Larry Bartels and Chris Achen argue that we have a romanticised view of democracy. How is democracy letting us down and what can we do to reverse course? In this episode of the Governance Podcast, Sam DeCanio of CSGS sits down with Larry Bartels to discuss his book with Chris Achen, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.

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The Guest

Larry Bartels is the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. His scholarship and teaching focus on public opinion, electoral politics, public policy, and political representation. His books include Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (2nd ed., Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press, 2016) and Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (with Christopher Achen, Princeton University Press, 2016). He is also the author of numerous scholarly articles and of occasional pieces in the New York TimesWashington PostLos Angeles Times, and other outlets. Bartels is a co-director of Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a trustee of the Russell Sage Foundation, and a past vice president of the American Political Science Association. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Book

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government was published by Princeton University Press in 2016.

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00:50: How did you come to write your book with Chris Achen?

2:17: What do you think are the key components of this romanticized vision of democracy? How would you characterize the folklore you’re responding to in the book?

2:54: What’s at stake with this depiction of democracy? What are some of the costs of adopting this depiction of democracy?

3:52: This is a fairly elitist depiction of democracy- not in the sense that you’re endorsing elite rule, but in terms of your understanding of how policy is actually drafted and implemented. You don’t see voters playing a very large role in the actual operation of contemporary democratic governance.

4:47: What is the evidence you use to critique this folk wisdom account of democracy?

8:59: I guess that’s an interesting example for two reasons: one is that political parties are typically seen as one of the vehicles that voters can use to come up with issue positions if they don’t have more detailed policy knowledge. But that seems to suggest that political parties may be able to manipulate preferences of voters in a way that is a top down model of opinion formation. This could have disturbing consequences for democratic theory and democratic responsiveness depending on the elites actually running the party.

11:20: At one level, the book describes problems with democratic representation that might occur with low information voters but the book also suggests that there also might be problems with voters that have large amounts of political information. Can you describe some of those problems?

13:03: Do you think that any proposals for direct democracy can help address some of these information problems – that is, involving voters through direct primaries, referenda or efforts to enhance democratic deliberations?

15:29: It strikes me that if democratic politics can be short circuited by voters’ poor understanding of causal relations between policies, when it comes to more technical situations where the linkage between a voter’s electoral decision and the consequences of that decision … is less clear or counterintuitive… it strikes me that that problem we see at this local level should be fairly concerning.

16:58: It seems as though complexity poses problems if electorates don’t have a causal understanding of issues. Although I guess the flipside to that question is whether elites making technocratic decisions themselves understand causal relationships in these issues.

18:28: One of the alternatives that academics have proposed for ensuring democratic responsiveness and accountability is what’s referred to as a ‘retrospective model’ of voting- the basic idea being that if the economy performs poorly, the incumbent party suffers in the next election cycle. What is the book’s argument about the potential shortcomings of retrospective voting?

21:06: One of the examples the book discusses involves shark attacks… How does that have implications for American presidential elections? What do they tell us about retrospective voting?

26:24: So the question is, whether or not voters’ understanding of politics is accurate enough to be able to discern whether the incumbent has done something that made them worse off… it strikes me that there is a second potential problem with retrospective voting. For retrospective voting to replace political parties whose policies are ineffectual… voters must have information about whether the other party they’re voting into power is proposing policies that will have better effects than the incumbent.

29:39: What are the solutions you propose to this problem?

32:04: I understand why information might create problems with voter selection of candidates, but why should we think that political elites are going to be better at selecting candidates or policies? What give you that faith?

33:35: It’s certainly the case that elites have specialized knowledge… but it is also the case that you can find well-intentioned elites that simply disagree about which technocratic policies are most efficient for dealing with social problems… the question then becomes, if elites that are more political sophisticated disagree among themselves… how do we know which elites should be selected to be in charge of policy decisions? Especially when the stakes are high?

37:17: I guess the concern here is … much of this book is a critique of how academics think about democracy. You are suggesting that professional political scientists… have adopted an incorrect and costly vision of what democracy entails… my concern is that if academics can make that kind of an error in their theoretical understanding of democracy as a system of governance, we should also expect to see similar errors occurring in their analysis of public policy.

42:18: Can you tell us a bit about your next project?