Why does democracy work?

May 14 JDN 2460079

A review of Democracy for Realists

I don’t think it can be seriously doubted that democracy does, in fact, work. Not perfectly, by any means; but the evidence is absolutely overwhelming that more democratic societies are better than more authoritarian societies by just about any measure you could care to use.

When I first started reading Democracy for Realists and saw their scathing, at times frothing criticism of mainstream ideas of democracy, I thought they were going to try to disagree with that; but in the end they don’t. Achen and Bartels do agree that democracy works; they simply think that why and how it works is radically different from what most people think.

For it is a very long-winded book, and in dire need of better editing. Most of the middle section of the book is taken up by a deluge of empirical analysis, most of which amounts to over-interpreting the highly ambiguous results of underpowered linear regressions on extremely noisy data. The sheer quantity of them seems intended to overwhelm any realization that no particular one is especially compelling. But a hundred weak arguments don’t add up to a single strong one.

To their credit, the authors often include the actual scatter plots; but when you look at those scatter plots, you find yourself wondering how anyone could be so convinced these effects are real and important. Many of them seem more prone to new constellations.

Their econometric techniques are a bit dubious, as well; at one point they said they “removed outliers” but then the examples they gave as “outliers” were the observations most distant from their regression line rather than the rest of the data. Removing the things furthest from your regression line will always—always—make your regression seem stronger. But that’s not what outliers are. Other times, they add weird controls or exclude parts of the sample for dubious reasons, and I get the impression that these are the cherry-picked results of a much larger exploration. (Why in the world would you exclude Catholics from a study of abortion attitudes? And this study on shark attacks seems awfully specific….) And of course if you try 20 regressions at random, you can expect that at least 1 of them will probably show up with p < 0.05. I think they are mainly just following the norms of their discipline—but those norms are quite questionable.

They don’t ever get into much detail as to what sort of practical institutional changes they would recommend, so it’s hard to know whether I would agree with those. Some of their suggestions, such as more stringent rules on campaign spending, I largely agree with. Others, such as their opposition to popular referenda and recommendation for longer term limits, I have more mixed feelings about. But none seem totally ridiculous or even particularly radical, and they really don’t offer much detail about any of them. I thought they were going to tell me that appointment of judges is better than election (which many experts widely agree), or that the Electoral College is a good system (which far fewer experts would assent to, at least since George W. Bush and Donald Trump). In fact they didn’t do that; they remain eerily silent on substantive questions like this.

Honestly, what little they have to say about institutional policy feels a bit tacked on at the end, as if they suddenly realized that they ought to say something useful rather than just spend the whole time tearing down another theory.

In fact, I came to wonder if they really were tearing down anyone’s actual theory, or if this whole book was really just battering a strawman. Does anyone really think that voters are completely rational? At one point they speak of an image of the ‘sovereign omnicompetent voter’; is that something anyone really believes in?

It does seem like many people believe in making government more responsive to the people, whereas Achen and Bartels seem to have the rather distinct goal of making government make better decisions. They were able to find at least a few examples—though I know not how far and wide they had to search—where it seemed like more popular control resulted in worse outcomes, such as water fluoridation and funding for fire departments. So maybe the real substantive disagreement here is over whether more or less direct democracy is a good idea. And that is indeed a reasonable question. But one need not believe that voters are superhuman geniuses to think that referenda are better than legislation. Simply showing that voters are limited in their capacity and bound to group identity is not enough to answer that question.

In fact, I think that Achen and Bartels seriously overestimate the irrationality of voters, because they don’t seem to appreciate that group identity is often a good proxy for policy—in fact, they don’t even really seem to see social policy as policy at all. Consider this section (p. 238):

“In this pre-Hitlerian age it must have seemed to most Jews that there were no crucial issues dividing the major parties” (Fuchs 1956, 63). Yet by 1923, a very substantial majority of Jews had abandoned their Republican loyalties and begun voting for the Democrats. What had changed was not foreign policy, but rather the social status of Jews within one of America’s major political parties. In a very visible way, the Democrats had become fully accepting and incorporating of religious minorities, both Catholics and Jews. The result was a durable Jewish partisan realignment grounded in “ethnic solidarity”, in Gamm’s characterization.

