Summary of Achen and Bartel’s Democracy for Realists

I just finished binge-reading Achen and Bartel’s great book Democracy for Realists and decided to write up a summary and a few comments to aid my memory and share some of the most interesting insights.

The folk theory of democracy

(Since chapter 1 contains little of interest besides giving a foretaste of later chapters, I will start with the content of chapter 2.) The “folk theory” of democracy is roughly the following:

Voters have a set of informed policy preferences (e.g., on abortion, social security, climate change, taxes, etc.) and vote for the candidate or party whose policy preferences most resemble their own (similar to how vote advice applications operate). That is, people vote based on the issues. Parties are then assumed to cater to the voters’ preferences to maximize their chance of getting elected. This way the people get what they want (as is guaranteed under certain theoretical assumptions, by the median voter theorem).

Achen and Bartel argue that this folk theory of democracy does not describe what is happening in real-world democracies:

  • Voters are often badly informed: “Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter (1996) surveyed responses to hundreds of specific factual questions in U.S. opinion surveys over the preceding 50 years to provide an authoritative summary of What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters. In 1952, Delli Carpini and Keeter found, only 44% of Americans could name at least one branch of government. In 1972, only 22% knew something about Watergate. In 1985, only 59% knew whether their own state’s governor was a Democrat or a Republican. In 1986, only 49% knew which one nation in the world had used nuclear weapons (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996, 70, 81, 74, 84). Delli Carpini and Keeter (1996, 270) concluded from these and scores of similar findings that ‘large numbers of American citizens are woefully underinformed and that overall levels of knowledge are modest at best.’” (p. 36f.)
    • Interestingly, the increasing availability of information has done little to change this. “[I]t is striking how little seems to have changed in the decades since survey research began to shed systematic light on the nature of public opinion. Changes in the structure of the mass media have allowed people with an uncommon taste for public affairs to find an unprecedented quantity and variety of political news; but they have also allowed people with more typical tastes to abandon traditional newspapers and television news for round-the-clock sports, pet tricks, or pornography, producing an increase in the variance of political information levels but no change in the average level of political information (Baum and Kernell 1999; Prior 2007). Similarly, while formal education remains a strong predictor of individuals’ knowledge about politics, substantial increases in American educational attainment have produced little apparent increase in overall levels of political knowledge. When Delli Carpini and Keeter (1996, 17) compared responses to scores of factual questions asked repeatedly in opinion surveys over the past half century, they found that ‘the public’s level of political knowledge is little different today than it was fifty years ago.’” (p. 37)
    • This lack of knowledge seems to matter for policy preferences – uninformed voters cannot use heuristics to mimic the choices of informed voters. “[S]ome scholars have […] asked whether uninformed citizens – using whatever ‘information shortcuts’ are available to them – manage to mimic the preferences and choices of better informed people. Alas, statistical analyses of the impact of political information on policy preferences have produced ample evidence of substantial divergences between the preferences of relatively uninformed and better informed citizens (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996, chap. 6; Althaus 1998). Similarly, when ordinary people are exposed to intensive political education and conversation on specific policy issues, they often change their mind (Luskin, Fishkin, and Jowell 2002; Sturgis 2003). Parallel analyses of voting behavior have likewise found that uninformed citizens cast significantly different votes than those who were better informed. For example, Bartels (1996) estimated that actual vote choices fell about halfway between what they would have been if voters had been fully informed and what they would have been if everyone had picked candidates by flipping coins.” (p. 39f.)
    • Wisdom of the crowd-type arguments often don’t apply in politics because the opinions of different people are often biased in the the same direction: “Optimism about the competence of democratic electorates has often been bolstered (at least among political scientists) by appeals to what Converse (1990) dubbed the ‘miracle of aggregation’ – an idea formalized by the Marquis de Condorcet more than 200 years ago and forcefully argued with empirical evidence by Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro (1992). Condorcet demonstrated mathematically that if several jurors make independent judgments of a suspect’s guilt or innocence, a majority are quite likely to judge correctly even if every individual juror is only modestly more likely than chance to reach the correct conclusion.

