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.