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What Democracy Is, and Isn’t

How well do voters control their representatives’ and Presidents’ policy choices? This question has been one of the major objects of scholarship among America’s political scientists recently.  This work always starts from an understanding that voters’ political knowledge is paltry and confused, and yet it mostly argues that elections serve as effective tools of political control thanks to “retrospective voting,” in which voters punish incumbents for deteriorations in their own situations, and various other heuristics allowing low-information voters to make collectively rational choices.

Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, longtime veterans of these debates, released a bombshell in 2016, persuasively arguing that this optimistic assessment of elections cannot survive contact with empirical evidence. Their book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government offers a bracing corrective to the naïve and sloppy thinking about democracy that has too often served as conventional wisdom among academics and elite commentators. The book renders a tremendous service to political science as a discipline by reconnecting it to deep questions about the nature and purposes of politics. Unfortunately, the authors’ alternative vision of politics (about which more below) suffers from both positive and normative confusion.

Folk Democracy

Let’s start with the good. Princeton’s Achen and Vanderbilt’s Bartels take aim at what they label the “folk theory” of democracy, which at its most idealistic they frame as follows:

The abuses of kings, aristocrats, commissars, and dictators would be eliminated. Democratic norms would be enforced by the shared values of an enlightened populace. Mistakes would occur, of course, but they would be the people’s own mistakes, and thus susceptible to quick recognition and reversal.  Most of the time, democratic government would be very good government indeed.

The strongest parts of the book demolish a number of wrong-headed assumptions embedded in this reassuring outlook.

To begin with, slice the mass data available to us as we would, an “enlightened” populace is not what we have. Most people’s mastery of even the rudiments of American government is very poor.

Second, the voting public shows nowhere near the attentiveness that would be necessary to prevent its elected officials from committing abuses or punish them for poor performance. If we insist on thinking of them as managers, they are lousy at the job.

Third, nothing within democracy lets us collectively identify and correct errors; fights linger and the pressures of the permanent campaign mostly obscure, rather than promote, a culture of truth-seeking.

Consequently, the identification of democratic government with “good” or efficient government comes to seem quite dubious. The core chapters of Democracy for Realists, presenting mountains of evidence supporting this chastened view of the electorate, deserve a prominent place in any discussion of the practice of democracy.

The book’s repudiation of the folk theory of democracy has big implications for the academic sub-discipline of American Politics. Practitioners in the field have made a cottage industry of judging the (un)representativeness of various legislatures, and especially Congress, based on comparisons between roll-call voting and public opinion polling. Taking the lessons of Democracy for Realists seriously requires downgrading the status of this work, which implausibly assumes that poll respondents are each independently in possession of well-formed worldviews and detailed preferences, such that it is easy and sensible to assess whether legislators are doing their bidding.

The authors say their current work ought to serve as “a funeral” for this style of political science, given how much people’s political views seem to be post hoc rationalizations and defenses of their team’s policy positions and actions. It remains to be seen just how much they or other academics are willing to actually shift the foundations of their research strategies, as opposed to pausing for a bit of self-criticism and resuming business as usual. But the gauntlet has been thrown down, along with an invitation to engage long-neglected authors (Arthur Bentley, Graham Wallas, A. Lawrence Lowell, Walter Lippmann, and E.E. Schattschneider, among others), and we can be hopeful that this book will bring real change.

Having congratulated the authors for deflating the pretensions of the folk theory of democracy, I must also observe that they occasionally get carried away. A modest version of their argument is unassailable in light of the evidence: Election outcomes are determined in large part by events beyond the control of politicians. Voters mostly decide how to cast their ballots based on pre-rational considerations. The image we have of democracy as an enactment of the will of the people is mostly a myth.

What Democracy Does Well

Achen and Bartels may be too wedded to a much stronger version, with no qualifiers included. At one point, they simply pronounce elections “essentially a coin toss”; at another, they say that the accountability elections can deliver is akin to “kicking the dog.” If the strong version were taken at face value, it would be hard to justify feeling any attachment at all to democracy.

