Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government” as Want to Read:
Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  681 ratings  ·  86 reviews
"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 rangi
Hardcover, 408 pages
Published April 19th 2016 by Princeton University Press
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Democracy for Realists, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Democracy for Realists

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.08  · 
Rating details
 ·  681 ratings  ·  86 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government
Dec 26, 2016 rated it liked it
On the tube, book open, hardback, head down, three quarters in.
Man interrupts: Sorry I couldn't help noticing what you are reading. It sounds timely! Is it any good?
Me: It's ok, not as Machiavellian as it may sound. The main...
Man interrupts: What's the argument? You must be into it I see you put yellow post-it notes throughout.
Me: The main idea is that democracy as practiced has nothing to do with sovereignty of the p...
Man interrupts: Would you recommend it?
Me: Not the hardback version ...
Nick Geiser
Jan 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"Democracy for Realists" is a rich and sobering assessment of the state of democracy. The book is at once a literature review, an empirical contribution, and an agenda proposal for the future study of democracy.

It's structured around critiques of two leading theories of democracy: the "folk" or "populist" theory, and the theory of retrospective accountability. Populists hold that democracy involves political equality and popular control of policy, in which elections translate voters' preference
Sep 20, 2016 rated it liked it
THis was a tough read since I'm not a political scientist and I don't understand a lot of the jargon. The overall point was interesting and thought provoking; I think that the intro/conclusion would be worth reading carefully for the non-academics out there and then maybe skim the rest?
I think that the authors outline the problem - too much democracy is not the solution to the problems that ail our democracy - but, as they themselves say, they don't really have solutions. But they do an excellen
Vagabond of Letters, DLitt
Mar 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: dont-own

Tl;dr Identity precedes ideology; identity ∴ ideology.

Identity ('group-based') politics is older than you think, was once recognized as a dominant paradigm of voter behavior in the early 20th c. - and tons of empirical evidence from the last century backs that assertion up and shows the concrete impact of identity ('group-identification') on political behavior and the formation of ideology - and it's here to stay.

The authors also examine, deconstruct, and refute the 'folk theory of democr
Jun 03, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: politics
How do voters affect the political process? The folk theory says voters are knowledgable about issues & about candidates positions on the issues & they select the candidate who mostly closely reflects their preferences. FALSE! Voters know very little about the issues, are not willing or able to invest the time & study in becoming knowledgeable & besides optimizing a choice of candidate is impossible (Arrow). Voters retrospectively reward good performance & punish malfeasance. FALSE! Voters rewar ...more
Scriptor Ignotus
Nov 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics
According to the “folk theory” of democracy—the naïve, rose-tinted understanding put forward by schoolteachers, politicians, and pundits—democracy is a mechanism for self-government. Individuals determine where they stand on the issues of the day, learn about the positions of candidates and parties, and vote for the option that most closely resembles their views. As voters are the ultimate source of legitimacy, and they bestow that legitimacy on those with whom their policy views align, politici ...more
Oct 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
"The problem is not that voters are necessarily irrational, but that most voters have very little real information, even about crucially important aspects of national political life." ...more
Jun 15, 2017 rated it it was ok
This book was really a 2.5. The authors show various areas where direct democracy breaks down. If you aren't familiar with Arrow's Impossibility Theorem or survey research on partisan bias this book could be interesting for you. If on the other hand you are familiar with those sorts of results then this book doesn't really offer anything new.

Many of the statistics presented in the book are represented has have much more statistical power than they actually do so take the statistical results wit
Oct 27, 2017 marked it as abandoned
A lot of interesting ideas and information - presented in a stilted boring tedious academic style of writing. Too bad. I got about a hundred pages in before I finally gave up. Not too technical or hard to understand. Just painful to read. Sorry to say that, I’ve never written a book myself, and if I did I’m sure it would be far worse...
Aaron Gertler
Sep 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
I opened this book as a skeptic of democracy, and it didn't do much to change my views, but it did give me some new reasons to be skeptical.

The authors marshal a lot of support for their first thesis -- that swing voters mostly care about what happened to their wallets in the past year when they vote, and that not much else makes a difference. This didn't surprise me, but I hadn't thought much about the perverse incentives it offered to non-dictatorial governments (e.g. Richard Nixon manipulati
Saul Shanabrook
Jul 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
To be honest I skipped a bunch of the middle chapters. I was just looking for the answers! Alas, this book doesn't really have many, besides "make society more equal" and "reduce the effect of money on politics".

The book was still immensely helpful, because it shook me of the naive view that we should be giving more power to individual citizens to have a direct impact on the political process.

My initial fears about the book, that two white dudes in Western academia would be constrained in their
Nayef Ahmad
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
As the internet will tell you, 2016 was a disappointing year for democracy. Brexit, Trump, democratic decline in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Israel, Venezuela ... Surely something has gone terribly wrong with the way we do democracy? According to the authors of this book, no, it's more like electoral democracy never really worked very well.

If you don't have the time to read the whole book, just read the final chapter (31 pages). In it, the authors summarize decades of research showing that the way
Aristidis Marousas
Sep 30, 2017 rated it liked it
I can sum this up with "people can't be trusted to take the time to educate themselves and override natural biases and illogical thinking to be a part of an effective democracy".

This book became a bit of a chore to read. There were great points made to be sure, but the amount of research cited and examples given made the reading tedious.

