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Democracy: It Isn’t What You Think

by Germaine Descant, published

The folk theory of democracy

The common perception holds that the people elect their leaders at the polls and then hold them accountable for representing their will. The folk theory is appealing because it puts the will of the people and their interests at the heart of government. Sovereignty resides with the people who control the agenda.

Voters act as government watchdogs to enforce shared values and curb abuses. Voters correct their mistakes or punish failure at the polls by changing governments, while rewarding competence with continued time in power.

My guess is that many readers would at least suspect that there’s something not quite right with the folk theory. For example, many people believe that one or both parties and the will of the people are often or usually co-opted by special interests backed by money in politics. That’s out of sync with the common perception of democracy. Those people would be correct in their suspicions.

A recently published book, Democracy For Realists: Why Elections Do not Produce Responsive Governments (Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels (“A&B”), Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, April 2016) analyzes data on the nature of voting and democracy in America and other countries from the early 1900s through 2012. Much of what they find isn’t anywhere close to what people believe about the elements of democracy under the folk theory -- e.g., where sovereignty resides, “the will of the people,” or the true nature of voters’ role in democracy.

If the current election season is any indication, most Americans are pretty unhappy with the state of affairs in their democracy. They see something wrong. So do A&B:

“One consequence of our reliance on old definitions is that the modern American does not look at democracy before he defines it; he defines it first and then is confused by what he sees. We become cynical about democracy because the public does not act the way the simplistic definition of democracy says it should act, or we try to whip the public into doing things it does not want to do, is unable to do, and has too much sense to do. The crisis here is not a crisis in democracy but a crisis in theory.”

Give that observation a moment to sink in. Don’t overlook the phrase “is unable to do.” That reflects the reality that most people (> 90% ?) don’t pay attention to politics, often can’t pay attention and are biologically too limited to understand what’s going on even if they tried:

“. . . . the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. . . . cherished ideas and judgments we bring to politics are stereotypes and simplifications with little room for adjustment as the facts change. . . . . the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. Although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage it.”

From the biological point of view, that’s reality, not a criticism of people or their limitations. Almost everything in politics, if not everything, is more complex than people give it credit for. And, most if it is either at least partially hidden from the public, distorted in the name of “free speech,” or both.

It is hard to understate the role of cognitive biology and associated human behavior in politics. A&B point out that “a democratic theory worthy of serious social influence must engage with the findings of modern social science.” Although A&B’s book dissects democratic theory and analyzes mountains of science and history data from the last hundred years or so, the exercise is really about analyzing the role of human cognitive biology as it pertains to how democracy works. Our beliefs about democracy are shaped much more by human biology than political theory.

In Democracy for Realists, A&B assert that democratic theory has to adapt to the reality of what democracy is. That directly reflects the necessity of understanding human biology by analyzing the data.

Two points exemplify the case that this is about human biology first and what political theory needs to do to be helpful. The first point is that the “will of the people” that’s so central to the folk theory is a myth. There is no such thing as the will of the people. The people are divided on most everything and they usually don’t know what they want.

For example, voter opinions can be very sensitive to variation on how questions are worded. This reflects a powerful cognitive bias called framing effects. Marketers and politicians are acutely aware of unconscious biases and they use them with a vengeance to get what they want.

For example, in one 1980s survey, about 64% said there was too little federal spending on “assistance to the poor” but only about 23% said that there was too little spending on “welfare.” The 1980s was the decade when vilification of “welfare” was common from the political right.

Before the 1991 Gulf War, about 63% said they were willing to “use military force”, but less than 50% were willing to “engage in combat”, while less than 30% were willing to “go to war.” Again, the overwhelmingly subjective nature of political concepts is obvious, i.e., assistance vs. welfare and military force vs. combat vs. war. Where is the will of the people in any of this? If it is there, what is it?

Serving the will of the people under the folk theory of democracy is often hard or impossible because there’s often no way to know what it is.

The second point is that voters usually don’t rationally hold politicians accountable for failure or reward them for success. People don’t logically distinguish success from failure. A&B point out that politicians are routinely voted out of office for things they cannot logically be held accountable for. For example, droughts, floods and an increase in shark attacks (yes, shark attacks) routinely cost incumbent presidents significant numbers of votes.

On economic issues, voters only take a few months leading up to an election to decide if a president or party has done well. Data analysis suggests that if the 1938 recession had occurred two years earlier, FDR would not have been re-elected and the New Deal would have ended.

Similar “myopic” voting in the 1930s occurred in other countries and ideology had nothing to do with it. Perceptions of success and failure dominated voting in response to the Great Depression, not anything else.

That voting behavior contradicts the notion that voters rationally reward success and punish failure. In other words, politicians have little incentive to adhere to the folk theory. They know that their own success and failure can easily depend on things outside their control. That’s another key aspect of the folk theory that the data blows to smithereens.

If democracy is so strange, then what’s the point of doing more research? A&B give compelling reasons. They argue that “the mental frameworks” that both liberals and conservatives employ can be defended “only by willful denial of a great deal of credible evidence . . . . intellectual honesty requires all of us to grapple with the corrosive implications of that evidence for our understanding of democracy.”

Social identity & flawed fixes

Collectively, A&B see the data as showing that most voters vote less on policy preferences or ideology, and more on who they are or their social identities. For most voters, social identity shapes most thinking and voting behavior. That largely “reflects and reinforces social loyalties.”

Interestingly, A&B observe that our flawed perception of democracy have led to flawed remedies to reform it. Such fixes, including term limits and state level ballot initiatives, often undercut what people want from their democracy. Instead of acting to make democracy fit the theory, “more democracy” fixes that voters keep trying have wound up shifting power to organized special interests.

Why understanding democracy is important

The point is clear. If you don’t understand how and why democracy works, you can’t fix what you don’t like about it. Therefore, go figure out what democracy really is, not what one thinks it is or should be. A&B have gone a long way toward pointing out how and why it works. However, solutions to democracy issues are not clear. It may require years of empirical trial and error.

Despite the surprising nature of democracy, A&B point to a more rational understanding of how things work. That is encouraging. The disappointment is that solutions are not so obvious.

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