Achen and Bartels: Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

Via Garreth McDaid.

Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have a new book, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.

I have not read the book. Chapter 1 is available online, and it certainly makes for some interesting reading. Some comments following reading that first chapter:

(1) It seems that despite their critique of electoralism the authors are not ready to abandon it. At some point they seem to indicate that they cannot imagine something better when they opine that “[n]o existing government comes close to meeting all of Dahl’s criteria [for democracy]; in our view, no possible government could.” The book’s objective seems purely analytical: to produce “a democratic theory worthy of serious social influence [which] must engage with the findings of modern social science.”

(2) The book appears to adopt the conventional electoralist terminology which makes no clear distinction between electoralism and democracy. The authors should have known better.

(3) “Democracy for realists” seems to largely retrace the elitist democratic theories which rose to prominence in political science in the third quarter of the 20th century. Indeed Joseph Schumpeter and Walter Lippmann – leading propounders of those ideas – make a prominent appearance in the first chapter. Those theories fell out of fashion when, after the civil rights struggles, dominant ideology changed and became incompatible with their conclusions. It may be that the main innovation of the book is not in “engaging with the findings of modern social science”, but in being willing to (re)acknowledge the (now-)inconvenient truths that were buried over the last 40 years or so. In that, the book seems to be very much a product of current politics.

Excerpt:

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. Th at 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.

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2 Responses

  1. The last section of this article by Achen and Bartels demonstrates the confusion which ensues when sticking with the conventional terminology:

    [E]very modern democracy is a long way from representing ‘the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals’. In particular, America is a democracy, but it is not very democratic.

    What does this even mean? If America is not democratic, in what way is it a democracy?

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  2. […] citizens – are losing their faith in the electoral system and mainstream political scientists re-discover that electoral government is inherently non-responsive. Elites’ frustration with the […]

    Like

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