Democracy for Realists | Christopher H. Achen

Summary of: Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton Studies in Political Behavior, 1)
By: Christopher H. Achen

Introduction

Dive into the captivating book summary of Democracy for Realists as it challenges the traditional populist view of democracy and sheds light on the reality of American politics. Discover how voters are often not driven by ideology, but by group identity, with party loyalty often outweighing personal views. Uncover the factors that shape voter behavior, the impact of group affiliations, and the ways in which democracy is manipulated by elites and corporations. By recognizing the influence of these non-idealistic forces, we open the door to understanding how the democratic process could be fine-tuned to foster a more egalitarian society.

The Flawed Populist View of Democracy

The populist view of democracy is the widely held belief that ordinary citizens should govern and determine government policies. However, this idealistic view breaks down when confronted with reality and research. The electoral system does not ensure that elected representatives obey the will of their constituents, and politicians are often able to follow their own agendas. Public opinion is frequently ill-informed, and citizens lack the interest and motivation to learn about and engage in politics. Direct democracy processes and the belief in the populist theory of democracy can also be manipulated by elites for their own ends. Despite its virtues, democracy is not infallible, and it is crucial to recognize its limitations and flaws to improve its functioning.

Rethinking Democracy

In the 1960s, political theorists struggled to reconcile the logical problems created by the mathematical models of politics constructed by economists in the 1950s. The spatial model of politics created elegant conclusions regarding democracy until theorists extended it to multiple dimensions and realized the impossibility of satisfying the majority with one political platform. These discoveries led to the development of retrospective voting, which requires voters only to consider how incumbents have performed in the past. However, studies showed that this theory also fails in practice, as voters do not base their choices on rational assessments of incumbents’ job performance. In essence, democracy remained a justifying political ideology, despite the profound reassessments of how it works.

The Role of Identity Theory In Understanding Voter Behavior

Political theorists should consider the factors that truly drive voter behavior, which identity theory explains in a more effective way. Most American voters take their political ideas and loyalties from the groups they identify with. Group identification is more emotional than rational, shaping an individual’s political leanings. People develop a sense of belonging to a social class, ethnicity, political party, religion, or other groups, and then embrace the values and beliefs that provide a basis for belonging to that group. Therefore, social group identities play a more critical role than ideology in choosing a political party. Historical data analysis shows that identity is central to understanding political shifts over time. For instance, support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s policies depended mostly on voters’ ethnic identification in the 1930s. Conversely, voters’ views on John F. Kennedy’s campaign and presidency varied mostly based on their feelings towards Catholicism in the 1960s. The abortion issue triggered party realignments in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to women abandoning the Republican Party at much higher rates than men because the issue primarily related to women’s gender identity. In contrast, men tended to change views on abortion to match their party’s position instead of switching parties.

The Paradox of the Informed Voter

Most voters lack knowledge about policy-making and make decisions based on group loyalty rather than ideology or logical arguments. Even with improved access to education and information, voters often vote against their own interests and respond differently to survey questions depending on how they are phrased. This paradox highlights the importance of bridging the gap between policymakers and the public by presenting information effectively and avoiding assumptions about voter knowledge and preferences.

The Influence of Party Allegiance

Political beliefs typically stem from one’s party allegiance, shaped by social identities, attachments, and often inaccurate perceptions.

According to some political scientists, partisanship can serve as a significant basis for democracy. People tend to choose parties that represent their interests and views. However, most people absorb their political beliefs and opinions from the candidates and parties they choose to support. Even when voters’ views oscillate, their loyalty to the party persists, diverging from their personal perspectives and beliefs.

The ideology appears to be, at best, a byproduct of more fundamental partisan and group loyalties for most ordinary citizens. Party members tend to misconceive candidates’ and parties’ positions and records to maintain their loyalty. For instance, in 1996, researchers asked voters about the change in the US federal budget deficit during Bill Clinton’s first term, a topic heavily featured in the media. Fewer than 8% of Democrats and 4% of Republicans knew that the deficit had significantly decreased. Among Republicans, nearly 23% believed that it had increased significantly.

So how do people form their party allegiances? They often inherit loyalties from their parents and never stray. But more importantly, party allegiances are shaped by social identities and attachments, and frequently, an accurate perception of how a party has benefited them.

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