Democracy for Realists, Part VI

In light of the evidence presented so far, we should be left with many questions, chiefly: Why is democracy the best form of government? Is democracy the best form of government?

Let’s return to the question that opened this series: what exactly is it we all like so much about democracy? The historical appeal of democracy has been the concept that voters should be represented, not merely governed. As the influence of the rationalist, individualist Enlightenment grew into the folk theory, the justification for democracy expanded into the idea that the power of government is located not only in the consent of the governed, but their political judgement as well. Given that we have already dispensed with this theoretical underpinning, is there anything left about democracy we can salvage?

Achen and Bartels believe that despite their shortcomings, elections are the fundamental strength of our system of government. They give the following reasons:

  1. Elections provide widely accepted agreement about who rules
  2. Regular party turnover ensures no one becomes entrenched in power
  3. 1 and 2 above give incentives for politicians to tolerate opposition
  4. Democratic political engagement has important implications for civic competence and other virtues
  5. Gives politicians incentive to avoid violating consensual ethical norms

I’ll note that I’m not so sure about 4 and 5. The authors leave unclear what 4 means; perhaps the argument is that, despite the fallacy of ‘feeling like we’re thinking’, democracy has positive spillover effects into other avenues of civic life? Regarding 5, the way the current administration has been playing out seems suggests that partisanship transcends (or shall we say…trumps) these norms. But the first three seem reasonable.

So, how do elections operate in the realist view of democracy?

First and foremost, a political campaign’s main function is to remind voters of their partisan identity; to activate and mobilize their base. The goal of a campaign is not to convince voters of the strength of their candidate’s political philosophy or policy program. As the authors write, “[A]t election time, voters choose a party validating their social and political identities, then rationalize their decisions with appropriate party-supplied reasons.” (p. 311)

“People sort out their group loyalties in ways that are meaningful to them, giving priority to some commitments while downplaying others. The result is that no group’s members belong exclusively to one party…Partisan loyalties reflect the way people understand their own lives, jobs, religious views, ancestral identities, family traditions, and personal ties. For ordinary citizens, parties make sense – if they make sense at all – in social identity terms, not as ideological frameworks.” (pp. 308-309)

(In this light, the legal structures in the United States around campaign spending and Super PACs are made all the more laughable, because issue advertising may as well be the exact same as advertising for a candidate; both are seeking to arouse the same feelings in voters. Issue ads may even be a more powerful motivator than regular candidate ads in many instances.)

The effects documented earlier in the book, like the importance of income growth in the six months before an election, and the reaction to natural disasters, still apply of course. But we should understand them as marginal effects – most voters are partisans, and only those with weaker attachments will be the swing vote. The larger the shock, the more the chance of swinging.

If we accept that elections are largely driven by group identity, with elements of randomness from external shocks, what are the implications for policy? To quote again from Achen and Bartels:

“In every society, policy-making is a job for specialists. Policies are made by political elites of one kind or another…Descriptions of the actual policy-making process return repeatedly to the same concepts – power and influence. Some officials, groups, and organizations are powerful; others are not…The resulting differences between them in getting their way are enormous. Sheer group size helps, but wealth, social prestige, and access to media of communication and persuasion often bring greater power, both in their own right and as resources facilitating organization.

If voters are to have their interests represented in the policy-making process, then, interest groups and parties have to do the work. And the organizations representing different interests have to have power in the policy-making process proportional to their presence in the electorate. The rich, the well-placed, and the well-organized cannot have extra power to advance their interests. Too often…naive reformers have imagined have imagined that the pseudo-democratization bestowed by plebiscites would solve all these problems cheaply and easily. To the contrary, spelling out the simple normative perspective of equal power in the context of an honest description of the policy-making process makes it only too clear how far we have to go to become seriously democratic.” (pp. 321-322)

A fact that is little appreciated among Americans is that our political parties are actually extraordinarily weak, despite strong partisanship. Our party system is very decentralized; anyone can choose to run as whichever party they wish in a primary; no approval from any sort of party leadership is required. In most other democracies, parties have at least some control over who runs, as with closed list systems or mixed member proportional representation systems.

As with everything, there are costs and benefits to any kind of electoral system. Ours was explicitly designed for a country without parties. Obviously, that situation did not last long, yet the founding generation’s skepticism of political faction remains deep in our DNA. We have a campaign finance system where we donate to individual candidates, not parties. We have, over time, removed more and more power from our parties as organizations – the leadership of the party no longer even has any say over who their own presidential candidates are (!).

Along with the dismantling of the folk theory, this may be the most important point of the book: “[E]ffective democracy requires an appropriate balance between popular preferences and elite expertise. The point of reform should not simply be to maximize popular influence in the political process, but to facilitate more effective popular influence. We need to learn to let political parties and political leaders do their jobs, too.” (p.303, emphasis original)

Our party system needs serious reform – parties need to be stronger, not weaker, if they are to serve as a countervailing force to the most powerful actors in society. The challenge is in finding a way to do that such that parties are not captured by those same powerful forces while remaining open to popular input.


The Last Hollow Laugh

That is the title of a piece up at that revisits Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which is one of those books (like The Bell Curve) that almost everyone with a ready critique hasn’t actually read. The book itself was an expansion of the famous article (pdf) Fukuyama published in 1989, also titled ‘The End of History?’ (note the question mark), which asked if liberal democracy was the end stage of human political development. That claim may or may not be correct; anyway, it’s far more nuanced than he is often given credit for.

There’s a small cottage industry these days in finding authors who ‘predicted’ the rise of Trump, the earlier the better. And this is where the ‘last laugh’ of the article’s title comes from. Fukuyama never argued that liberal democracy was stable; in fact his most recent book, Political Order and Political Decay, directly addresses the sources of instability to liberal democracy. But even 30 years ago he had some inkling of how things could go wrong:

In describing the shallow celebrity culture, the essential emptiness, of the habitat of the last man, Fukuyama had a particular example in mind. He went to the same individual for illustration when looking for an archetype of megalothymia – who else but ‘a developer like Donald Trump’. Fukuyama didn’t predict that it would be that very individual who would crash through the comforts of the end of History, turning the certainties of the post-Historical world upside down. But he got closer than most.


How Much Can Economists Know?

There’s been a good back and forth on the econ blogosphere lately regarding the epistemology of economics. The public perception of economists is not the greatest for a variety of reasons: we (mostly) didn’t see the financial crisis coming (despite the old saw that economists have predicted 9 out of the last 5 recessions); we underestimated the size of the ensuing recession; and whatever the policy, you can almost always find economists on both sides of the issue (in other words, there seems to be little shared agreement).

To an extent, this is unfair, and largely biased due to the outsize popular fascination with macroeconomics, which is still a very new science with little data and an inability to run experiments. Still, macroeconomics is more popular for a reason: the macroeconomy is central to our livelihoods. If the country enters recession, we may not have a job any longer. I doubt there are many people who would not be interested in making the field more scientific. But can economics ever really be a science?

This type of dialogue is what makes the economics blogosphere so interesting to follow. While I won’t say *all* are required reading, I would definitely recommend the initial Roberts piece and Noah Smith’s Bloomberg column at the bare minimum.


Democracy for Realists, Part V

So we’ve established that our group identities are based more on emotion than on reason. I want to expand on this notion that we get our ideology from parties, rather than vice versa, before getting to a realist theory of democracy.

The chapter in the book detailing the relevant research is titled ‘It Feels Like We’re Thinking’, and that’s about the best way to sum it up. As the authors concisely state,“Citizens’ political preferences and beliefs are constructed from emotional or cognitive commitments whose real bases lie elsewhere.” (p. 269)

A brief framework of events: parties send signals to voters to advertise their group status; voters use these signals to construct a conceptual framework about the world; voters signal the strength of their partisanship through varying intensity of views held by the party.

What’s surprising is that research shows that higher levels of political engagement actually lead to more partisan views of reality. Intuitively, we might think that people who pay more attention to politics and policy will be more informed in an objective sense, and come to similar conclusions regardless of partisanship. This is not the case. High information voters’ thinking ends up being mostly just rationalizing what is already emotionally believed to be true. (This is something I’ve come to believe we do in many, if not most, realms of life: rationalize what our emotions have already told us to do or believe.)

This is all a bit abstract, so let’s turn to an example in the book: views of the Clinton era budget by Democrats and Republicans. Those polled were asked about the status of the deficit: was it increasing or decreasing? In this instance, there is a factual answer: it was decreasing. Low information voters of both parties did about as well as chance in answering the question, as would be expected from people just guessing. But as voter information goes up, there is a remarkable divergence. Higher information Republicans answer that the deficit is increasing, while equivalent Democrats answer that it is decreasing (to a lesser extent, however). What is going on?

From the framework above, Republicans have long claimed to be the party of fiscal responsibility, and decry Democrats as irresponsible spenders of public money. The lowest information voters don’t tend to pay attention to policy debates, but more engaged voters will hear this tale often. So, when asked about the Clinton budget, these voters ‘know’ that Democrats are profligate spenders, a Democrat is in the White House, and therefore the deficit must be increasing.

