In 2016, it’s become fashionable to bemoan the state of American democracy. But maybe the problem is that we were expecting too much out of it in the first place.
That’s one takeaway from Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton University Press), a book that came out in the spring but that, as this election year comes to a climax, deserves to be highlighted as one of the most bracing books of political science to arrive in a long time. Political scientists have taken a lot of heat (unfairly in many cases) for getting the rise of Donald Trump wrong. But in Democracy for Realists, Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels (of Princeton and Vanderbilt, respectively) have come out with an impressively comprehensive statement on the limits of electoral democracy, a book that can both explain the emergence of Trump and potentially charts a new course for the field.
Esteemed political scientists, Achen and Bartels offer a harsh but fair message to their discipline: Too much of political science has been working with bunk assumptions for decades, ones that would overstate rationality and underappreciate Trump’s white-identity-politics appeal. It all amounts to a compelling claim that both political science and good-government advocacy are overrun with what Thomas Kuhn would call "anomalies" — the pesky empirical observations that seem to contradict the prevailing theoretical paradigms.
Perhaps it is finally time to stop pretending there is such a thing as a rational voter who seeks information to vote based on the issues alone, as decades of political-science research has assumed. Instead, Achen and Bartels argue, we can only progress by accepting that most voters are deeply uninformed and lack meaningful preferences, and even those who do know and care about politics are all just partisan loyalists. Can we acknowledge that social-group identities are the most important structuring force in politics, and politics is really at heart just identity politics? And can we build new theories around the undeniable evidence that politics is and always will be based on emotion and conflict, not logic and consensus?
But sometime in the 1960s, political science took a turn away from groups and toward "rational individualism." Scholars began to treat both voters and politicians as utility-maximizing actors who had consistent and externally determined preferences along some unidimensional left-right spectrum. (Where these preferences came from, it was never clear.) And scholars also assumed these voters knew enough to adequately express these preferences meaningfully. Voters and officeholders and groups all existed in a "game" in which they tried to move policy to their "ideal point." Voters tried to hold politicians "accountable" for their performance, while politicians "maximized" their utility from office holding. Economics, not sociology, became the model discipline. Incentives replaced norms and cultures.
These assumptions were popular in the academy because they made both formal modeling and fancy statistical analysis more tractable, and therefore made political science more "scientific." Plus, there was plenty of easily accessible data on elections, roll-call votes, and public-opinion surveys to be tilled into publishable journal articles. "The result," Achen and Bartels write, "was a body of work that was simultaneously advanced in its methods and antiquated in its ideas."
They were also popular because they fit with the prevailing good-government idea, what Achen and Bartels dismissively call "the folk theory of democracy." Under the folk theory, "Democracy makes the people the rulers, and legitimacy derives from their consent." Elections should and can be meaningful events that truly empower the people. Therefore, if democracy has gone wrong, it’s merely because our voters are too uninformed, our candidates are too corrupt, our political discourse is too awash in lies. Like political science, good-government reformers pursued an idealized world of informed voters making meaningful independent choices that could give them actual power.
For Achen and Bartels, all this reformist moral exhortation is an exercise in futility. All the standard bromides of good-government reformers — more participation, better civic education, a more responsible media — represent mountains of wasted good intention that will never lead to more responsive government.
The most obvious flaw of the folk theory is that it expects far too much out of citizens: "Can ordinary people, busy with their lives and with no firsthand experience of policy making or public administration, do what the theory expects them to do?" Of course not. "Mostly," Achen and Bartels write, "they identify with ethnic, racial, occupation, religious or other sorts of groups, and often — whether through group ties or hereditary loyalties — with a political party."
For as long as political scientists have been measuring public opinion, they have found the same thing: Most citizens know very little about government and even less about policy. The 1960 classic The American Voter, by Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes, concluded that there was a "general impoverishment of political thought in a large proportion of the electorate." In 1964, Converse famously concluded that (in Achen and Bartels’s words) "the ‘belief systems’ of ordinary citizens are generally thin, disorganized and ideologically incoherent."
