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Democracy for Realists

mercredi 02 novembre 2016

This election in the US has got me thinking a lot about democracy and how it works, or in this case, doesn't seem to work too well. I get the impression that people don't choose their candidates based on the candidate's policy positions matching their own, but the opposite - they choose their policies based on which candidate or political party they support. Well I just read this book, Democracy for Realists, by C. Achen and L. Bartels, which confirms my fears and goes far beyond that to totally demolish what they call the "folk theory of democracy" using statistics and facts.

What they refer to as the "folk theory of democracy" is basically what you are taught in school - that democracies are responsive to the will of the people and allow people to shape the policies and laws of the government; that the people decide what the government will do. By analyzing election results and other statistics, they take a number of theories about how democracies allow the people to express their will and test them, and find them all woefully lacking. It turns out that only one theory holds up, and that is that voters reward or punish their representatives based on the voters economic prosperity. But the voters are extremely myopic, only taking into account the few months prior to an election when casting their votes and disregarding the rest of the preceeding couple years.

The Founding Fathers of the US set up a representative democracy because they understood that the normal people wouldn't know enough about politics or policy to really make well-informed decisions. So instead of the people voting on the laws the people would elect representatives that they trust to vote on the laws. The representatives would devote their time to studying and debating the issues and would make well-informed decisions. However the Founding Fathers never anticipated the rise of political parties, which today are so firmly entrenched that most people don't even realize they were never part of the plan. 

The folk theory says that people will choose their party based on their political ideology or policy preferences, but in reality it is just as often the other way - people will develop their policy preference based on their partisan identity. The authors go beyond this to say that the party affiliation is mostly based on a person's "social identity" and has little to nothing to do with their political ideology. The way the book describes it people choose their party affiliation based on the kind of person they consider themselves to be and the kind of people they think belong to the political party. As far as I can tell this is basically a fancy way of saying "peer pressure" - if your family is Republican and your friends are Republican you are likely to be a Republican even if you disagree with Republican policies. In fact, people will often either change their ideology to match their party's, or convince themselves that their party's ideology is closer to their own than it actually is. 

Politics today has become so complex that it is nearly impossible for any normal working person to really understand or make well-informed decisions about all of the policies. In order to be able to handle issues this complex we need to simplify them greatly into mental models which unfortunately omit most of the detail and nuance. Instead of having to consider the myriad sides of an issue and the numerous approaches, we take the talking points that the political parties and the mass media give us and just accept and repeat them. It's a lot easier than having to gather massive amounts of information, sort through it, analyze it and come up with our own opinions. One theory is that political parties provide us with easy cues to figure out what our opinions would be if we had enough time and information for us to come up with them on our own, but this theory is also analyzed and largely debunked.

So if the results of elections have little to do with the policy positions of the candidates and the policy preferences of the voters, then what does drive the elections? Well it turns out it's largely random. Voters will reliably vote out the party in power if the economic wellbeing of the voter has decreased in the months before the election, and vote to keep the party in power if their economic wellbeing has increased just before the election. Voters will also vote out the party in power as a result of things beyond the power of any human to control like floods, droughts, and even shark attacks. But the policy preferences of voters really have little to no effect on elections, other than the fact that many people only develop their policy preferences based on adopting those of the party or candidate they support.

This isn't to say that democracy doesn't work at all, it just doesn't work in the way that it is supposed to work and the way I was taught that it works in school. Because politicians do have to be re-elected they must avoid the appearance of impropriety and appear as if they have the best interests of the people in mind. This at least prevents gross abuses that are typical in dictatorships. But as to whether the people really have much say in determing government policy, it would seem that the answer is no.

Personally I think that the party system in the US is a major factor in this. With only two parties dominating the government, they get their voters worked up about silly issues that aren't really all that important and then once they are in power they are largely indistinguishable, except that they keep their members constantly angry with the other party over these wedge issues which will never be addressed. The only people who really have a say in the government are the wealthy donors and corporations who fund the elections and pay the lobbyists. But that is a different book.

I'm sure this book will upset a lot of people because it challenges some basic assumptions people have about America and about democracy in America. People tend to accept facts that confirm the opinions they already have, and get upset when facts contradict their existing opinions. This book really makes you have to think about democracy and how it works and how it doesn't work. I think this is a book that everyone needs to read.

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