Democracy for Realists, Part II

<Part I>

Some might argue that the disconnect between voting patterns and policy outcomes is a result of the political system. The argument might go something like, ‘It’s not the voters’ fault that politicians don’t reflect the will of the people; the corruption of political institutions is the culprit. If we could just put more power in the hands of the people and out of the hands of politicians, things would be better.’ This strain of thinking, best summed up as ‘the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy,’ was a motivating force behind the Populist and Progressive movements in late 19th and early 20th century America and is fundamentally based on the folk theory of democracy. It still clings to the notion that voters have coherent and independent policy preferences.

But as the Achen and Bartels point out, the available evidence doesn’t look great here either. They look at two prominent examples of ‘more’ democracy: the progressive era reforms of the referendum, recall, and initiative; and the opening of the party primary system. We’ll begin with the latter.

It’s worth recalling that the direct primary system is relatively new, arising only at the turn of the 20th century and becoming dominant in both parties by the 70s. Before that, nominees were largely determined by party elites at conventions in the proverbial smoke filled rooms. Direct primaries were intended to dilute the power of party elites and put more power in the hands of the people. Yet, as the authors quote an early 20th century political scientist,

“Politics has been, and always will be carried on by politicians, just as art is carried on by artists…All that the direct primary, or any other political reform, can do is to affect the character of the politicians by altering the conditions that govern political activity.The direct primary may take advantage and opportunity from one set of politicians and confer them upon another set, but politicians there will always be so long as there is politics.” (p.62)

The authors point to recent studies that suggest that in nominating contests, voters do about as good as chance in selecting candidates that claim to represent their values and priorities. The variability of political candidates has increased since primary reforms. While measuring the quality of political candidates is fraught with subjectivity, few would argue that there has been any meaningful increase since the 70s, and there is certainly a case to be made that average quality has become lower since the reforms (the 2016 election season as exhibit A). Suspiciously, a strong increase in political polarization has occurred in this same time frame.

Think for a moment of the sets of skills that would result in winning a party’s nomination under the two different systems, the convention system and the primary system. Under the former, there is the ability to negotiate and bargain with elites, the ability to navigate the halls of power. Under the latter is the ability to activate and motivate the base of people who tend to be die-hards and show up for primary elections.

Consider also a politician’s governing ability as an unobservable variable which is correlated with other types of observable skills. For POTUS, for example, we can’t know if a candidate will be a good president a priori, because there is no job comparable to the presidency. What we can know are whether they possess traits that tend to be correlated with good presidenting. Which of the above sets of skills is more likely to be correlated with good governance? Obviously the former, yet we have moved to a system that rewards the latter.

In the 2016 election, the elites of the Republican party were opposed to Donald Trump, but the primary system ensured that he prevailed in the nomination contest. Trump was better able to motivate a die hard base, despite being opposed by the majority of his party, and now only two weeks into his presidency the unfitness for the office has become glaringly obvious. I fear that absent reforms, Trump will not be the last demagogue to win the office. 

Beyond controlling the nomination process, the desire for ‘more’ democracy was taken even further with the implementation of the initiative and referendum in several states during the progressive era, putting the tools of lawmaking directly into the hands of the people. Here too, the reforms have been problematic. Parallel with the quote above, the initiative and referendum have resulted less in a transfer of power from politicians to the people, but rather a transfer of power from elected lawmakers to outside, unaccountable actors. Many initiatives and referenda are proposed and funded by non-local actors, typically monied interests who travel from state to state. A 2002 bipartisan task force on the initiative and referendum reported

“After listening to expert testimony from a wide variety of witnesses and compiling data from all 50 states, the task force concluded that the initiative has evolved from its early days as a grassroots tool to enhance representative democracy into a tool that too often is exploited by special interests. The initiative lacks critical elements of the legislative process and can have both intended and unintended effects on the ability of the representative democratic process to comprehensively develop policies and priorities.”

Further issues abound. As is well known in the world of polling, people are highly sensitive to wording; a different framing of a question can result in significantly different support. And voters, divorced from the requisite knowledge of how government actually functions, have no problem simultaneously demanding lower taxes and greater services. The problems in the wake of the California’s Proposition 13 tax revolt have had entire books written about them.

As a small example, this last election cycle my home state of South Dakota had a number of such measures on the ballot, including several constitutional amendments. Is it reasonable to expect voters to have an informed opinion on, say, the governance of postsecondary technical education institutes? Whether the state constitution should cap interest rates?

This isn’t to say the initiative and referendum have no value; after all, we could imagine that legislators would be unlikely to pass measures to regulate themselves. However, legislators tend to be able to override the measures they don’t like; South Dakota passed a campaign finance reform measure in 2016 that was swiftly repealed by the legislature only weeks later. It seems that overall, the benefits do not outweigh the costs.


To recap again, the folk theory of democracy, which underpins our common instincts about politics, is simply wrong. It is based on a fatally flawed presumption that most individuals independently develop views on important policy questions, and from those views make voting decisions.

To be sure, there are people who are deeply interested in questions of policy and take well researched, consistent positions on issues. But the majority of us do not do this, nor is it reasonable to expect people to. The world is complicated and constantly changing, and to expect either a grocery cashier or an airline pilot to do research on the Trans Pacific Partnership and properly weigh its potential effects on his or her life before backing a candidate, is absurd.

Rejecting the folk theorem is disorienting, especially to people (like me) who are very interested in policy issues. Once you know where to look, you see the thinking everywhere; and indeed, many political scientists have been aware of these problems for decades and have worked hard to develop an alternative understanding of how democracy operates. It is to this model, the accountability model, we will turn next.


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