What is new with Achen and Bartels’s work is the suggestion that, after a half century of reformers and scholars wishing it were otherwise, it’s finally time to make peace with a simple fact of political life: Informed, individualistic rationality is a chimera. As Achen and Bartels write, "Converse’s argument is, if anything, even better supported a half-century later than it was when he wrote."
In addition to not knowing much, most voters also don’t fit neatly on the one-dimensional left-right spectrum that most everybody assumes they do. Among most voters, social issues and economic issues are largely independent, which means that most voters’ opinions are not well represented in a two-party system. But the deeper anti-democratic problem is that since elections reduce multidimensional issue spaces to binary choices, parties and leaders (not voters) shape the alternatives. Voters are left to choose between A and B. But for most voters, that binary choice represents something far from their ideal. Acknowledging this, however, means throwing out Anthony Downs’s "median voter theorem," another central paradigm of political-science work for half a century. Downs’s theory predicts that candidates will converge on a mythical political center, a prediction that has now been at odds with reality for long enough to call it into serious question. It also means acknowledging the fundamentally arbitrary nature of political conflict, and the fact that there can be no meaningful "will of the people" when voters are all over the map.
But even if we cast ideology aside and focus on performance alone, voters and therefore elections are not up to the task. Time after time, voters have blamed or rewarded incumbents for the state of the economy when incumbents’ actions had nothing to do with it. "Even perceptions of well-being," write Achen and Bartels, "are subject to considerable vagaries. Prospective voters’ economic perceptions are powerfully shaped by partisan biases, rationalization, and sheer randomness." Voters blame incumbents for droughts and floods and even shark attacks. They should know that these things are not the fault of politicians. But they don’t.
At this point, a subscriber to the folk theory might say, OK, well, this may all be true. But surely if voters were better educated, if they knew more, they would make better decisions.
Yet this is no solution either, because the more informed citizens are, the more they become reliable partisans. Most people "let their party tell them what to think about the issues of the day." And "for most people, partisanship is … but a reflection of judgments about where ‘people like me’ belong." As Achen and Bartels cleverly title their chapter explaining how all information gets filtered through partisan lenses, "It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter."
So what’s the alternative? Democracy for Realists is mostly concerned with killing the folk theory of democracy and bursting the dominant political-science paradigm of "rational individualism." But its authors do offer some guidance to would-be builders of a new paradigm: "A realist theory of democracy," they write, "must be founded on a realistic theory of political psychology. At present, nothing of that kind exists."
For political scientists, this suggests a whole new research agenda, one in which the modern scientific tools of advanced formal modeling and sophisticated data analysis seem less relevant, and the old sociological approaches of close observation of actual people seems a lot more relevant. It also suggests revitalizing the study of "interest groups," long a marginalized subfield within American politics, and going beyond surveys to understand how identities and groups structure political life, as exemplified in the work of scholars like Katherine J. Cramer and Theda Skocpol.
For the good-government reform community, this suggests something equally radical: giving up on the deeply held belief that American democracy can be solved by giving citizens more opportunities to participate by emailing Congress or voting, and an end to thinking all would be better if more people would just "get informed on the issues." Instead, it means thinking harder about how citizens can use their collective capacity to shape the agendas and issue positions of politicians before and between elections, by engaging in more policy advocacy and trying to shape politicians’ priorities.
It also means coming to terms with the fact that we don’t think for ourselves; we think together. And maybe that’s fine. Partisanship and group loyalties are inevitable, and they can even be good things if they can help us realize shared interests. Given the centrality of identity politics in the 2016 election, the evidence is clearly on the side of Achen and Bartels. The big question is whether both political science and good-government reformers will finally face up to it.
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the program on political reform at New America and the author of The Business of America Is Lobbying (Oxford University Press, 2015).