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Democracy for Realists:
Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government
Christopher H. Achen & Larry M. Bartels

Hardcover | 2016 | $29.95 | £22.95 | ISBN: 9780691169446
408 pp. | 6 x 9 | 26 line illus. 18 tables.
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A Q&A with the author

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. 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.

Christopher H. Achen is the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and professor of politics at Princeton University. His books include The European Union Decides. Larry M. Bartels holds the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. His books include Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton).

Reviews:

"It flies in the face of decades of political science conventional wisdom about 'the rational voter' and other such dicta (what the authors call the 'folk theory' of democracy), but it seems to me obviously true, particularly in our age."--Michael Tomasky, New York Review of Books

"A comprehensive analysis that lays the foundation for a discussion of necessary reforms and how they can be achieved."--Kirkus (starred review)

"Brutally depressing."--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

"[A] provocative book."--Edward Luce, Financial Times

"Provocative, persuasive and unsettling, Democracy for Realists is a profoundly important--and timely--book."--Glenn Altschuler, Tulsa World

"The book might make dreary reading about the failings of democracy. But by applying what Achen and Bartels say to what is happening in the elections. . . . It is possible to make some sense."--Han Fook Kwang, Singapore Straits Times

"Democracy for Realists, by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, shows that however cynical you are about the democratic process, it's worse than you think. All the flaws in cognition that psychologists have been teaching for decades make a mockery of the folk theory that democracy produces responsive governments."--Steven Pinker, Harvard Crimson

"Democracy for Realists is essential reading for anyone interested in the problem of voter ignorance, and the future of democracy more generally. It illuminates a dangerous problem that may well bedevil democracy for a long time to come."--Ilya Somin, History News Network

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