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Democracy for Realists:
Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government
Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels
With a new afterword by the authors

Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in Government & Politics, Association of American Publishers
Winner of the 2017 David O. Sears Book Award, International Society of Political Psychology
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2016

Paperback | 2017 | $18.95 | £14.95 | ISBN: 9780691178240
408 pp. | 5 x 8 | 26 b/w illus., 18 tables
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400888740 |
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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. 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.

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).


"For decades, political scientists have blasted away at electoral models based primarily on the idea of rational choice. In the most recent and sophisticated entry in the field, Democracy for Realists, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue that even well-informed and politically engaged voters mostly choose candidates based on their social identities and partisan loyalties. Judging from the 2016 polls, that theory looks pretty good."--E.J. Dionne, Washington Post

"In an important recent book, Democracy for Realists, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels show that ‘group attachments' and ‘social identities' are key to understanding voting behavior."--Fareed Zakaria, Washington Post

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

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

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

"One of the most bracing books of political science to arrive in a long time. . . . An impressively comprehensive statement on the limits of electoral democracy, a book that can both explain the emergence of Trump and potentially charts a new course for the field."--Lee Drutman, Chronicle of Higher Education

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Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Larry M. Bartels:

Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Christopher H. Achen:


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