The Universe from an Intentional Stance

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:

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:

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:

The retrospective theory also has some normative appeal:

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”:

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:

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:

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


I thank Max Daniel and Stefan Torges for comments.