Luckily, the strong version is not really supported—and as long as elections can justly be regarded as extremely clumsy tools of accountability, rather than actual randomization mechanisms, they remain normatively defensible in ways that Achen and Bartels don’t much explore. They seem positively pained when voters make “mistakes” by punishing politicians for the wrong things or giving credit where it isn’t due.  But the social ritual of assigning credit and blame, and reacting accordingly, can have a value for political cohesion even if its choices diverge sharply from those that “objective observers” (whoever they are) would have made.

Are elections “fair”? No, they’re not, though we generally argue that the ones with outcomes we like are. Are they “rational”? Arguably, but only in some watered-down sense. Are they nevertheless “legitimizing”? Most assuredly, since they give citizens a choice that is not always an echo. Voters do get chances to throw the bastards out, and they will sometimes use that power in ways that make sense (even if those immersed in political life will have a hard time agreeing on which times those are). One might say the authors never succeed in showing that elections aren’t good enough for government work.

To take one example that the authors treat at chapter length, consider the choices the American electorate made over the course of the Great Depression. Overwhelmingly, voters punished whichever party was in power when the Depression arrived and rewarded the party in office as recovery proceeded—especially when those incumbent parties worked to “pay off” voters through redistributive policies. Achen and Bartels take this as clear evidence that voters were acting without any perspicacious understanding of which party’s policies were actually responsible for bringing on the crash or for reversing its effects over the long term.

Surely that’s right—but this way of thinking elides the real achievement of, for example, Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats, which was to successfully promote a story of shared recovery and hope to a still-hurting electorate in 1936. If that sense of solidarity was strengthened by certain kinds of transfers, perhaps this is better regarded as serious coalition-building than as some kind of political trickery. Politics is often about “rallying” the energies of the public, in both senses of that word, and elections like the one held in 1936 show which side is succeeding.

That is quite a different purpose, to be sure, than “discerning the root cause of the nation’s problems and offering the right prescription to cure them.” If the point is to disabuse people of the notion that democratic politics is like that, then it is an entirely salutary one. But then it’s not clear why we need to be so upset about the capricious elements that clearly weigh heavily in political choice. The polity must stagger through its own messy history, and it is not to be expected that it will be wise in the manner of a wise man. But the rough justice of elections gives it (us) a way of proceeding through leadership changes tolerably well in an age when citizens do expect the government to be fundamentally answerable to them—and that is no mean feat.  Citizens do not therefore achieve “control” of the governing class in a direct sense, but their own sense of real choice is not therefore illusory.

The “Group Theory” of Politics

Once Achen and Bartels have laid waste to the folk theory, they feel obliged to offer an  alternative master theory of democratic politics that might organize popular thinking and scholarly inquiry alike. They argue that “group and partisan loyalties, not policy preferences or ideologies, are fundamental in democratic politics.” Membership in groups is to be understood as pre-political and overwhelmingly inherited rather than chosen, and “identities drive views of the political world” rather than vice versa. Without an entirely clear explanation of how, the authors say that this idea dovetails nicely with various recent workings-out of “identity theory,” including work on the importance of race, ethnicity, social class, religion, and region. They maintain that this style of thinking, which is likely to emphasize the durability of factions rather than the primacy of ideas, is Madisonian.

Well . . . no. At least, not without a great deal more thinking about how groups go about interacting with each other and with political institutions. Of those aspects, Achen and Bartels’ group theory, at least as presented in this book, says almost nothing. What is hammered home is how significant group identities are; any practical political program to be pursued under the group theory has to be inferred. But if certain kinds of identity—especially ethnicity and race— are treated as all-important, that leaves little room for Madisonian balancing of fluid factions. Instead, it offers the specter of Carl Schmitt’s vision of politics, in which us-them enmities thoroughly define what politics is about (and not in peace-promoting ways).

