Too much or too little democracy? Some reflections on Democracy for Realists

Recent political movements within the United States have raised concerns about the health of American democracy. With hyper-partisanship dividing the country and Donald Trump—the most unlikely, unsuitable, and unpopular presidential nominee of a major party in American history—securing the Republican nomination, the question emerges of whether democracy in America has gone awry.  And if so, is it too much or too little democracy that’s to blame?

To help address those questions, in this paper, Thomas E. Mann summarizes and discusses the findings of Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ ambitious treatise on American democracy: “Democracy for Realists.” Achen and Bartels contend that the traditional conception of voters as rational, attentive decision-makers does not hold against empirical evidence. Instead, voters are best understood as members of partisan groups, which influence their perception of candidates, issues, and even simple facts. According to Achen and Bartels, perceived social identities drive voting decisions, rather than rationality.

Mann notes that most scholars would agree that voters do not follow the expectations of idealistic models, but draws attention to competing theories that are far less damning to voters’ rationality. In particular, the research of Paul Sniderman and Arthur Lupia suggests that voters are far more capable than Achen and Bartels would assert. In their view, voters have enough rationality and information to ensure a well-functioning democracy.

As Mann summarizes the arguments:  Achen and Bartels believe that citizens and elections are held to impossible, idealistic standards in the folk theory of democracy, which perpetuates myths and works against government responsiveness. Sniderman and Lupia, on the other hand, are offended by those who dismiss citizens as ignorant and incompetent; they seek to defend voters’ dignity and demonstrate the rationality and efficacy of their behavior in American democracy.

What does this scholarship tell us about the coming presidential election, and the future of American democracy?  Ultimately, Mann concludes that Achen and Bartel’s perspective is not anti-democratic, even if it is built on a belief that too much importance is placed on the often random and myopic outcomes of elections.  Instead, Mann believes that “Democracy for Realists” reveals the real democratic deficit facing America is one stemming not from too much democracy, but  from “asymmetry in political resources and representation of different segments of American society.” Truly understanding this problem and its root cause is a step toward strengthening American democracy.