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Is too much democracy responsible for the rise of Trump?

Grace Wallack

“Trump is arguably the most unlikely, unsuitable, and unpopular presidential nominee of a major party in American history,” begins scholar Thomas Mann in his new paper about competing theories on democratic access. But, Mann argues, Trump did not come out of nowhere. As economic stagnation and concern over refugee migration in much of Europe has strengthened right-wing populist parties and politicians there, Mann argues that similar forces are at work in the U.S. Furthermore, the fact that Trump’s takeover occurred within the GOP should come as no surprise. As Mann and Ornstein’s previous work detailed how the Republican Party has become an “insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme … unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Many of Trump’s public statements underscore a natural fit between him and the party. But other parts of Trump’s message—isolationism, skepticism of free trade, and others—go against Republican orthodoxy, leading some to believe he is more of an outsider than an extension of the GOP.

Regardless, the undoubtedly unusual nature of Trump’s candidacy has led some to question the health of the American democratic system. Arguments about the health of American democracy often fall into one of two camps. Illustrative of the first camp is Andrew Sullivan. As Mann explains, Sullivan argues that the original barriers the Founders constructed to gird democracy from the “tyranny of the majority” have slowly eroded, replacing more representative means of democracy with direct ones. Trump, in Sullivan’s take, used this development to his advantage.

On the other side, Michael Lind makes a different case. Rather than an excess of democracy, he argues that the institutional strength of the parties, the shifting importance of the courts and executive branch, declining voter participation, and many other factors have limited the influence of ordinary citizens. Perhaps, Lind says, the voters who routinely think that “people like me don’t have any say” were actually right. In this scenario, Trump cast off the Republican establishment because, as Mann articulates, he didn’t need them anyway.

These two sides of democracy, or perhaps the tension always within it, are not new to American politics. Many scholars and thinkers have written responses to the perceived excess or dearth of democracy. In the current paper, Mann reviews a new contribution to the conversation: “Democracy for Realists” by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. Mann writes, “What makes this new book … so unsettling is its withering assault on both popular and scholarly conceptions of democracy.” As Achen and Bartels write, “The political ‘belief systems’ of ordinary citizens are generally thin, disorganized, and ideologically incoherent.” For Achen and Bartels, the problem is not lethargic voters, but unrealistic ideals. The expectation that, amid the rest of our hectic lives, we should all engage in thoughtful research, reflection, and debate on every issue and then vote accordingly is simply too much to ask.

Similarly, Achen and Bartels reject the retrospective theory of voting, in which voters punish or reward incumbents for past performance. Unfortunately voters are notoriously bad at connecting changes in their welfare with real policy change, often “punishing incumbents for changes that are clearly acts of God or nature,” Mann writes.

But, all is not lost. After dismantling the more idealistic conceptions of democracy, Achen and Bartels advocate a more realistic conception of democracy based on group psychology. This theory, based on the idea that social identity is as much—if not more of—a driver of political identification as ideology is. This is not a new idea; not only is group psychology key to understanding much about human beings, but group theory of democracy has threads in political science dating all the way back to the 1900s. In his new paper, Mann gives a thorough overview of Achen and Bartels’ work, but also includes some important scholarly dissents. As Mann points out, all parties to the debate seem to agree that low voter turnout and weak civic engagement are indeed real, and have perverse effects on democracy. In the end, Mann concludes that whether you believe voters are rational actors influenced by well-formed policy positions, or social beings motivated by group identities, increasing turnout would lead to a more representative electorate—one that may be decisive in the upcoming election.

Read the full paper here.


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