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Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels Princeton University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 408 pages
AU$39.99 NZ$43.47
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Democracy for Realists assails the romantic folk-theory at the heart of contemporary thinking about democratic politics and government, and offers a provocative alternative view grounded in the actual human nature of democratic citizens.


Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels deploy a wealth of social-scientific evidence, including ingenious original analyses of topics ranging from abortion politics and budget deficits to the Great Depression and shark attacks, to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters--even those who are well informed and politically engaged--mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents' control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly.


Achen and Bartels argue that democratic theory needs to be founded on identity groups and political parties, not on the preferences of individual voters. Democracy for Realists provides a powerful challenge to conventional thinking, pointing the way toward a fundamentally different understanding of the realities and potential of democratic government.




List of Illustrations ix

Preface xiii

1 Democratic Ideals and Realities 1

2 The Elusive Mandate: Elections and the Mirage of Popular Control 21

3 Tumbling Down into a Democratical Republick: "Pure Democracy" and the Pitfalls of Popular Control 52

4 A Rational God of Vengeance and of Reward? The Logic of Retrospective Accountability 90

5 Blind Retrospection: Electoral Responses to Droughts, Floods, and Shark Attacks 116

6 Musical Chairs: Economic Voting and the Specious Present 146

7 A Chicken in Every Pot: Ideology and Retrospection in the Great Depression 177

8 The Very Basis of Reasons: Groups, Social Identities, and Political Psychology 213

9 Partisan Hearts and Spleens: Social Identities and Political Change 232

10 It Feels Like We're Th inking: Th e Rationalizing Voter 267

11 Groups and Power: Toward a Realist Th eory of Democracy 297

Appendix Retrospective Voting as Selection and Sanctioning 329

References 335

Index 371





"Democracy for Realists is essential reading for 2016, an empirically and theoretically rigorous political science treatise that debunks traditional defenses of democracy as a way to reflect the 'will of the people' or allow well-informed and rational voters to guide the country. In their place, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels advance a theory of democracy grounded in group identities and social psychology."--Jason Furman, Bloomberg


"Democracy for Realists has the potential to become a classic. It raises questions that every democratic theorist and practitioner should take seriously. It is certain to provoke significant discussion."--Jane Mansbridge, Harvard University


"Democracy for Realists is a terrific book. It takes on big questions, is brimming with smart analysis and crisp argumentation, and the writing is elegant. There is pleasure and provocation on nearly every page. Achen and Bartels have made a major contribution to modern social science."--Donald R. Kinder, coauthor of The End of Race? Obama, 2008, and Racial Politics in America




Christopher H. Achen is the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and professor of politics at Princeton University. His books include The European Union Decides.

Larry M. Bartels holds the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. His books include Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton).