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Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

In Search of the Informed Electorate

By Leslee Kulba- Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, begins with some oft-repeated remarks about how most people don’t pay much attention to politics.

They’re busy, they have other interests, and the payoff for one vote is not worth the investment of mastering the latest in economics, foreign affairs, and all the new roles government continues to assume. Instead, citizens may be said to vote on the basis of “how they feel about the ‘nature of the times.’”

Joseph Schumpeter observed, “The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political playing field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests.”

Even though Plato could see how real-world democracies would be manipulated by powered interests, much that has been written about the theory of democracies assumes what the authors refer to as a “folk theory of American democracy,” of rational humans voting to promote the common good. While the Enlightenment had a bold vision of human potential, it seems most citizens prefer to live below their privileges.

To avoid splitting hairs, the authors defined democracy for their assessment as including direct and representative forms. While representative forms tend to evolve somewhat toward aristocracy, direct forms were described by HL Mencken as a system in which, “the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

The authors give several examples of referenda in which voters are now deemed to have worked against their own best interests. The imposition of term limits, for example, tends to shift decision-making to unelected bureaucrats.

Using rigorous statistical analysis of data from elections in American history, the authors concluded that more often than not, voters’ choices are based on their mood. For example, if the economy is good, incumbents get re-elected. More specifically, if their personal income is reasonable, they support the status quo. Walter Lippmann wrote they tend, “to support the Ins when things are going well; to support the Outs when they seem to be going badly.”

The adage held up even in situations over which elected representatives had no control, like droughts, floods, and shark attacks; likely with the assistance of blustering candidates and media amplification. What’s more, in bad times, people in different jurisdictions would support any newcomer, with no consistency in whether his views were to the right or the left of the incumbent. Theodore Roosevelt explained, “When the average man loses his money, he is simply like a wounded snake and strikes right or left at anything, innocent or the reverse, that presents itself as conspicuous in his mind.”

Drilling down further, they discovered voters demonstrated short-term memories. That is, prosperity in the final year of a term would factor into voters’ assessments more prominently than three disastrous prior years. That is why tax breaks and other forms of “stimulus” tend to be fourth-year events. And, the winner is free to ignore the issues for the next three years.

The authors found, “The most important single factor in determining who wins – myopic retrospection – is, from the standpoint of democratic accountability, essentially arbitrary.” As an example, they cited the rise and prominence of the Social Credit Party in Alberta, which was based on economically-untenable principals promoted by a charismatic radio host.

Thickening the plot, the authors analyzed the relationship between peoples’ political party affiliation and the issues they support. Not surprisingly, they found many people did not know much about their party’s platform. Instead, they registered in one or another party because that was the one to which their family or other cultural groups belonged.

Group affiliation is part of being human, and people join parties to belong more than to defend issues. The authors found Southerners that voted along partisan lines when their parties didn’t support the Civil Rights movement were not so much racist as identifying with a Southern cultural identity from their party that gave them a warm feeling. Similarly, anti-Semitism wasn’t an issue before Hitler’s rise to power. Instead, the authors concluded people looked at Hitler, decided if they liked him, and then aligned their beliefs with his to eliminate dissonance.

Chicken-and-egg theories about political philosophy run rampant. Some choose a party for perceived issue alignment, while many change their beliefs to conform to the party’s. That said, throughout history, a lot of people with very bad ideas have managed to amass huge political followings.

The authors fill up a page with a litany thereof. As James Madison observed, political leaders had, “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for the common good.”

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