      Applied to electoral politics, Condorcet’s logic suggests that the electorate as a whole may be much wiser than any individual voter. The crucial problem with this mathematically elegant argument is that it does not work very well in practice. Real voters’ errors are quite unlikely to be statistically independent, as Condorcet’s logic requires. When thousands or millions of voters misconstrue the same relevant fact or are swayed by the same vivid campaign ad, no amount of aggregation will produce the requisite miracle; individual voters’ ‘errors’ will not cancel out in the overall election outcome, especially when they are based on constricted flows of information (Page and Shapiro 1992, chaps. 5, 9). If an incumbent government censors or distorts information regarding foreign policy or national security, the resulting errors in citizens’ judgments obviously will not be random. Less obviously, even unintentional errors by politically neutral purveyors of information may significantly distort collective judgment, as when statistical agencies or the news media overstate or understate the strength of the economy in the run-up to an election (Hetherington 1996).” (p.40f.)
  • Voters don’t have many strong policy preferences.
    • Their stated preferences are sensitive to framing effects. Some examples from p. 30f:
      “[E]xpressed political attitudes can be remarkably sensitive to seemingly innocuous variations in question wording or context. For example, 63% to 65% of Americans in the mid-1980s said that the federal government was spending too little on “assistance to the poor”; but only 20% to 25% said that it was spending too little on “welfare” (Rasinski 1989, 391). “Welfare” clearly had deeply negative connotations for many Americans, probably because it stimulated rather different mental images than “assistance to the poor” (Gilens 1999). Would additional federal spending in this domain have reflected the will of the majority, or not? We can suggest no sensible way to answer that question. […] [I]n three separate experiments conducted in the mid-1970s, almost half of Americans said they would “not allow” a communist to give a speech, while only about one-fourth said they would “forbid” him or her from doing so (Schuman and Presser 1981, 277). In the weeks leading up to the 1991 Gulf War, almost two-thirds of Americans were willing to “use military force,” but fewer than half were willing to “engage in combat,” and fewer than 30% were willing to “go to war” (Mueller 1994, 30).
    • Many voters have no opinions on many current issues (p. 31f.).
    • People’s policy preferences are remarkably inconsistent over time with correlations of just 0.3 to 0.5 between the stated policy preferences on two occasions that are two years apart.
  • Many voters don’t know the positions of the competing parties on the issues, which makes it hard for them to vote for a party based on their policy preferences (p. 32).
    • Lau and Redlawsk (1997; 2006) “found that about 70% of voters, on average, chose the candidate who best matched their own expressed preferences.” (p. 40)
  • If one asks people to place their own policy positions and that of parties on a seven-point issue scale, then issue proximity and vote choice will correlate. But this can be explained by more than one set of causal relationships. Of course, the naive interpretation is that people form a policy opinion and learn about the candidates’ opinions independently. Based on those, they decide which party to vote for. But this model of policy-oriented evaluation is only one possible explanation of the observed correlation between perceived issue proximity and voting behavior. Another is persuasion: Voters already prefer some party, know that party’s policies and then adjust their opinions to better match that party’s opinion. The third is projection: People already know which party to vote for, have some opinions on policy but don’t actually know what the party stands for. They then project their policy positions onto those of the party. (p. 42) Achen and Bartels report on evidence showing that policy-oriented evaluation is only a small contributor to the correlation between perceived issue proximity and vote choices. (p. 42-45)
  • They argue that, empirically, elected candidates often don’t represent the median voter. (p. 45-49)
  • To my surprise, they use Arrow’s impossibility theorem to argue against the feasibility of fair preference aggregation (pp. 26ff.). (See here for a nice video introduction.) Somehow, I always had the impression that Arrow’s impossibility theorem wouldn’t make a difference in practice. (As Arrow himself said, “Most [voting] systems are not going to work badly all of the time. All I proved is that all can work badly at times.”)

