‘Democracy for Realists’

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, two political scientists, bursts the idealists’ dream of democracy as well-informed citizens thoughtfully “steering the ship of state from the voting booth.”

They demonstrate that voters–even those who are well informed and politically engaged–mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents’ control; the outcomes are essentially random.

Voters are not necessarily rational, and they don’t necessarily give politicians mandates. Most voters are ignorant of issues and party positions on issues. They don’t know right from left. The tend to decide on a gut-level basis which candidate to support, and then adopt the candidate’s positions as their own. Voters choose political parties strongly because of parents’ preferences, as well as symbols, and peer groups, especially by emotionally-grounded feelings of group identification.

The concept of “loyal opposition” — that citizens can oppose incumbent rulers and remain loyal to the nation — only developed gradually in the US and UK during the 19th Century. Many countries still haven’t accepted that concept.

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