Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

by Christopher H. Achen, Larry M. Bartels


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Democracy for Realists assails the romantic folk-theory at the heart of contemporary thinking about democratic politics and government, and offers a provocative alternative view grounded in the actual human nature of democratic citizens.

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels deploy a wealth of social-scientific evidence, including ingenious original analyses of topics ranging from abortion politics and budget deficits to the Great Depression and shark attacks, to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters—even those who are well informed and politically engaged—mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents' control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly.

Achen and Bartels argue that democratic theory needs to be founded on identity groups and political parties, not on the preferences of individual voters. Now with new analysis of the 2016 elections, Democracy for Realists provides a powerful challenge to conventional thinking, pointing the way toward a fundamentally different understanding of the realities and potential of democratic government.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691178240
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/29/2017
Series: Princeton Studies in Political Behavior , #4
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 162,224
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Christopher H. Achen is the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and professor of politics at Princeton University. His books include The European Union Decides. Larry M. Bartels holds the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. His books include Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton).

Read an Excerpt


Democratic Ideals and Realities

The democratic idealists of practically all schools of thought have managed to remain remarkably oblivious to the obvious facts.

— Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944, 40)

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. Democracy makes the people the rulers, and legitimacy derives from their consent. In Abraham Lincoln's stirring words from the Gettysburg Address, democratic government is "of the people, by the people, and for the people." That way of thinking about democracy has passed into everyday wisdom, not just in the United States but in a great many other countries around the globe. It constitutes a kind of "folk theory" of democracy, a set of accessible, appealing ideas assuring people that they live under an ethically defensible form of government that has their interests at heart.

Unfortunately, while the folk theory of democracy has flourished as an ideal, its credibility has been severely undercut by a growing body of scientific evidence presenting a different and considerably darker view of democratic politics. That evidence demonstrates that the great majority of citizens pay little attention to politics. At election time, they are swayed by how they feel about "the nature of the times," especially the current state of the economy, and by political loyalties typically acquired in childhood. Those loyalties, not the facts of political life and government policy, are the primary drivers of political behavior. Election outcomes turn out to be largely random events from the viewpoint of contemporary democratic theory. That is, elections are well determined by powerful forces, but those forces are not the ones that current theories of democracy believe should determine how elections come out. Hence the old frameworks will no longer do.

We want to persuade the reader to think about democracy in a fundamentally different way. We are not in the business of encouraging liberals to become conservatives or vice versa. Books of that kind are plentiful enough. Rather we show both liberals and conservatives that the mental framework they bring to democratic life, while it may once have seemed defensible, can now be maintained only by willful denial of a great deal of credible evidence. However disheartening the task, intellectual honesty requires all of us to grapple with the corrosive implications of that evidence for our understanding of democracy. That is what this book aims to do.


What are the conventional notions of democracy that we argue have outlived their time? We consider two main types of theory, one popular with broad swatches of democratic society and a second whose appeal is largely confined to scholars specializing in the study of elections.

The first model, which we refer to as the populist ideal of democracy, emphasizes the role of ordinary citizens in "determining the policies" of democratic communities (Dahl 1998, 37–38). As we will see, this populist notion of popular sovereignty has inspired a good deal of sophisticated academic thinking derived from Enlightenment concepts of human nature and the political views of 19th-century British liberalism. In its less rarified forms it has also undergirded the folk theory of democracy celebrated in much Fourth of July rhetoric. As the homespun poet of democracy Carl Sandburg (1936) proclaimed, "The People, Yes."

But how precisely shall the people govern according to the populist theory? In subsequent chapters, we shall examine two different accounts of how populist democracy might work. In one, the public "decide[s] issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will," as an unsympathetic critic of this account put it (Schumpeter 1942, 250). In the other, the people rule through "direct democracy," choosing policies themselves via initiative and referendum procedures. Both representative democracy and direct democracy loom large in popular understanding of democratic self-government. But as we shall see, the assumptions undergirding both versions of populist democracy are highly unrealistic.

The second contemporary model in defense of democracy is less widely popular, though more persuasive to most political scientists. This model focuses on elections as mechanisms for leadership selection. In contrast to the populist model, which he characterized as "the classical doctrine of democracy," Joseph Schumpeter (1942, 269) famously defined the democratic method as "that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote." Dispensing with the notion that "the people itself decide issues" by electing those who will "carry out its will," Schumpeter (1942, 284–285) insisted that "democracy does not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of the terms 'people' and 'rule.' Democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them."

Schumpeter gave little attention to the criteria by which voters would — or should — choose among potential rulers. However, subsequent scholars have fleshed out his account. The most influential model of democratic selection in contemporary political science is the retrospective theory of voting, which portrays "the electorate in its great, and perhaps principal, role as an appraiser of past events, past performance, and past actions" (Key 1966, 61). In this view, election outcomes hinge not on ideas, but on public approval or disapproval of the actual performance of incumbent political leaders. This model of democratic accountability appeals to skeptical scholars because it puts much less pressure on the voters to have elaborate, well-informed policy views. Ordinary citizens are allowed to drive the automobile of state simply by looking in the rearview mirror. Alas, we find that this works about as well in government as it would on the highway. Thus, we will argue that this second model of democracy, like the first, crumbles upon empirical inspection.

Hence we must think again. The concluding part of this book shows why a dramatically different framework is needed to make sense of how democracy actually works. We will argue that voters, even the most informed voters, typically make choices not on the basis of policy preferences or ideology, but on the basis of who they are — their social identities. In turn, those social identities shape how they think, what they think, and where they belong in the party system. But if voting behavior primarily reflects and reinforces voters' social loyalties, it is a mistake to suppose that elections result in popular control of public policy. Thus, our approach makes a sharp break with conventional thinking. The result may not be very comfortable or comforting. Nonetheless, we believe that a democratic theory worthy of serious social influence must engage with the findings of modern social science. Subsequent chapters attempt to do just that.


At this point, the reader may be wondering whether all this is just some arcane academic dispute of no consequence to the health of actual democracies. After all, the very idea of democratic government carries enormous prestige in contemporary political discourse. For example, the World Values Survey asked ordinary people in dozens of countries around the world, "How important is it to you to live in a country that is governed democratically?" Majorities in many countries said "absolutely important" — a score of ten on a one-to-ten scale. Figure 1.1 shows the average responses on the one-to-ten scale for the 34 most populous countries in the survey. Americans may be surprised to see that the United States (with an average rating of 8.4) is unremarkable in its enthusiasm for democracy. Adherence to the ideal is nearly universal.

Perhaps for this reason, nearly all contemporary political regimes, no matter how repressive, claim to be democracies of some sort. What is more surprising is that their citizens mostly believe them. Respondents in the World Values Survey were also asked, "And how democratically is this country being governed today?" Again, figure 1.1 summarizes their responses. In every country there was a gap between attachment to democracy as an ideal and perceptions of democratic reality. Nevertheless, perceptions of democratic reality were surprisingly robust in such unlikely places as Rwanda, Malaysia, and Kazakhstan. Even the Chinese respondents were virtually indistinguishable from Americans, not only in their enthusiasm for democracy as an ideal but also in their assessment of how democratically their own country is currently being governed. However various the conceptions of democracy, most people almost everywhere accept the proposition that their own political system is (somehow) democratic — and even more accept the proposition that democracy is (somehow) a good thing.

In the face of this universal acclaim, why tamper with conventional thinking about democracy? If it ain't broke, the reader may think, don't fix it. The problem is that the universal agreement does not extend much beyond the use of the word "democracy" itself. What makes a country democratic and why that is a good thing have generated much less agreement. The meanings that Western, communist, fascist, and tinhorn dictatorial governments have attached to democracy have very little in common, as the following exchange from the British television program Yes, Prime Minister (season 1, episode 6, 1986) satirized:

SIR HUMPHREY: East Yemen, isn't that a democracy?

SIR RICHARD: Its full name is the People's Democratic Republic of East Yemen.

SIR HUMPHREY: Ah I see, so it's a communist dictatorship.

Even in Western scholarly treatments, the criteria for qualifying as a democracy (or "polyarchy," to use Robert Dahl's less freighted term) vary markedly from one author to the next, and may extend to half a dozen or more items (Dahl 1989, 221; Przeworski et al. 2000, 13–55). At one point in his long career, Dahl (1971, 1) emphasized "the continued responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals." Decades later, he elaborated by specifying criteria for a democratic process — "effective participation," "voting equality," "enlightened understanding," "control of the agenda," and "inclusion of adults" — arguing that "each is necessary" if citizens are to be "politically equal in determining the policies of the association" (Dahl 1998, 37–38).

