Democracy For Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government takes a long hard look at our cherished notions about democracy and stomps them into ashes. However, as painful as the process is, any long observer of politics and elections will know they are telling us, with substantial evidence to make their case, some very hard truths. For those of us who hope for a more just world, it is time to pay attention.
There is no good news here. The authors Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels analyze decades of electoral data and research, their own and that of other political scientist researchers. From shark attacks to deficits, Achen and Bartels demonstrate that voters lack the information and skills needed to make informed, rational decisions. Even the most informed and politically engaged voters vote based more on group identity than ideology or issue preferences. In fact, people choose their parties often based on social identity and then adjust their policy preferences to match their party. In contrast to most of the pundits, Achen and Bartels recognize that whiteness is a social identity and identity politics are not limited to people of color and women.
Aches and Bartels believe that most reforms are misguided, adding to the problem rather than improving it. Reducing the power of political parties has reduced the pressure to compromise and made the partisan divide wider. It has also made politicians less responsive to voters.
I can see this happening here in Oregon, the increased use of initiative and referendum has led to fiscal chaos, with voters demanding spending projects at the same time they vote for tax cuts. Referendum has led to a passive legislature who no longer tries to address the failed revenue system because there is no reward for having the political courage to vote for taxes when they will be referred and defeated at the next election. Likewise, many reformers want term limits, stripping politicians of expertise and empowering lobbyists. Reducing the power of parties has led the demagogue Trump whom no responsible party would nominate, the end of compromise and hyper-partisanship.
They argue that reform should recognize the importance of parties. I am sure the clamor to eliminate super delegates is exactly the opposite of the reform necessary. We saw the powerlessness of Republican super delegates to save their party. The removal of ear marks has reduced the power of party discipline to govern efficiently and effectively – damaging our national credit rating.
Democracy For Realists is not happy reading. It takes our glib truisms such as the cure for the problems of democracy is more democracy. I think recognizing that it is impossible for voters to understand every issue, it makes sense to strengthen parties as a proxy because they do cluster ideologically. There is expertise and experience, and if the parties are stronger, there is more accountability. Sadly, it seems the tide is going in the wrong direction, toward a more and more disassociated electorate, with weaker and weaker parties, and ever-increasing power of the plutocrats and interest groups.
This is an important book that I would wish everyone read, though the authors made no effort whatsoever to be readable for the general public. This is so important, I wish they could have made more effort to write a book that would be read by a broader audience than activists and politic professionals.