A weaker form of the folk theory is that, while voters may not know specific issues well enough to have an opinion, they do have some ideological preference (such as liberalism or conservatism). But this fails for similar reasons:

  • “Converse […] scrutinized respondents’ answers to open-ended questions about political parties and candidates for evidence that they understood and spontaneously employed the ideological concepts at the core of elite political discourse. He found that about 3% of voters were clearly classiffiable as “ideologues,” with another 12% qualifying as “near-ideologues”; the vast majority of voters (and an even larger proportion of nonvoters) seemed to think about parties and candidates in terms of group interests or the “nature of the times,” or in ways that conveyed “no shred of policy significance whatever” (Converse 1964, 217–218; also Campbell et al. 1960, chap. 10).”
  • Correlations between different policy views are only modest. This itself is not necessarily a bad thing but evidence against ideological voting. (If people fell into distinct ideological groups like liberals, conservatives, etc., one would observe such correlations. E.g., one may expect strong correlations between positions on foreign and domestic policy given that there are such correlations among political parties.) (p. 32f.)
    • This appears to conflict to some extent with how Haidt’s moral foundations theory characterizes the differences between liberals and conservatives. According to Haidt, conservatives form a cluster of people who care much more about loyalty, authority and sanctity than liberals. This predicts correlations between positions on topics in these domains, e.g. gay marriage and immigration (assuming that people’s loyalty, authority and sanctity intuitions tend to have similar content). However, it doesn’t seem to predict correlations between views on, say, aid to education and isolationism, which were the type of variables asked about in the study by Converse (1964) that Achen and Bartels refer to.
  • “Even in France, the presumed home of ideological politics, Converse and Pierce (1986, chap. 4) found that most voters did not understand political ‘left’ and ‘right.’ When citizens do understand the terms, they may still be uncertain or confused about where the parties stand on the left-right dimension (Butler and Stokes 1974, 323–337). Perhaps as a result, their partisan loyalties and issue preferences are often badly misaligned. In a 1968 survey in Italy, for example, 50% of those who identified with the right-wing Monarchist party took left-wing policy positions (Barnes 1971, 170). […] [C]areful recent studies have repeatedly turned up similar findings. For example, Elizabeth Zechmeister (2006, 162) found “striking, systematic differences … both within and across the countries” in the conceptions of “left” and “right” offered by elite private college students in Mexico and Argentina, while André Blais (personal communication) found half of German voters unable to place the party called “Die Linke” – the Left – on a left-right scale.” (p. 34f.)

Direct democracy

Chapter 3 discusses direct democracy. Besides making the point that everyone seems to believe that “more democracy” is a good thing (pp. 52-60, 70), they argue against a direct democracy version of the folk theory. In my view, the evidence presented in chapter 2 of the book (and the previous section of this summary) already provides strong reasons for skepticism and I think the best case against a direct democracy folk theory is based on arguments of this sort. In line with this view, Achen and Bartels re-iterate some of the arguments, e.g. that the average Joe often adopts other people’s policy preferences rather than making up his own mind (p. 73-76).

Most of the qualitatively new evidence presented in this section, on the other hand, seems quite weak to me. Much of it seems to be aimed at showing that direct democracy has yielded bad results. For example, based on the ratings of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the Wall Street Journal, C-SPAN and Siena College, the introduction of primary elections hasn’t increased the quality of presidents (p. 66). As they concede themselves, the data set so small and the ratings of presidents contentious, so this evidence is not very strong at all. They also argue that direct democracy sometimes leads to transparently silly decisions, but the evidence seems essentially anecdotal to me.

Another interesting point of the section is that, in addition to potential ideological motives, politicians usually have strategic reasons to support the introduction of “more democratic” procedures:

[T]hroughout American history, debates about desirable democratic procedures have not been carried out in the abstract. They have always been entangled with struggles for substantive political advantage. In 1824, “politicos in all camps recognized” that the traditional congressional caucus system would probably nominate William Crawford; thus, “how people felt about the proper nominating method was correlated very highly indeed with which candidate they supported” (Ranney 1975, 66). In 1832, “America’s second great party reform was accomplished, not because the principle of nomination by delegate conventions won more adherents than the principle of nomination by legislative caucuses, but largely because the dominant factional interests … decided that national conventions would make things easier for them” (Ranney 1975, 69).

Similarly, Ranney (1975, 122) noted that the most influential champion of the direct primary, Robert La Follette, was inspired “to destroy boss rule at its very roots” when the Republican Party bosses of Wisconsin twice passed him over for the gubernatorial nomination. And in the early 1970s, George McGovern helped to engineer the Democratic Party’s new rules for delegate selection as cochair of the party’s McGovern-Fraser Commission, and “praised them repeatedly during his campaign for the 1972 nomination”; but less than a year later he advocated repealing some of the most significant rules changes. Asked why McGovern’s views had changed, “an aide said, ‘We were running for president then’” (Ranney 1975, 73–74).