Rather than continue to belabor the point, I’ll just quote the key passage from the chapter:

Continue reading “Democracy for Realists, Part V”

Democracy for Realists, Part IV

Why do we vote the way we do? So far, the authors of Democracy for Realists have shown that neither the individualist framework of the folk theory nor the managerial retrospective theory can explain historical election outcomes. What is it then? Do we vote randomly, or is there a different motivating force we have neglected?

The authors argue we need to look back to the once popular realist political tradition, which was largely discarded in favor of rationalist Enlightenment liberalism. In particular, we need a group theory of politics that accounts for “the powerful tendency of people to form groups, the ensuing construction of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the powerful role of emotion rather than reason in directing group activity.” (p. 215)

In their view, a model of elections as being motivated by group forces will have far more explanatory power than those previously considered. Some key factors to note:

  • We are socialized into groups through family and culture; our sense of identity “serves to distinguish groups to which [we] belong that are not central to [our] self-concept from those that are a more integral part of the personality” (p. 228)
  • “Identities … are emotional attachments that transcend thinking” (p. 228), and this extends to membership in political parties. We identify with a party from an emotional level, not as the party that we agree with most on arts funding or foreign aid spending.
  • People take their views from the groups to which they belong. As such, we get our ideas on policy and ideology from political parties, not the other way around (as in the folk theory).
  • Most people “organize political thinking around social groups and their role in competing political parties. They see political and racial clashes as group conflict” (p. 221) In other words, a political fight about the marginal tax rate is not really about the appropriate level of taxation for a society; it is about Democrats versus Republicans, nothing more.

In this understanding, elections are about activating and mobilizing different parts of our identities. We all have many parts of our identity; we claim membership in many different groups simultaneously. We obtain aspects of our identity from parents, peers, regional culture, national culture, education, religion, employment, and so on.

Continue reading “Democracy for Realists, Part IV”

The Real Outsourcing Problem

An article in the New York Times the other day highlights an issue I have written about before, that of the changing nature of firms as a source of continued low wages and increasing inequality between workers.

In the eyes of the current administration, a major problem for American workers has been outsourcing. What this article points out is that most outsourced jobs actually remain here in the US; they are instead of leaving to low wage countries, they are subcontracted out to specialized low wage firms within the country.


As research has shown, the increase in inequality in the US is being driven mostly by interfirm inequality, not intrafirm. The latter would be appear as, within any given company, the CEOs at the top getting big raises and the entry level workers getting pay cuts. And while this is the case at the biggest firms, like large retail companies, it isn’t so for the rest of the economy. For most firms, pay structures have actually become more equal.

This change is largely a result of firms reorganizing their structure. It used to be that an organization, say a newspaper, would employ everyone who worked in their building. Yes, of course the journalists and editors and managers; but also the janitors, the electricians, the tech support, etc. This is rarely the case any longer. Instead, firms are increasingly organized around their core mission, and secondary and support tasks are spun off and subcontracted out. So now the janitor works for a separate company, as do the electricians and computer people. Even secretaries and HR are increasingly subcontracted out.

How does this drive inequality? When that janitor worked for the newspaper, he shared in the firm’s successes, and  probably out of a human sense of fairness it’s difficult to have huge differences in pay  between people who are working together daily. But when those roles are contracted out to outside firms, that is no longer the case. The janitorial subcontractor can pay far less, and isn’t subject to the workplace regulations of the newspaper firm. This isn’t trivial: the article cites research showing significant pay cuts for many roles (up to a 24% reduction for security guards, for example). Additionally, these subcontracted jobs are often temporary and lack health insurance or other benefits.

The article points to the shocking statistic that over the last decade, 94% of the jobs added to the economy were in this temporary/contracted sector. While this trend may be more ‘efficient’, in the strictly economic sense, an economy does not make a society. Many conservatives talk about the dignity of work as a positive good for people, and I’m inclined to agree. But as our economy shifts to this model, it would seem to be very hard to find dignity and purpose in a growing low wage, dead end, high uncertainty sector of the economy. Sure, if you were a janitor at the New York Times, it wasn’t particularly glamorous. But you were connected in some way to the mission of that organization. Nowadays, you’re just a janitor; probably working on demand, hours not guaranteed, maybe in a different building every week. Your work is now cleaning, nothing more.

Of course, there is no easy solution to this problem. Banning such subcontracting would be lunacy, and other types of mandates would be too heavy handed. But if the administration wants to be serious about American jobs, this is an area that demands focus, not trivial sectors of the economy like coal mining or immigrant labor.