Gee, I wonder why Jews would suddenly care a great deal which party was more respectful toward people like them? Okay, the Holocaust hadn’t happened yet, but anti-Semitism is very old indeed, and it was visibly creeping upward during that era. And just in general, if one party is clearly more anti-Semitic than the other, why wouldn’t Jews prefer the one that is less hateful toward them? How utterly blinded by privilege do you need to be to not see that this is an important policy difference?

Perhaps because they are both upper-middle-class straight White cisgender men (I would also venture a guess nominally but not devoutly Protestant), Achens and Bartel seem to have no concept that social policy directly affects people of minority identity, that knowing that one party accepts people like you and the other doesn’t is a damn good reason to prefer one over the other. This is not a game where we are rooting for our home team. This directly affects our lives.

I know quite a few transgender people, and not a single one is a Republican. It’s not because all trans people hate low taxes. It’s because the Republican Party has declared war on trans people.

This may also lead to trans people being more left-wing generally, as once you’re in a group you tend to absorb some views from others in that group (and, I’ll admit, Marxists and anarcho-communists seem overrepresented among LGBT people). But I absolutely know some LGBT people who would like to vote conservative for economic policy reasons, but realize they can’t, because it means voting for bigots who hate them and want to actively discriminate against them. There is nothing irrational or even particularly surprising about this choice. It would take a very powerful overriding reason for anyone to want to vote for someone who publicly announces hatred toward them.

Indeed, for me the really baffling thing is that there are political parties that publicly announce hatred toward particular groups. It seems like a really weird strategy for winning elections. That is the thing that needs to be explained here; why isn’t inclusiveness—at least a smarmy lip-service toward inclusiveness, like ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ offices at universities—the default behavior of all successful politicians? Why don’t they all hug a Latina trans woman after kissing a baby and taking a selfie with the giant butter cow? Why is not being an obvious bigot considered a left-wing position?

Since it obviously is the case that many voters don’t want this hatred (at the very least, its targets!), in order for it not to damage electoral changes, it must be that some other voters do want this hatred. Perhaps they themselves define their own identity in opposition to other people’s identities. They certainly talk that way a lot: We hear White people fearing ‘replacement‘ by shifting racial demographics, when no sane forecaster thinks that European haplotypes are in any danger of disappearing any time soon. The central argument against gay marriage was always that it would somehow destroy straight marriage, by some mechanism never explained.

Indeed, perhaps it is this very blindness toward social policy that makes Achen and Bartels unable to see the benefits of more direct democracy. When you are laser-focused on economic policy, as they are, then it seems to you as though policy questions are mainly technical matters of fact, and thus what we need are qualified experts. (Though even then, it is not purely a matter of fact whether we should care more about inequality than growth, or more about unemployment than inflation.)

But once you include social policy, you see that politics often involves very real, direct struggles between conflicting interests and differing moral views, and that by the time you’ve decided which view is the correct one, you already have your answer for what must be done. There is no technical question of gay marriage; there is only a moral one. We don’t need expertise on such questions; we need representation. (Then again, it’s worth noting that courts have sometimes advanced rights more effectively than direct democratic votes; so having your interests represented isn’t as simple as getting an equal vote.)

Achen and Bartels even include a model in the appendix where politicians are modeled as either varying in competence or controlled by incentives; never once does it consider that they might differ in whose interests they represent. Yet I don’t vote for a particular politician just because I think they are more intelligent, or as part of some kind of deterrence mechanism to keep them from misbehaving (I certainly hope the courts do a better job of that!); I vote for them because I think they represent the goals and interests I care about. We aren’t asking who is smarter, we are asking who is on our side.

The central question that I think the book raises is one that the authors don’t seem to have much to offer on: If voters are so irrational, why does democracy work? I do think there is strong evidence that voters are irrational, though maybe not as irrational as Achen and Bartels seem to think. Honestly, I don’t see how anyone can watch Donald Trump get elected President of the United States and not think that voters are irrational. (The book was written before that; apparently there’s a new edition with a preface about Trump, but my copy doesn’t have that.) But it isn’t at all obvious to me what to do with that information, because even if so-called elites are in fact more competent than average citizens—which may or may not be true—the fact remains that their interests are never completely aligned. Thus far, representative democracy of one stripe or another seems to be the best mechanism we have for finding people who have sufficient competence while also keeping them on a short enough leash.

And perhaps that’s why democracy works as well as it does; it gives our leaders enough autonomy to let them generally advance their goals, but also places limits on how badly misaligned our leaders’ goals can be from our own.