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  • Reconciling Democratic Theories and Realities: A Review of Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government
  • Celia Paris (bio)

The argument of this book is simple: there is a near-universally accepted folk theory of what democracy is, and this theory is almost entirely wrong. The folk theory is: "Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy" (1). Achen and Bartels convincingly argue here that every piece of this theory flies in the face of empirical evidence, and that the theory itself may have pernicious consequences. Drawing on research on the power of social identities and group attachments in politics, they then seek to offer a theory of democracy with firmer empirical footing; hence the title Democracy for Realists.

This book is magisterial. Given the strong reputations of both Achen and Bartels as political scientists, and the sweeping nature of the claims made here, I suspect many scholars concerned about democracy will already be eager to read it. To any who may be less inclined to pick up a copy, let me offer some encouragement. First, some may assume there is nothing here but old news, citing an accumulation of research on public opinion and voting behavior that provides ample evidence of citizens' manifold deviations from standard models of rational, issue-based voting. To these hardened skeptics, I would suggest that the still-undiminished power of the folk theory in both popular discourse and scholarly writing about democracy presents a puzzle and underlines the need for a book like this—and the authors offer some insightful comments on exactly why the folk [End Page 119] theory has proven so hard to shake even among those keenly aware of the empirical evidence against it.

Others might suppose that this book is grounded in elitist notions about what constitutes good citizenship and who is truly qualified to make political decisions. To the contrary, while the authors offer a number of reasons to be skeptical of the civic performance of voters in modern democracies, they trace this not to some inadequacy of hoi polloi, but rather to the natural limitations of human cognition and the immense complexity of modern political life. As Achen and Bartels write, "This is not a book about the political misjudgments of people with modest educations. It is a book about the conceptual limitations of human beings—including the authors of this book and its readers" (311). The authors offer a lucid, powerful argument backed by a great deal of compelling evidence; at the very least, this puts the burden of proof back on those who would argue that citizens generally do possess well-grounded views and sufficient understanding to vote on that basis.

After introducing their thesis in Chapter 1, the authors highlight in Chapter 2 the many "grave logical and practical problems" besetting the theory that voters elect officials who share their own well-grounded issue positions. Both the logical problems—the likely nonexistence of any aggregation procedure guaranteeing a choice preferred by a majority over all alternatives, as demonstrated by Arrow and others—and the practical problems—voters' views on the issues tend to be unstable, show little ideological constraint, seem to shift based on question wording and framing, and have minimal basis in genuine knowledge—will no doubt be familiar to most political scientists. However, this chapter is still worth reading for the thought-provoking summary of these challenges and the incisive intellectual history of the discipline.

Chapter 3 tackles several reforms meant to correct the deficiency of democratic control—reform of party nomination, initiatives, and referenda—and reviews some of the disappointing and often ironic results. Rather than leading to successful popular control, these reforms have tended to add complexity and unpredictability to political outcomes while offering new opportunities for influence by interest groups and political entrepreneurs. Moreover, Achen and Bartels highlight several instances in which direct democracy has resulted in markedly inferior policy outcomes: diminished fire protection services in Illinois, delayed fluoridation of water in many...


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pp. 119-127
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