I expect that this is a quite common phenomenon in deciding which decision process to use. E.g., when an organization decides which decision procedure to use (e.g., who will make the decision, what kind of evidence is accepted as valid), members of the organization might base a decision on these processes less on general principles (e.g., balance, avoidance of cognitive biases and groupthink) than on which decision process will yield the favored results in specific object-level decisions (e.g., who gets a raise, whether my prefered project is funded).

I guess processes that are instantiated for only a single decision are affected even more strongly by this problem. An example is deciding on how to do AI value loading, e.g. which idealization procedures to use.

The Retrospective Theory of Political Accountability

In chapter 4, Achen and Bartels discuss an attractive alternative to the folk theory: retrospective voting. On this view, voters decide not so much based on policy preferences but on how well the candidates or parties has performed in the past. For example, a president under which the economy improved may be re-elected. This theory is plausible as a descriptive theory for a number of reasons:

  • There is quite some empirical evidence that retrospective voting describes what voters are doing (ch. 5-7).
  • Retrospective voting, i.e. evaluating whether the passing term went well, is much easier than policy-based voting, i.e. deciding which candidate’s proposed policies will work better in the future (p. 91f.).

The retrospective theory also has some normative appeal:

  • It selects for good leaders (p. 98-100).
  • It incentivizes politicians to do what is best for the voters (p. 100-102).
  • To some extent it allows politicians to do what is best for the voters even if the voters disagree on what is best (p. 91).

While Achen and Bartels agree that retrospective voting is a large part of the descriptive picture, they also argue that, at least in the way it is implemented by real-world voters, “its implications for democracy are less unambiguously positive than existing literature tends to suggest”:

  • Proceeding on the theme of the ignorance of the electorate, voters’ evaluation of the past term and the current situation is unreliable (p. 92f.). For example, their perception of environmental threats does not correlate much with that of experts (p. 106), they think crime is increasing when it is in fact stable or decreasing (p. 107) and they cannot assess the state of the economy (p. 107f.).
    • Media coverage, partisan bias, popular culture, etc. often shape people’s judgments (p. 107, 138-142).
  • Voters are unable to differentiate whether bad times are an incumbent’s fault or not (p. 93). Consequently, there is some evidence that incumbents tend to be punished for shark attacks, droughts and floods (ch. 5).
  • “The theories of retrospective voting we have considered assume that voters base their choices at the polls entirely on assessments of how much the incumbent party has contributed to their own or the nation’s well-being. However, when voters have their own ideas about good policy, sensible or not, they may be tempted to vote for candidates who share those ideas, as in the spatial model of voting discussed in chapter 2. In that case incumbent politicians may face a dilemma: should they implement the policies voters want or the policies that will turn out to contribute to voters’ welfare?” (p. 109, also see pp. 108-111)
    • “[E]lected officials facing the issue of fluoridating drinking water in the 1950s and 1960s were significantly less likely to pander to their constituents’ ungrounded fears when longer terms gave them some protection from the “sudden breezes of passion” that Hamilton associated with public opinion.” (p. 110)
  • The electorate’s decisions are often based only on the most recent events, in particular the economic growth in the past year or so (cf. the peak-end rule). This not only makes their judgments worse than necessary (as they throw information away), it also sets the wrong incentives to the incumbent. Indeed, there is some evidence of a “political business cycle”, i.e. politicians attempting to maximize for growth, in particular growth of real income, in the last year of their term. (See chapter 6. Additional evidence is given in ch. 7.)
  • “Another way to examine the effectiveness of retrospective voting is to see what happens after each election. If we take seriously the notion that reelection hinges on economic competence, one implication is that we should expect to see more economic growth when the incumbent party is reelected than when it is dismissed by the voters. In the former case the incumbent party has presumably been retained because its past performance makes it a better than average bet to provide good economic management in the future. In the latter case the new administration is presumably an unknown quantity, a random draw from some underlying distribution of economic competence. A secondary implication of this logic is that future economic performance should be less variable when the incumbent party is retained, since reelected administrations are a truncated subsample of the underlying distribution of economic competence (the worst economic performers having presumably been weeded out at reelection time).” (p. 164) Based on a tiny sample (US presidential elections between 1948-2008), this does not seem to be the case. Of course, one could argue that the new administration often is not a random quantity – the parties in US presidential elections are almost always the same and the candidates have often proven themselves in previous political roles. In fact, the challenger may have a longer track record than the incumbent. For example, this may come to be the case in 2020.
  • Using a subset of the same tiny sample, they show that post-reelection economic growth is not a predictor of popular vote margin (p. 166-168). So, retrospective voting as current voters apply it doesn’t seem to work in selecting competent leaders. That said, and as Achen and Bartels acknowledge themselves (p. 168), the evidence they use is only very tentative.

Overall, the electorate’s evaluation of a candidate may be some indicator of how well they are going to perform in the future, but it is an imperfect and manipulable one.

Group loyalties and social identities

In addition to retrospective voting, Achen and Bartels tentatively propose that group loyalties and social identities play a big role for politics. Whereas the retrospection theory appears to be relatively well-studied, this new theory is much less worked out, yet (pp. 230f.).

It seems clear that vast parts of psychology and social psychology in particular – Achen and Bartels refer to ingroups and outgroups, Asch’s conformity experiments, cognitive dissonance, rationalization, etc. – should be a significant explanatory factor in political science. Indeed, Achen and Bartels start chapter 8 by stating that the relevance of social psychology for politics has been recognized by past generations of researchers (pp. 213-222), it only became unpopular when some theories that it was associated with failed (pp. 222-225).

Achen and Bartels discuss a few ways in which social groups, identities and loyalties influence voting behavior:

  • While voters’ retrospection focuses on the months leading up to the election, these short-term retrospections translate into the formation of long-term partisan loyalties. So, in a way, partisan loyalties are, in part, the cumulation of these short-term retrospections (p. 197-199).
  • Many people are loyal to one party (p. 233).
  • People adopt the political views of the groups they belong to or identify with (p. 219f., 222f., 246-, p. 314).
    • People often adopt the party loyalties of their parents (p. 233f.).
    • People adopt the views of their party (or project their views onto the party) (ch. 10). Party identification also influences one’s beliefs about factual matters. For example, when an opposing party is in office people judge the economy as worse (pp. 276-284).
  • People reject the political views of groups that they dislike (pp. 284-294).
  • People choose candidates based on what they perceive to be best for their group (p. 229).
  • Catholic voters (even one’s who rarely go to church) tend to prefer catholic candidates, even if the candidate emphasizes the separation of church and state (pp. 238-246).
  • If, say, Catholics discriminate against Jews, then Jews are much less likely to vote for a Catholic candidate or a party dominated by Catholics (p. 237f.).
  • Better-informed voters are often influenced more strongly by identity issues, presumably because they are more aware of them (pp. 284-294). For example, they are sometimes less likely than worse-informed voters to get the facts right (p. 283).
  • “When political candidates court the support of groups, they are judged in part on whether they can ‘speak our language.’ Small-business owners, union members, evangelical Christians, international corporations – each of these has a set of ongoing concerns and challenges, and a vocabulary for discussing them. Knowing those concerns, using that vocabulary, and making commitments to take them seriously is likely to be crucial for a politician to win their support (Fenno 1978).“

Unfortunately, I think that Achen and Bartels stretch the concept of identity-based voting a bit too much. The clearest example is their analysis of the case of abortion (pp. 258-266). Women tend to have more stable views on abortion than men. They are also more likely to leave the Republican party if they are pro-choice and less likely to assimilate their opinions to that of their party. Achen and Bartels’ explanation is that women’s vote is affected by their identifying as women. But I don’t see why it is necessary to bring the concept of identity into this. A much simpler explanation would be that voters are, to some extent, selfish and thus put more weight on the issues that are most relevant to them. If this counts as voting based on identity, is there any voting behavior that cannot be ascribed to identities?