Achen and Bartels do a great deal to show us that normal people do not think about politics in the same way that elites do, but they never get around to exploring how elites and groups are supposed to relate to each other in a properly functioning polity. Much of the authors’ reasoning implies that the choices of the political One Percent (my term, not theirs) will determine whether or not all of society’s various groups manage to cope with their disagreements and constructively act collectively. But they have little to say about how that ought to happen.

In a way, that’s not a surprise. Political scientists have almost no data on elites’ thinking, and so they tend to shy away from asking these questions. (A 2013 paper by Bartels and coauthors on the political preferences of the wealthy is one notable exception, though of course the very wealthy and the intensely politically engaged are not equivalent sets.)

One important question that seems genuinely unaddressed is: Are the politically super-involved just as likely as normal people are to have simply inherited their commitments? It seems likely to me that the people who really do deliberate, consider, and choose—and who in doing so may be abandoning some of their earlier group commitmentswield disproportionate influence in shaping elite opinion. If so, the freedom to choose commitments apart from group identities is more important than mass data would indicate. But that is just a hunch.

It could be Achen and Bartels are reluctant to emphasize the importance of elites because they are both dyed-in-the-wool egalitarians. Bizarrely, they sometimes simply try to derive egalitarian implications from the importance of groups. “In our view,” they write, “more effective democracy would require a greater degree of economic and social equality.” (Emphasis in original.) A fine-sounding sentiment, and their fellow academics are likely to cheer. But what does it mean for a democracy to be “effective”? Are they not here reverting to the standards of the folk theorem—that is, interpreting effectiveness as giving the downtrodden their fair share of control over the political system? It is they who have shown just how empty this formulation is likely to be.

Asking subtler questions about how elites and group leaders act in politics would mean reconnecting with a great deal of earlier political science that tried to make sense of American “pluralism” in ways that mostly obviated the voters. Achen and Bartels do see how the group theory might lead back toward pluralist analysis—but they treat the connection with ambivalence, for they view as Pollyannaish the pluralists’ rather optimistic view of groups’ ability to coexist without serious conflict. The pluralists “had gotten well past the folk theory. But at their weakest, there was a certain 1950s complacency in their thinking.”

When the zeitgeist of the tumultuous 1960s diminished pluralism’s reputation, Achen and Bartels see this as just deserts. I would ask them to reconsider. If political scientists are interested in developing the “group theory,” they’d do well to turn their attention to the pluralist work done a few generations ago. This midcentury group of political scientists, insightfully analyzed by Ira Katznelson in his 2003 Desolation and Enlightenment, grappled forthrightly with the lessons of Europe’s implosion for liberal democracy. They do not come across as a saccharine bunch.

Among the hardest questions that political scientists trying to fashion a sensible group theory must answer is: Where do the most meaningful group attachments come from? My instinct is to reject identity politics as skin deep; multiculturalism has shown itself to be a superficial way of thinking about groups in politics. I would prefer, along with conservatives with debts to Alexis de Tocqueville and Michael Oakeshott, to say that the most meaningful group identities come from particular experiences of acting together for some common purpose—which will create solidarity along standard identity-politics lines if people are separated into distinctly acting groups, but which will create far more complex allegiances if the identity groups intermingle and cooperate. Communities of purpose thus generate groups that act in politics in a manner not wholly dependent on the mere accidents of identities acquired at birth.

But I have to admit that this is an empirical question, and if someone wanted to argue that the predicament of 21st century American politics is precisely that people’s inherited identities have come to shape more of their experiences, while communities of purpose have receded in various ways, I’d seriously entertain that argument. We can hope that some of today’s best political scientists will respond to Achen and Bartels’ challenge by undertaking the kind of political sociology necessary to bear out such a hypothesis.

In sum, if Democracy for Realists suffers from certain confusions, it is because its authors dare to ask big, hard questions at the level of deep fundamentals. They made their professional reputations as quantitative scholars but show remarkable erudition and historical knowledge in mounting their ambitious theoretical arguments. Their project is exciting, and even inspiring, for political scientists. Or at least it should be.

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