What do sharks have to do with democracy? Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels explain

democracy for realists achen jacketAre modern ideas of American democracy fundamentally misguided? Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels examines the faults of current democratic logic that have led the majority of people to make misinformed opinions about politics.  As Achen and Bartels note, “politics is often not very cheery. But facing our problems honestly is the first step toward doing something about them.” In this spirit, the authors have taken time to explain their reasons for writing this book, what conventional ideas about democracy they oppose, the presidential primaries, and even shark attacks.

Why did the two of you write this book?

CA & LB: Working at different universities in the late 1990s, we discovered that we had come to quite similar intuitions about how American democracy works. Those intuitions were very different from what most people think, including most of our political scientist friends. We decided to write a book together. But turning those preliminary, unconventional thoughts into a serious argument backed by detailed evidence took more than a decade.

What are the conventional American ideas about democracy that you oppose?

CA & LB: Fundamentally, we Americans have abandoned the ideas of the Founders as expressed in the Federalist Papers, and we have substituted notions derived ultimately from the French Enlightenment. We think of ourselves as thoughtful, informed, rational, fundamentally decent people. We imagine that the problems of government are due to bad politicians and corrupt institutions. Thus most of us believe that, to the extent possible, government should be turned over to all of us as citizens, with as little role for governmental institutions and elected officials as possible. We think of that as “democracy,” and we believe that the more democracy, the better.

The problem is that a mountain of social science evidence has accumulated about our human capacities to run the government solely from the voting booth. That evidence shows that people are just people, with all the limited horizons, prejudices, and mistakes that characterize all of us as human beings. The judgments of the voters are an important part of democracy, but they cannot be the only part. Just as the various branches of government require balancing by the others, so also the judgments of voters need to be balanced by other societal and governmental institutions, including parties and elected officials. To think otherwise is to delude and flatter ourselves with an inflated view of our capacities, as the Founders understood.

We heard that there is something about shark attacks in this book. What do sharks have to do with democracy?

CA & LB: Many thoughtful scholars believe that a democratic election is primarily a referendum on the performance of the incumbents. If the people in office have performed well, the voters re-elect them. If not, the voters throw the bums out. That sounds good until one realizes that the voters have to know whether the incumbents really are bums. If things have gone badly lately, is that the government’s fault? Can the voters sort out credit and blame?

This is where the sharks enter our book. In the summer of 1916, New Jersey was plagued by a series of shark attacks along its Atlantic shore. Four people died. Just as in the “Jaws” movies, which were based on the New Jersey events, people stayed away from the beach in droves, and the Jersey Shore economy was devastated. Woodrow Wilson was running for re-election that summer. He and his administration did everything they could to solve the problem, but then as now, no one could control sharks. The attacks were no one’s fault, but the voters bit back anyway. In the Shore towns, Wilson’s vote in November dropped precipitously.

The irrational voting due to the sharks is not a special case. We also show that the voters blame the incumbents when it rains too much or too little. We estimate, for example, that Al Gore lost seven states in 2000 because they were too dry or too wet—more than enough to cost him the presidency. In these cases and in many other ways, the voters are often overwhelmed by the challenges of casting a well-informed, sensible vote.

In light of those ideas, how are you thinking about the presidential primaries this year?

CA & LB: We finished our book well before this year’s primaries began. We feel that every primary season illustrates the problems and the political forces that we have identified, although this year may furnish particularly clear examples. Our central argument is that people primarily vote their social, religious, and political identities, not their ideas or their policy preferences. The identities create the preferences, not the other way around. Voters typically know a candidate only from television and the Internet, and they look for a politician who reinforces and validates their own group loyalties. Particularly when economic times are hard, those identities can become quite antagonistic.

As a result, neophytes, demagogues, and extremists often do well in primaries. The people in politics who know them personally, and who know how unsuitable they are to be president, are cut out of the process, or have only a limited role, perhaps as convention super-delegates. The result is many foolish, even dangerous choices. We Americans think that this way of hurting ourselves is “more democratic.” But again, the authors of the U.S. constitution knew better.

That certainly doesn’t sound very cheery. Why should we read this book?

CA & LB: Politics is often not very cheery. But facing our problems honestly is the first step toward doing something about them.

As one important example, the way we pick presidents now is worrisome. It’s been worrisome, even scary, for several decades now, and yet we have drifted along pretending that all is well. It’s like skipping inoculations and then finding yourself, too late, in an epidemic. The usual ways of thinking about democracy have brought us to this point, and most of the reform proposals we have seen miss the fundamental issues and will make little or no difference. In our view, we need to rethink in a much deeper way. That is what this book is about.

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). Their most recent book together is Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.

Throwback Thursday #TBT: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson

Happy Thursday, everybody! Welcome to a new edition of Throwback Thursday! On this week’s #TBT, we’re discussing Princeton University Press’s massive ongoing series, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.

Projected to fill 60 volumes, the series began in 1950 with the publication of its first installment. The latest volume, 41, will be published early next year. Featuring all of Jefferson’s 18,000 letters as well as the more than 25,000 letters written to him, this magnificent project encompasses the third president’s private life and his contributions to American history, and represents an indispensable resource for historians. Barbara G. Oberg currently serves as the series’s general editor.

Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826 was published in 1997 as part of the Second Series of The Papers. This volume contains the most detailed coverage of Jefferson’s everyday life, and offer fascinating insights into the man’s mind. The Journal of Southern History called the volume “a resource rich in possibility for those who seek to understand the man and his world.”

We hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of #TBT. See you next Thursday!

 

 

The 50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination

JFKToday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The 35th President of the United States, he was one of four presidents who have ever been assassinated while in office (the other three being Lincoln, McKinley and Garfield). He was shot and killed in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963 at 12:30 pm.

To honor JFK and all of our fearless leaders of the United States since George Washington was inaugurated in 1789, we’re posting a list of some of our best presidential titles to remind us all of the dedication these men put forth in their time leading our country.

Rest in Peace, Mr. President.


Quotable Jefferson
The Quotable Jefferson

Collected & Edited by John P. Kaminski

The Quotable Jefferson is the first book to put Jefferson’s words in context with a substantial introduction, a chronology of Jefferson’s life, the source of each quotation, an appendix identifying Jefferson’s correspondents, and a comprehensive index. The main section of Jefferson quotations, which are arranged alphabetically by topic, is followed by three other fascinating sections of quotations: Jefferson on his contemporaries, his contemporaries on him, and Jefferson on himself.

Nixon
Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents

Edited and Introduced by Rick Perlstein

The first book to present America’s most controversial president in his own words across his entire career, this unique collection of Richard Nixon’s most important writings dramatically demonstrates why he has had such a profound impact on American life. This volume gathers everything from schoolboy letters to geostrategic manifestos and Oval Office transcripts to create a fascinating portrait of Nixon, one that is enriched by an extensive introduction in which Rick Perlstein puts forward a major reinterpretation of the thirty-seventh president’s rise and fall.

Reagan
Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980’s

By: Gil Troy

Did America’s fortieth president lead a conservative counterrevolution that left liberalism gasping for air? The answer, for both his admirers and his detractors, is often “yes.” In Morning in America, Gil Troy argues that the Great Communicator was also the Great Conciliator. His pioneering and lively reassessment of Ronald Reagan’s legacy takes us through the 1980s in ten year-by-year chapters, integrating the story of the Reagan presidency with stories of the decade’s cultural icons and watershed moments-from personalities to popular television shows.

Bush
The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment

Edited by Julian E. Zelizer

The Presidency of George W. Bush brings together some of today’s top American historians to offer the first in-depth look at one of the most controversial U.S. presidencies. Emotions surrounding the Bush presidency continue to run high–conservatives steadfastly defend its achievements, liberals call it a disgrace. This book examines the successes as well as the failures, covering every major aspect of Bush’s two terms in office. It puts issues in broad historical context to reveal the forces that shaped and constrained Bush’s presidency–and the ways his presidency reshaped the nation.

Obama
Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (New in Paper)

By: James T. Kloppenberg

Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama’s commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama’s positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America’s role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted–although currently unfashionable–convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

Presidential Leadership
Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era

By: Joseph S. Nye, Jr

Spanning multiple presidencies, this book examines the foreign policy decisions of the presidents who presided over the most critical phases of America’s rise to world primacy in the twentieth century, and assesses the effectiveness and ethics of their choices. The book shows how transformational presidents like Wilson and Reagan changed how America sees the world, but argues that transactional presidents like Eisenhower and the elder Bush were sometimes more effective and ethical. It also draws important lessons for today’s uncertain world, in which presidential decision making is more critical than ever.

Presidential Difference
The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama (Third Edition)

By: Fred I. Greenstein

In The Presidential Difference, Greenstein provides a fascinating and instructive account of the presidential qualities that have served well and poorly in the Oval Office, beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first hundred days. He surveys each president’s political skill, vision, cognitive style, organizational capacity, ability to communicate, and emotional intelligence–and argues that the last is the most important in predicting presidential success. Throughout, Greenstein offers a series of bottom-line judgments on each of his 13 subjects as well as an overarching theory of why presidents succeed or fail.


Jonathan M. Ladd Named Finalist for 2012 Frank Luther Mott Award

Jonathan M. Ladd – Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters
Finalist for the 2012 Frank Luther Mott – Kappa Tau Alpha Journalism and Mass Communication Research Award

The award is given in honor of Frank Luther Mott, Pulitzer Prize winner, educator and long-time leader of Kappa Tau Alpha. The competition has been held annually since1944. The prize was presented Aug. 9 in Washington, D.C. during the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

To read more about this award, click here.

Why Americans Hate The Media and How It MattersAs recently as the early 1970s, the news media was one of the most respected institutions in the United States. Yet by the 1990s, this trust had all but evaporated. Why has confidence in the press declined so dramatically over the past 40 years? And has this change shaped the public’s political behavior? This book examines waning public trust in the institutional news media within the context of the American political system and looks at how this lack of confidence has altered the ways people acquire political information and form electoral preferences.