I also find many of the explanations based on social identity unsatisfactory – they often don’t really explain a phenomenon. For example, Achen and Bartels argue that the partisan realignment of white southerners in the second half of the 20th century was not so much driven by racial policy issues but by white southern identity (pp. 246-258). But they don’t explain how white southern identity led people into the open arms of the Republicans. For example, was it that Republicans explicitly appealed to that identity? Or did southern opinion leaders change their mind based on policy issues?

Implications for democracy

Chapter 11 serves as a conclusion of the book. It summarizes some of the points made in earlier sections but also discusses the normative implications.

Unsurprisingly, Achen and Bartels argue against naive democratization:

[E]ffective democracy requires an appropriate balance between popular preferences and elite expertise. The point of reform should not simply be to maximize popular influence in the political process but to facilitate more effective popular influence. We need to learn to let political parties and political leaders do their jobs, too. Simple-minded attempts to thwart or control political elites through initiatives, direct primaries, and term limits will often be counterproductive. Far from empowering the citizenry, the plebiscitary implications of the folk theory have often damaged people’s real interests. (p. 303)

At the same time, they again point out that elite political judgment is often not much better than that of the worse-informed majority. In addition to being more aware of identity issues, the elites are a lot better at rationalizing, which makes them sound more rational, but often does not yield more rational opinions (p. 309-311).

Another interesting point they make is that it is usually the least-informed voters who decide who wins an election because the non-partisan swing voters tend to be relatively uninformed (p. 312, also p.32).

Achen and Bartels give some reasons why democracy might be better than its alternatives. I think the arguments, as given in the book, drastically vary in appeal, but here all five:

  • “[E]lections generally provide authoritative, widely accepted agreement about who shall rule. In the United States, for example, even the bitterly contested 2000 presidential election – which turned on a few hundred votes in a single state and a much-criticized five-to-four Supreme Court decision – was widely accepted as legitimate. A few Democratic partisans continued to grumble that the election had been “stolen”; but the winner, George W. Bush, took office without bloodshed, or even significant protest, and public attention quickly turned to other matters.” This makes sense, although it would have been interesting to test this argument empirically. I.e., is violent power struggle more or less prevalent in democracies than in other forms of government, such as hereditary monarchies? (I would guess that it is less prevalent in democracies.)
  • “[I]n well-functioning democratic systems, parties that win office are inevitably defeated at a subsequent election. They may be defeated more or less randomly, due to droughts, floods, or untimely economic slumps, but they are defeated nonetheless. Moreover, voters seem increasingly likely to reject the incumbent party the longer it has held office, reinforcing the tendency for governmental power to change hands. This turnover is a key indicator of democratic health and stability. It implies that no one group or coalition can become entrenched in power, unlike in dictatorships or one-party states where power is often exercised persistently by a single privileged segment of society. And because the losers in each election can reasonably expect the wheel of political fortune to turn in the not-too-distant future, they are more likely to accept the outcome than to take to the streets.” (p. 317) Here it is not so clear whether this constant change is a good thing. Having the same party, group or person rule for long stretches of time ensures stability and avoids friction between consecutive legislations. It also ensures that office is most of the time held by politicians with experience. Presumably, Achen and Bartels are right in judging high turnover as beneficial, but they have little evidence to back it up.
  • “[E]lectoral competition also provides some incentives for rulers at any given moment to tolerate opposition. The notion that citizens can oppose the incumbent rulers and organize to replace them, yet remain loyal to the nation, is fundamental both to real democracy and to social harmony.” (p. 317f.) This also seems non-obvious. Perhaps the monarchist could argue that only rulers who do not have to worry about losing their position can fruitfully engage with criticism. They also have less reason to get the press under their control (although, empirically, dictators usually use their power to limit the press in ways that democratic governments cannot).
  • “[A] long tradition in political theory stemming from John Stuart Mill (1861, chap. 3) has emphasized the potential benefits of democratic citizenship for the development of human character (Pateman 1970). Empirical scholarship focusing squarely on effects of this sort is scant, but it suggests that democratic political engagement may indeed have important implications for civic competence and other virtues (Finkel 1985; 1987; Campbell 2003; Mettler 2005). Thus, participation in democratic processes may contribute to better citizenship, producing both self-reinforcing improvements in ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Verba 1963) and broader contributions to human development.” (p. 318) This may be true, but it appears to be a relatively weak consideration. Perhaps, the monarchist could counter that doing away with elections saves people more time than the improvements in “civic culture” are worth. They may not be as virtuous, but maybe they can nonetheless spend more time with their family and friends or create more economic value.
  • “Finally, reelection-seeking politicians in well-functioning democracies will strive to avoid being caught violating consensual ethical norms in their society. As Key (1961a, 282) put it, public opinion in a democracy ‘establishes vague limits of permissiveness within which governmental action may occur without arousing a commotion.’ Thus, no president will strangle a kitten on the White House lawn in view of the television cameras. Easily managed governmental tasks will get taken care of, too. Chicago mayors will either get the snow cleared or be replaced, as Mayor Michael Bilandic learned in the winter of 1979. Openly taking bribes will generally be punished. When the causal chain is clear, the outcome is unambiguous, and the evaluation is widely shared, accountability will be enforced (Arnold 1990, chap. 3). So long as a free press can report dubious goings-on and a literate public can learn about them, politicians have strong incentives to avoid doing what is widely despised. Violations occur, of course, but they are expensive; removal from office is likely. By contrast, in dictatorships, moral or financial corruption is more common because public outrage has no obvious, organized outlet. This is a modest victory for political accountability.” (p. 318f.) Of the five reasons given, I find this one the most convincing. It basically states that retrospective voting and to some extent even the folk theory work, they just don’t work as well as one might naively imagine. So, real-world democracy doesn’t do a better job than a coin flip at representing people’s “real opinions” on controversial issues like abortion. Democracy does ensure, however, that important, universally agreed upon measures will be implemented.

