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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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eBook | ISBN: 9781400882731 |
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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).


"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


"Two of America’s smartest political scientists bid fair to transform our understanding of democracy. In our season of democratic discontent, this unsettling book could hardly be more timely. Must-reading for anyone interested in democratic theory and American politics."--Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

"Democracy for Realists is the single most important treatise on American democracy published in several decades. Achen and Bartels challenge just about every existing school of thought about electoral politics, policymaking, and government performance. They do not conclude with a counsel of despair for the future of American democracy, but they give no quarter to any notion that responsive government is possible without a more responsible citizenry."--John DiIulio, University of Pennsylvania

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