Unfortunately for democratic theory, how all this is to be achieved remains frustratingly vague. No existing government comes close to meeting all of Dahl's criteria; in our view, no possible government could. What then is the value of such an unattainable definition? Dahl (1998, 42) himself acknowledged that "no state has ever possessed a government that fully measured up to the criteria of a democratic process" — and, indeed, "none is likely to." But he went on to write, "Yet as I hope to show, the criteria provide highly serviceable standards for measuring the achievements and possibilities of democratic government. ... They do provide standards against which to measure the performance of actual associations that claim to be democratic. They can serve as guides for shaping and reshaping concrete arrangements, constitutions, practices, and political institutions. For all those who aspire to democracy, they can also generate relevant questions and help in the search for answers." Other democratic theorists routinely follow Dahl on this point. Even if reality necessarily fails to correspond to the ideals, they argue, the ideals are valuable and should serve as the basis for modifying or reconstructing the reality. But for this argument to make sense, it must at least be the case that the ideals are not too unrealistic. More than a century ago, Graham Wallas (1908, 127) skewered the logic of unrealizable ideals: "No doctor would now begin a medical treatise by saying, 'the ideal man requires no food, and is impervious to the action of bacteria, but this ideal is far removed from the actualities of any known population.' No modern treatise on pedagogy begins with the statement that 'the ideal boy knows things without being taught them, and his sole wish is the advancement of science, but no boys at all like this have ever existed.'"

If conventional democratic ideals amount to fairy tales, then we are left with no assurance that all the scholarly definitions and all the popular endorsements are of any use in making government contribute to human welfare. Hopelessly naive theories are a poor guide to policy, often distracting reformers from attainable incremental improvements along entirely different lines. As Walter Lippmann (1925, 39) put it, the unattainable ideal of "the omnicompetent, sovereign citizen" is bad in just the same sense that "it is bad for a fat man to try to be a ballet dancer."

The views of ordinary citizens themselves provide intimations that not all is well with democratic theory. Despite their conventional obeisance to the civic religion, significant doubts and qualifications emerge. The gaps between democratic aspirations and perceptions of democratic reality summarized in figure 1.1 are indicative. In the United States, for example, 46% of the respondents in the World Values Survey said that it is "absolutely important" to them "to live in a country that is governed democratically," but only 7% said that the country is actually being governed in a "completely democratic" manner. Other surveys have exposed a good deal of schizophrenia about the meaning of democracy. For example, a substantial majority of Americans say that democratic government is a very important factor in the nation's success; but most also believe that "the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves." On one hand, we are a free people controlling our own special form of government, the envy of the world. At the same time, we are badly governed by incompetent and untrustworthy politicians beholden to special interests. We are simultaneously dreamily idealistic and grimly pessimistic.

Prominent intellectuals, too, have embodied both these contradictory impulses. In "The Democratic Spirit" (1847), a bombastic Walt Whitman exalted "democracy with its manly heart and its lion strength," from which "we are to expect the great FUTURE of this Western World! a scope involving such unparalleled human happiness and rational freedom, to such unnumbered myriads, that the heart of a true man leaps with a mighty joy only to think of it!" But a quarter century later, in the midst of a wrenching period of democratization — the incorporation of millions of former slaves and the reintegration of millions of former rebels into the American polity following the Civil War — Whitman (1871, 4) addressed a prophetic essay, Democratic Vistas, to "him or her within whose thought rages the battle, advancing, retreating, between Democracy's convictions, aspirations, and the People's crudeness, vice, caprices."


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xiii

1 Democratic Ideals and Realities 1

2 The Elusive Mandate: Elections and the Mirage of Popular Control 21

3 Tumbling Down into a Democratical Republick: “Pure Democracy” and the Pitfalls of Popular Control 52

4 A Rational God of Vengeance and of Reward? The Logic of Retrospective Accountability 90

5 Blind Retrospection: Electoral Responses to Droughts, Floods, and Shark Attacks 116

6 Musical Chairs: Economic Voting and the Specious Present 146

7 A Chicken in Every Pot: Ideology and Retrospection in the Great Depression 177

8 The Very Basis of Reasons: Groups, Social Identities, and Political Psychology 213

9 Partisan Hearts and Spleens: Social Identities and Political Change 232

10 It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter 267

11 Groups and Power: Toward a Realist Theory of Democracy 297

appendix Retrospective Voting as Selection and Sanctioning 329

Afterword to the Paperback Edition 335

References 345

Index 381

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