In their last section, Achen and Bartels propose an idea for how to make governments more responsive to the interests of the people. Noting that elites have much more influence, they suggest that economic and social equality, as well as limitations on lobbying and campaign financing, could make governments more responsive to the preferences of the people. While plausibly helpful, these ideas are much more trite than the rest of the book.

General comments

  • Overall I recommend reading the book if you’re interested in the topic.
  • Since I don’t know the subject area particularly well, I read a few reviews of the book (Paris 2016; Schwennicke, Cohen, Roberts, Sabl, Mares, and Wright 2017; Malhotra 2016; Mann 2016; Cox 2017; Somin 2016). All of these seemed positive overall. Some even said that large parts of the book are more mainstream than the authors claim (which is a good thing in my book).
  • It’s quite Americentric. Sometimes an analysis of studies conducted in the US is followed by references to papers confirming the results in other countries, but often it is not. In many ways, politics in the US is different than in other countries, e.g. only two parties matter and the variability in wealth and education within the US is much bigger than in many other Western nations. This makes me unsure to which extent many of the results carry over to other countries. Often it is also an unnecessary limitation of sample sizes. E.g., one analysis (p. 165) relates whether the incumbent party was replaced to post-presidential-election income and GDP growth in the years 1948-2008 in the US. It seems hard to conclude all that much from 16 data points. Perhaps taking a look at other countries would have been a cheap way to increase the sample size. Because the book is not about the details of particular democratic systems, the book seems quite accessible to non-US American readers with only superficial knowledge of US politics and history.
  • It often gives a lot of detail on how empirical evidence was gathered and analyzed. E.g., the entire chapter seven is about how people’s voting behavior after the Great Depression – which is often explained by policy preferences (in the US related to Roosevelt’s New Deal) – can be explained well by retrospective voting.
  • I also feel like the book is somewhat balanced despite their view differing somewhat from the mainstream within political science. E.g., they often mention explicitly what the mainstream view is and refer to studies supporting that view. I also feel like they are relatively transparent about how reliable or tentative the empirical evidence for some parts of the book is.
  • A similar book is Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, which I haven’t read. As suggested by the names, Against Democracy differs from Democracy for Realists in that it proposes epistocracy as an alternative form of government.


I thank Max Daniel and Stefan Torges for comments.

2 thoughts on “Summary of Achen and Bartel’s Democracy for Realists

  1. Pingback: Market efficiency and charity cost-effectiveness – The Universe from an Intentional Stance

  2. Pingback: Our Political Polarization: Heartbreak and Healing - The Bramble Project

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