policies that reduce the odds of such an occurrence. Of course, you can't support those policies unless you know what those policies are.

So, in an effort to help you be more informed, we humbly ask that you do your best to understand the following policy analysis from John Pendleton, the Director of Defense Capabilities and Management, in his report to the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services describing important policy challenges regarding the Missile Defense Agency (MDA):

Oversight of MDA is executed by the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. Because MDA is not subject to DOD's [Department of Defense's] traditional joint requirements determination and acquisition process, DOD developed alternative oversight mechanisms. For example, in 2007 the Deputy Secretary of Defense established the Missile Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, or Deputy Secretary of Defense, as necessary, with a recommended ballistic missile defense strategic plan and feasible funding strategy for approval. In September 2008, the Deputy Secretary of Defense also established a life cycle management process for the Ballistic Missile Defense System. The Deputy Secretary of Defense directed the Board to use the process to oversee the annual preparation of a required capabilities portfolio and develop a program plan to meet the requirements with Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation; procurement; operations and maintenance; and military construction in defensewide accounts.

So, what do you think? Is this an appropriate policy for oversight of the MDA budgeting and acquisition process? Would you vote in favor of a policy like this? Did it even make sense to you? If it did, you're either an expert on defense procurement processes or extremely focused and persistent —much more so than we are.

We know that we want to be secure against a nuclear missile attack as safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible. But the specifics are not nearly so clear or straightforward. It turns out that most of the issues that society faces are complex and nuanced. To really understand the likelihood and effects of climate change, you need to have a fair grasp of atmospheric chemistry. To reduce the appeal of gangs to underprivileged teenagers, it is useful to have a background in sociology. To develop a solid financial regulatory policy, you'd best study up on your economics. These are critically important issues, and yet most of us don't have the time, inclination, or ability to master even one of these disciplines. So if " We the People " don't really understand the issues, how can we express our will about associated policies?

Of course, even having a solid mastery of the facts surrounding an issue still may not be enough to truly understand that issue. Alan Greenspan is one of the world's foremost experts on the effect of regulation on macroeconomic systems. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from New York University, served as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve for nearly twenty years, and was a trusted advisor to both Democrats and Republicans on economic issues. And yet, in late October 2008 after the collapse of the stock market and bankruptcy of several iconic corporations, Greenspan conceded before Congress that he had failed to understand the situation.

In other words, even the world's most accomplished experts have trouble successfully navigating the intricacies of the complex systems of policymaking. What chance do the rest of us have?

To add insult to injury, there are a vast number of issues, many more than any single person could effectively become an expert on. As of the writing of this book, there are 192 nations recognized by the United Nations. For each of those nations, we need to have trade agreements, defense arrangements, and extradition treaties, among many other issues. So here's a question for all of you budding foreign policy buffs out there: What are your thoughts on the appropriate amount to tariff Guinean bauxite?

Or maybe the environment is more your cup of tea. There are nearly 100 categories for toxins and pollutants listed on the Environmental Protection Agency's website. Each of these requires policy for its regulation and cleanup. So what is your policy preference regarding the maximum allowable levels of dicholorethylene in drinking water?

There are equally minute and complex issues involving poverty, education, public health, defense, race relations, the economy, communications, taxation, crime, drugs, natural disasters, natural resources, energy, the arts, agriculture, abortion, civil liberties, firearms ... we could go on. And those are just the federal issues. Don't forget that we're also supposed to be informed about what's going on in our states, our counties, and our local city councils. There are so many issues that it would be impossible to be even moderately informed about more than a small fraction of them.

Some might argue that we don't need to be informed on all the issues. Maybe democracy really means expressing our will on only the most important ones. Maybe we don't need to know the specifics of the policies or the underlying science and history; as long as we understand the gist of the policies, we should be able to have basic preferences that we can pass along to our leaders—right?

Unfortunately, many voters do not have even that basic level of knowledge. In the early 1960s, political scientist Phil Converse surveyed the American electorate about their belief systems. He found that over 20 percent of the population had an understanding of issues and the political scene that had, in his words, "no shred of policy significance whatsoever." Nearly half of the respondents could not reliably label policies as being "liberal" or "conservative" or identify which party (Democrat or Republican) holds which stance in major policy debates. Indeed, a third of the people surveyed "could supply no meaning for the liberal-conservative distinction" whatsoever. These sorts of findings have been replicated dozens of times. For example, in the mid-1980s when political scientists Milton Lodge and Ruth Hamill asked people to categorize policy items as either associated with Republicans or Democrats, more than a third of the respondents seemed to be randomly guessing.

Part of this is understandable. The meanings of Democrat and Republican are constantly changing. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was championed by a Democrat, Bill Clinton, in 1994, and then 14 years later was strongly criticized by a Democrat, Hillary Clinton, in the 2008 presidential primaries. Mandatory health insurance was endorsed by Richard Nixon in the 1970s, the conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1990s, and as recently as 2006 by Mitt Romney, who would two years later run in the GOP presidential primary. But in 2010, conservative talk show hosts, think tanks (including the Heritage Foundation), and politicians (including Mitt Romney) were decrying this provision of the Obama Health Care Reform Bill as a violation of basic rights.

So some confusion is only to be expected. Politics is, after all, extremely volatile. However, the extent of our ignorance on policies that we claim to care deeply about is disconcerting. For example, the Annenberg Public Policy Center noted that on the eve of the House vote on the 2010 Health Care Reform Bill, a surprisingly large number of people believed that it involved a federally run health care plan (i.e., a public option), even though that element had never been passed in the Senate. Town Hall Meetings were flooded with people furious about the provision of " death panels, " despite the fact that the bill didn't include anything that even remotely met that description. In short, while there are often understandable reasons for our ignorance, the fact remains that the average voter knows depressingly little about the important issues of the day.

Knowing Where They Stand

Radio shock jock Howard Stern is perhaps better known for his dirty jokes than for his research in political science. But he also has an interest in politics, even going so far as to run for the Governor of New York in 1994. Fourteen years later, less than a month before Barack Obama defeated John McCain for U.S. president, Stern and his staff ran an impromptu survey on the streets of New York.

One of Stern's colleagues approached Obama backers in Harlem and asked them whether they supported Obama more "because he's pro-life or because he thinks our troops should stay in Iraq and finish this war?" Astute readers may note that Obama is pro-choice and that one of the pillars of his campaign was his promise to end the war in Iraq. In other words, the question made no sense whatsoever. Unfortunately, this did not seem to matter to the people being interviewed. As one respondent confidently replied, "I think because our troops should stay in Iraq and finish this war, I'm really firm with that." The reporter followed up:

Reporter: And if he wins would you have any problem with Sarah Palin [McCain's running mate] being vice president? Respondent: No I wouldn't, not at all. Reporter: Obama says that he's anti stem-cell research, how do you feel about that. Respondent: I believe that's [pause] I wouldn't do that either, I'm anti stem-cell.


Excerpted from Democracy Despite Itself by Danny Oppenheimer Mike Edwards Copyright © 2012 by Daniel M. Oppenheimer and Michael A. Edwards. Excerpted by permission of The MIT Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Gary Marcus

A provocative meditation on a profound question: why does democracy workat allwhen voters are so often irrational? In lucid prose filled with compelling examples, Oppenheimer and Edwards grapple with one of the deepest questions society faces: how to organize itself, in light of the inherent frailty of the human mind."

Dan Ariely

Democracy, like many other organizations and systems, is filled to the brim with flawed and irrational people. Democracy Despite Itself
explains, with clever arguments, how we are able to transcend these limitations and harness them to our benefit through a perfectly imperfect democratic system.

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