Two Eminent Political Scientists: the Problem With Democracy is Voters

Consider the curious case of New Jersey in 1916: That summer, there was a string of deadly shark attacks along the Jersey Shore. 카지노사이트 As a result, Woodrow Wilson lost his home state in the presidential election.

Why, you ask? Because the beachfront towns (which rely on tourism) were negatively impacted by the attacks. Though Wilson wasn’t responsible for the hungry sharks, he was the incumbent, and people vote against incumbents when things are bad.

This is a story political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels tell in Democracy for Realists, in service of a sobering thesis: Voters don’t have anything like coherent preferences. Most people pay little attention to politics; when they vote, if they vote at all, they do so irrationally and for contradictory reasons.

The book lays waste to a reassuring theory about democracy that goes something like this: Ordinary citizens have preferences about what the government ought to do; they elect leaders who will carry out those preferences and vote against those who will not; in the end, we’re left with a government that more or less serves the majority.

Even voters who pay close attention to politics are prone — in fact, more prone — to biased or blinkered decision-making. The reason is simple: Most people make political decisions on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not an honest examination of reality.

“Election outcomes,” Achen and Bartels conclude, “turn out to be largely random events from the viewpoint of democratic theory.”

If Achen and Bartels are right, democracy is a faulty form of politics, and direct democracy is far worse than that. It virtually guarantees that at some point, you’ll end up with a grossly unfit leader.

And that, of course, is what we now have.

Last month, I sat down with Achen and Bartels to talk about their critique of democracy, and how it might explain our current political predicament.

A warning: This is a long and sweeping discussion, touching on a number of thorny issues. I offer pushback when and where I can. But to be perfectly honest, I found many of their criticisms of democracy compelling. Which is not at all what I had hoped.

I want to believe in those comforting myths about democracy, mostly because the alternatives are worse. But even if democracy is the least bad form of government, we still ought to know how it works and, more importantly, how it doesn’t. 바카라사이트

I think people are doing the best they can. They just don’t have a lot of information, and so they substitute guesses and views of the world that make them feel comfortable. I think people are looking for ways to make sense of what is a very complicated reality out there. It’s hard for those of us who get paid to think about it all the time to make sense of it, and it’s very hard for people with a lot of other demands in their lives.

So they’re doing the best they can but, as we said in the book, we think that we need institutional structures that would get them some help and do what the Federalist Papers suggest should be done, which is to have a popular voice in government but to supplement it with the opinions of people with more expertise and more experience.

Larry Bartels

One of the more important building blocks for our work was [Austrian-born economist and political scientist who wrote mostly in the early 20th century] Joseph Schumpeter’s work on democracy. As an economist, he emphasized more clearly than people had previously the significance of the distinction between economic life, where people make choices that directly affect their own well-being (i.e., you stop buying products that you don’t like) and the political world, where the connection between individual behavior and the outcomes that I experience is so indirect that it almost makes no sense for me to try to perceive instrumentally.

It turns out, when it comes to political outcomes, most people are not making rational decisions based on the real-world impact they will have on their life, in part because they just don’t know.

So much of politics, not surprisingly, turns out to be about expressive behavior rather than instrumental behavior — in other words, people making decisions based on momentary feeling and not on some sound understanding of how those decisions will improve or hurt their life. And so if you think about people using the democratic levers that they have available to them to express themselves, rather than to make instrumental choices, you’re probably more often than not going to be closer to the actual psychology of what they’re up to. 온라인카지

Sean Illing

Does the average voter even have what we might call policy preferences?

Christopher Achen

Well, they do adopt some. They take in some information. So with the Trump phenomenon, for example, people clearly recognize that for certain identities, he was a vocal spokesman for those identities, and they did learn that. And the combination of that and his familiarity from reality TV and so on made him successful in their minds at being the kind of leader they were looking for. And I think people are pretty good at that, actually. They’re pretty good at picking out who’s on their side.

Sean Illing

To be clear, they’re good at picking people who appear to be on their side, who play the right rhetorical game.

Christopher Achen

Good point. Now, what they’re much less good at is thinking about whether it makes any sense to build a wall across the southern border with Mexico. Is that going to solve the problem? How much is that going to cost? Is that how I would want to spend my money? Voters tend not to think about these sorts of questions very well, and their incoherent and shifting positions suggest as much.

Sean Illing

In graduate school, I read a book called The Macro Polity, which was published in 2002 by political scientists Robert Erikson, Michael Mackuen, and James Stimson. The thesis was something like: voters as a collective aggregate tend to act with purpose and predictability, even though most individual voters do not.

So the idea was that the vast majority of voters are capricious and uninformed, but in the end they tend to cancel each other out. What pushes elections in an intelligible direction is the minority of educated and engaged voters. But your book claims that elections are basically a “coin toss.”

Larry Bartels

Well, that argument, which goes back to the 18th century, works pretty well so long as the errors and political choices are distributed equally on both sides of whatever the option is. But in many cases, that’s unlikely to be true. But we don’t want to say that politics is essentially random. There are lots of elements, certainly of presidential elections, that are quite predictable. We have this little picture in Chapter 6 of the book about the relationship between economic conditions and how long the incumbent party has been in office and the election outcome. That suggests a good deal of predictability: