Democracy for realists (Achen & Bartels)

Democracy for realists; Why elections do not produce responsive government, Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels, Princeton University Press (2016).

This is an authoritative, thoroughly researched book that makes an important point. The idea that the shortcomings of our system of government can be fixed by giving “the people” an ever bigger role in government policymaking – whether by presidential primaries vs. conventions, initiatives and referendums, or higher voter turnout in general elections - is not supported by the available information.

Most people lack definite ideas about government policy, according to numerous studies, and are not well informed about what is actually going on. They tend to choose parties/candidates that are welcoming to the groups they identify with, and then adopt/rationalize/support the policy positions that said parties/candidates happen to be espousing, rather than searching out parties/candidates whose views come closest to their own policy preferences. No wonder that even factual information tends to be distorted by partisan differences, e.g., Democrats failed to give Reagan credit for slowing inflation while Republicans failed to give Bill Clinton credit for a declining (eventually disappearing) deficit.

It’s particularly helpful to have these points made in a nonpartisan way by two academics who (reading between the lines) are probably a bit left of center in their personal views. Also welcome is the observation that James Madison et al. had a more realistic view of how the governmental system would work (hence all the checks and balances in the Constitution to prevent any particular aggregation of factions from acquiring too much power) than the political theorists who followed them. So just as it was once timely to debunk the divine right of kings, thus clearing the way for more responsive systems of government, it’s salutary to have a realistic view of how a representative democracy actually works in practice.

Another plus: Unlike many books in the political realm, this one avoids being unduly weighted towards recent events. The 2016 election that everyone is talking about isn’t even mentioned, and the most recent electoral event discussed is a 3-way race for the Democratic presidential nomination that took place in 2008 [but is inexplicably described by a cited study as taking place in 2012, see page 65].

On the minus side, the book isn’t an easy read. There are many statistical tables, which are hard to understand and interpret (I basically gave up on them), and most of the many studies that are cited won’t be familiar to the average reader (again including me). In short, this is the kind of book that few people (other than academics or political pros) will read cover to cover. And if you want to get the main ideas without all the underlying detail, they are neatly recapped in the final chapter (Groups and power: Toward a realist theory of democracy).

More seriously, the closing suggestions about how our democracy could be improved are fragmentary and unimpressive. While a case can be made for reducing inequality and limiting the influence of money in politics, these ideas are hardly original. Furthermore, they seem like an extension of the folklore of democracy that the authors have written this book to debunk rather than a genuinely new direction.

One conclusion that this book avoids, and happily so, is that our representative democracy is so deeply flawed that it’s time to scrap the system and try something else. If nothing else, the authors argue, democracy tends to ensure periodic, peaceful transfers of power (so long as parties like the Nazis in Germany aren’t voted in and then change the rules), and that, on the whole, is a good thing.

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