Democracy for Realists

Democracy for Realists

“Our view is that conventional thinking about democracy has collapsed in the face of modern social-scientific research.”

Achen and Bartels tell we are in BIG TROUBLE.

The Book in 1'

Written in 2016, Democracy for Realists rapidly gained traction in the field of political science. Arguments that were already familiar but unsettling to moral theorists have been articulated. While graduate students can discover a valuable source of references and bibliography here, inquisitive voters and politically engaged citizens will encounter compelling arguments, intriguing data, and unsettling conclusions.

Among the most disturbing conclusions you'll find that:

  • We're dumber than you might think;
  • We vote according to emotions while we believe we have carefully considered all the alternatives and policy issues;
  • We assign punishments and rewards to incumbents almost always randomly.

With any luck, this book will ultimately provide you with a more pragmatic perspective on election outcomes and voting behavior, fostering deeper reflection.

Achen and Bartels primarily draws from the US political context and history, but the case studies they allude to are common knowledge. For instance, the election and subsequent defeat in New Jersey of President Woodrow Wilson, the elections of Herbert Hoover and FDR.

More sophisticated readers will encounter references to the Condorcet paradox, the Jury theorem, the Median Voter Theorem, and the argument of retrospective voting – among others.

Top 4 Lessons

1. Most Voting is Economic Voting

Has your average well-being improved under the incumbent government?

This is the fundamental question.

People vote based on the extent to which their well-being has improved during a government's term. They typically disregard the first half of the mandate, as it may still be influenced by the actions of the prior government. But they certainly PRIORITIZE THE LAST 6 MONTHS leading up to the next election. As a result, economics, not ideology, significantly influences election outcomes.

This is the reason why we see so-called “political business cycles” (aka peaks in growth around election times). Given that most electors consider only the last 6 months of mandate, there is a rational incentive for the party in power to manipulate the business cycle for electoral benefit.

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Every additional percentage point of income growth increases the incumbent party’s expected popular vote margin by more than 6 percentage points

2. Voters punish incumbents for Shark Attacks

Voters “consistently and systematically” kick governments out for conditions beyond their control (droughts, shark attacks, climatic disasters). Not for the occurrence of disaster, obviously, but for insufficient responses to those disasters.

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The psychology behind this mechanism goes like this: “people see their friends immediately helping in the moment of necessity, therefore they expect the government to do the same.”

Achen and Bartels show how coastal communities impacted by the shark attacks in 1916 in New Jersey displayed more pronounced decreases in their backing of Wilson compared to other regions. Beach counties which supported Wilson in 1912 election, were highly dependent on summer tourism which was afected by the shark attacks. Their support for Wilson plummeted by more than 10%. This percentage drop determined Wilson defeat in his home state (New Jersey). The Republican Hughes won 54.4% vs. 42.7%.

In summary, then, every indication in the New Jersey election returns is that the horrifying shark attacks during the summer of 1916 reduced Wilson’s vote in the beach communities by about ten percentage points. An effect of that size may sound modest to those unfamiliar with American electoral experience, but by those standards it is a near-earthquake.

3. Identity and political opinions

People choose their political party based on their identity, which isn't primarily linked to adhering to a group's ideology or beliefs. Instead, it arises from emotional connections that surpass rational thought, encompassing commitments to certain values (such as tax redistribution, gender campaigns, etc.). Often, partisanship is passed down through generations.

For instance, ethnic solidarity played a significant role in the elections of Obama as US President and Al Smith as Governor in New York.

Once you align with a political party, your stance on issues is influenced by your loyalty to that party. Partisanship even molds your interpretation of commonly accepted facts.

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Hitler’s success is a story of identity politics: He spoke the language of German nationalism in a period of post-war humiliation.

4. The "More Democracy" fallacy

People frequently vote for suboptimal alternatives that don't actually benefit them.

They don't know what they need to know; they are biased, and voting doesn't make them smarter or more informed. Furthermore, the majority of them don’t even care about politics.

Equating “good government” with “more democracy” means forgetting to weigh costs against benefits. They will continue to vote for inept politicians who are short-sighted, under the supposed benefit that they are now voting on more political issues.


My Take Today

Results found by Achen and Bartels here are just another example that human beings have imperfect knowledge, different priorities, and are sometimes irrational. Democracy is not about rational choice but biographies, psychology, and identity.

Those who expect that the status of “citizen” would be different from that of the “individual” are overly optimistic. Human traits and character – such as self-interest and perceptions – do not directly depend on the kind of political regime individuals are living in, be it democracy or authoritarian governments.

Man is a social animal, not a democratic animal by nature. This means that it doesn’t matter the kind of regime they live in; you still have to provide incentives to slightly change their behavior – and keep in mind that incentives can change only a part of human behavior. There is a lot more that cannot be changed or shaped by institutions, luckily.

This doesn’t necessarily imply that democracy is without value, but that we should lower the expectations we have on it and the degree of power we confer to the government. By acknowledging that we vote irrationally, with very little information, and that our opinions are driven by parties instead of being the drivers of parties, we should stop and think about what kind of legitimacy an institution has when its voters are so characterized. Do we truly want to empower and hold such high expectations for people we mostly vote for irrationally?

On their part, politicians consistently exploit the human tendency to seek "identity" by dividing them and using "identity politics" as a significant leverage for political campaigns. They exploit citizens' biased perceptions about economic performance to create political business cycles and to be inattentive to fruitful long-term investment.

As Achen and Bartels allude, we should be more realists and acknowledge that democracy IS NOT something to be analyzed through the lens of French Enlightenment, British liberalism, or American progressivism. It is not the product of rationality and individualism. Rather of group life, that is, identity politics.