Political Scientists: The problem with democracy is voters

Opinion Politics

Consider the curious case of New Jersey in 1916: That summer, there was a string of deadly shark attacks along the Jersey Shore. 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.(www.vox.com)

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