Ebooks

Why our belief in government by the people is unrealistic—and what we can do about it

Democracy for Realists assails the romantic folk-theory at the heart of contemporary thinking about democratic politics and government, and offers a provocative alternative view grounded in the actual human nature of democratic citizens.

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels deploy a wealth of social-scientific evidence, including ingenious original analyses of topics ranging from abortion politics and budget deficits to the Great Depression and shark attacks, to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters—even those who are well informed and politically engaged—mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents' control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly.

Achen and Bartels argue that democratic theory needs to be founded on identity groups and political parties, not on the preferences of individual voters. Now with new analysis of the 2016 elections, Democracy for Realists provides a powerful challenge to conventional thinking, pointing the way toward a fundamentally different understanding of the realities and potential of democratic government.

What is wrong with American political campaigns? How could the campaign process be improved? This volume brings the expertise of leading political scientists to the public debate about campaign reform. These scholars probe the reality behind the conventional wisdom that nasty, vacuous campaigns dominated by big money and cynical media coverage are perverting our political process and alienating our citizenry.
Some of their conclusions will be startling to campaigners and critics alike. For example, "attack" advertisements prove to be no more effective than self-promotional advertisements, but are more substantive. Indeed, candidates in their advertisements and speeches focus more on policy and less on strategy and process than any major news outlet, including the New York Times. The volume suggests that, as a result, prospective voters in 1996 knew more about the candidates' issue positions than in any presidential election in decades, yet turnout and public faith in the electoral process continued to decline.
For aspiring reformers, Bartels and his colleagues provide a bracing reality check. For students and scholars of electoral politics, political communication, and voting behavior, they provide an authoritative summary and interpretation of what we know about the nature and impact of political campaigns. The insights and evidence contained in this volume should be of interest to anyone concerned about the present state and future prospects of American electoral process.
Larry M. Bartels is Professor of Politics and Public Affairs and Stuart Professor of Communications and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Lynn Vavreck is Assistant Professor of Government, Dartmouth College. Other contributors are Bruce Buchanan, Tami Buhr, Ann Crigler, John G. Geer, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Marion Just, Daron R. Shaw, and John Zaller.
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