Challenging traditional conceptions of democracy.

Author:Kavanagh, Shayne
Position:Book review

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels

Princeton University Press 2016, 408 pages, $29.95+


In Democracy for Realists, Christopher H. Achen and Larry Bartels critically examine the underlying assumptions and conventional wisdom about how democracy works, using data on real voter behavior from across nations and decades. The most important of the assumptions the authors examine is what they label the "folk theory of democracy" Folk theory is what constitutes the everyday view of how democracy works; in this view, the voters have preferences about what government should do. They then vote their conscience by electing officials who will enact the voters' preferred policy or by voting in referendums in ways that match their preferences. In this way, the policy preferences shared by the majority of the people becomes government policy.

This folk theory of democracy is underpinned by ideas that came out of the Enlightenment in 18th century Europe--that humans are logical and can make rational assessments of their circumstances and act accordingly. This is the concept behind the "rational economic actor" assumption that underlies classical economics. In recent years, however, the rational economic actor assumption has been called into question by accumulating experimental evidence, prompting a rethinking of important tenants of economic theory. (1) Similarly, in Democracy for Realists, the authors' goal is to use data in ways that challenge the assumption of the "rational voter" and prompt a reconsideration of not only the folk theory of democracy, but also other existing theories of democracy that have attempted to lend greater scientific rigor to the folk view. This, in turn, may change our conception of how citizens interact with their government.


A number of studies have shown that most citizens in democratic countries don't take much interest in politics and don't make a serious effort to inform themselves about public issues, other than cursory attention to the news media. This fact is probably not a revelation for most readers, but more detailed studies demonstrate just how shaky a foundation the "rational voter" concept is for democracy. For example, one of the many studies Achen and Bartels cite asked Americans in the mid-1980s to express their approval for various public policies, also testing how cosmetic changes in the...

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