Jonathan Ladd argues that in the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s, competition in American party politics and the media industry reached historic lows. When competition later intensified in both of these realms, the public’s distrust of the institutional media grew, leading the public to resist the mainstream press’s information about policy outcomes and turn toward alternative partisan media outlets. As a result, public beliefs and voting behavior are now increasingly shaped by partisan predispositions. Ladd contends that it is not realistic or desirable to suppress party and media competition to the levels of the mid-twentieth century; rather, in the contemporary media environment, new ways to augment the public’s knowledgeability and responsiveness must be explored.

Drawing on historical evidence, experiments, and public opinion surveys, this book shows that in a world of endless news sources, citizens’ trust in institutional media is more important than ever before.

Jonathan M. Ladd is associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University. He received his PhD in politics from Princeton University.

In Honor Of Those Who Have Served

It’s Veteran’s Day! In honor of those who have bravely fought to protect our country, the Press is taking a moment to thank those men and women who have risked their lives for this amazing country and its people. On such an occasion, it only makes sense to share some of our titles with you all that highlight the wars we’ve fought and the democracy we’ve worked so hard to build, neither of which would be possible without people to protect and defend us.

Thank you to all those who have served!


The Confidence Trap
The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present

By: David Runciman
In this wide-ranging, original, and compelling book, David Runciman tells the story of modern democracy through the history of moments of crisis, from the First World War to the economic crash of 2008. A global history with a special focus on the United States, The Confidence Trap examines how democracy survived threats ranging from the Great Depression to the Cuban missile crisis, and from Watergate to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It also looks at the confusion and uncertainty created by unexpected victories, from the defeat of German autocracy in 1918 to the defeat of communism in 1989.

Five Days in August
Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War

By: Michael D. Gordin
Most Americans believe that the Second World War ended because the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan forced it to surrender. Five Days in August boldly presents a different interpretation: that the military did not clearly understand the atomic bomb’s revolutionary strategic potential, that the Allies were almost as stunned by the surrender as the Japanese were by the attack, and that not only had experts planned and fully anticipated the need for a third bomb, they were skeptical about whether the atomic bomb would work at all. With these ideas, Michael Gordin reorients the historical and contemporary conversation about the A-bomb and World War II.

Nothing Less Than Victory
Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History

By: John David Lewis
The goal of war is to defeat the enemy’s will to fight. But how this can be accomplished is a thorny issue. Nothing Less than Victory provocatively shows that aggressive, strategic military offenses can win wars and establish lasting peace, while defensive maneuvers have often led to prolonged carnage, indecision, and stalemate. Taking an ambitious and sweeping look at six major wars, from antiquity to World War II, John David Lewis shows how victorious military commanders have achieved long-term peace by identifying the core of the enemy’s ideological, political, and social support for a war, fiercely striking at this objective, and demanding that the enemy acknowledges its defeat.

How Wars End
How Wars End

By: Dan Reiter
Why do some countries choose to end wars short of total victory while others fight on, sometimes in the face of appalling odds? How Wars End argues that two central factors shape war-termination decision making: information about the balance of power and the resolve of one’s enemy, and fears that the other side’s commitment to abide by a war-ending peace settlement may not be credible. How Wars End concludes with a timely discussion of twentieth-century American foreign policy, framing the Bush Doctrine’s emphasis on preventive war in the context of the theory.

Paying The Human Costs of War
Paying the Human Costs of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts

By: Christopher Gelpi, Peter D. Feaver & Jason Reifler
From the Korean War to the current conflict in Iraq, Paying the Human Costs of War examines the ways in which the American public decides whether to support the use of military force. Contrary to the conventional view, the authors demonstrate that the public does not respond reflexively and solely to the number of casualties in a conflict. Instead, the book argues that the public makes reasoned and reasonable cost-benefit calculations for their continued support of a war based on the justifications for it and the likelihood it will succeed, along with the costs that have been suffered in casualties. Of these factors, the book finds that the most important consideration for the public is the expectation of success.

Our Army
Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations

By: Jason K. Dempsey
Conventional wisdom holds that the American military is overwhelmingly conservative and Republican, and extremely political. Our Army paints a more complex picture, demonstrating that while army officers are likely to be more conservative, rank-and-file soldiers hold political views that mirror those of the American public as a whole, and army personnel are less partisan and politically engaged than most civilians. Our Army adds needed nuance to our understanding of a profession that seems increasingly distant from the average American.


Alan Greenspan Calls The Battle of Bretton Woods “Excellent”

Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, recently recommended The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order in an interview for the Associated Press, calling it “excellent”. The author of the book, Benn Steil, was delighted to see this tweet from Liberty News a few days ago, spreading the news of this exciting endorsement. You can read the full article from the Associated Press here.

Liberty News

Angela E. Stent Interviews with TVO About “The Limits of Partnership”

The conflict in Syria has strained an already tenuous relationship between the United States and Russia. The Story of the Week over at TVO: the US and Russian clash over what to do about Syria.

Angela E. Stent, a professor of government and foreign service and director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University, weighs in on the conflict. Her recent book, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century, makes her an expert on the topic.