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.


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