I ended up reading the first few paragraphs and the "conclusion" sections of each chapter and didn't feel like I missed much.

It's unfortunate that this book is m
Mar 13, 2017 marked it as to-read
Recommended by: The Weeds (podcast) from Vox.
Mar 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a very good book to read [it is a scholarly tone and style, though], but with a bunch of annoying (for me) statements that if toned down a bit would make the book even better. But they are trying to put extra attention on their subject, so it at least makes sense to play up their theories' strengths.

First, the good: this book will make abundantly clear that the idea of voters carefully and rationally looking at issues and choosing parties and candidates accordingly is completely wrong. T
Jul 27, 2017 rated it liked it
This book is not recommended for the general or a casual political reader, as it comprises a highly detailed, scholarly statistical analysis of other in depth political works from the mid-1800's to the present, attempting to explain how and why American voters vote in the manner in which they do. The book mostly tries to answer the fundamental question: Do elections result in serving voters needs, or are they simply an exercise of a random process where the input of the votes originate from a la ...more
Feb 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Generally interesting, although way technical for any reader who is not a social scientist or familiar with how they talk, or hasn't ever taken a statistics class... I kept going by skimming over stuff I didn't understand to get to their statements of the meaning of a given statistical analysis.

What they are up to is to demonstrate that what they call the "folk theory of democracy" not only is not valid on the ground but actively hinders the representative nature of our government. After demolis
Mar 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Powerful book, we valorize democracy so much that it’s not often you read a well-researched critique of how it gets implemented.
Nov 28, 2020 rated it really liked it

"The historical record leaves little doubt that the educated, including the highly educated, have gone wrong in their moral and political thinking as often as everyone else."

Daniel Lambauer
Jun 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
this is an extremely well researched with tons of very good data, and despite its academic tone, easy to read analysis of the fundamental issues with modern democracies in an information-heavy age. however, i am not sure if one of their central premises - that party loyalty drives views, and that therefore people get entrenched in their party choices - still holds after the recent european elections in 2017 (eg france, uk). perhaps we can be more hopeful than the authors suggest, at least in eur ...more
Doctor Moss
Mar 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: political-theory
Bartels and Achen challenge what they call the “folk theory of democracy.” The “folk theory” seems to have its roots in the idea of the “rational man” — an Enlightenment idea, certainly, but one that seems to have made its way into popular politics. The idea is that democracy works (when it does) via choices of representatives or directly of policies as informed by their interests and values. Representatives and policies then reflect those choices — the government embodies and enacts the will of ...more
Jason Furman
Aug 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
Democracy for Realists is a timely book of empirically and theoretically rigorous political science. It's strong suit is criticism--Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels painstakingly amass evidence and arguments against what they describe as the two leading theories of democracy. The first is the "folk theory" that Democracy allows the will of the people to be expressed, something they dismantle with evidence on voters' lack of knowledge in both choosing their representatives and, especially, in ...more
Billie Pritchett
Authors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels are down on democracy in Democracy for Realists. It's an odd book to me because it tends to conflate the way things ought to be with the way things are. Achen and Bartels' thesis is that the way that virtually all so-called democracies work is that people vote on the basis of group loyalties, prior commitments to certain social identities they have, rather than on issues or anything else, and party loyalties shift when groups feel they can court and de ...more
Jan 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
I came in very interested in the authors' thesis, but the book itself was disappointing.

To begin with, there's a lot of repetition and a lot of vaguely defensive argumentation that appears to be directed at the political science field rather than casual readers. It feels like every chapter starts with a repeat of the core thesis and the same assertion that the folk theory of democracy is wrong. This is then supported by long paragraphs describing statistical correlations in the sort of inaccess
Jun 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
I won't do much to review the book since there are plenty of other good reviews. See the main argument. It's good.

After looking at why the folk idea of democracy, as articulated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," fails in reality (due to a number of reasons but basically people vote their identities rather than for their own interests), they conclude that “At the moment, America is a democracy, but it is not very democrati
Sid Groeneman
Jan 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Speaking as someone with advanced degrees in political science, this is an important book. It makes a strong case that the "folk theory of democracy" doesn't come close to reality and, more importantly, is incapable of realization in the U.S. because of the limitations of the electorate. The authors document in abundant detail how governing falls far short of even relaxed democratic standards. Most readers won't find that conclusion surprising. But what might be unexpected is their rejection of ...more
Sep 16, 2018 rated it it was ok
Perhaps I was hoping for something that the authors were never offering, but this book just didn't do it for me. Basically, they dispute the common thinking about democracy (either the "folk theory," that people make informed decisions about who they want to represent them or the "retrospective voter theory," that voters consider how they have fared under current leadership and vote accordingly). They use overly-long examples to disprove these two theories, which take up the first two-thirds of ...more
Oct 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
My intent was to read this and become a better informed citizen and voter prior to the election. It is pretty eye opening. Statistical analysis to show that humans don't know what is going on politically, just believe what's easy, have grown up with beliefs, or base their beliefs from like groups. Majority of people don't seem to be willing to change their beliefs, or be open to it, or they skew facts to align with their personal belief logic.
I would like to say this is a must read for all citiz
May 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone in favor of "more democracy" or popular control of governance

Political scientists Achen and Bartels unpack and vigorously assail what they identify as the folk theory of democracy: a cluster of almost universally beloved ideals about democratic governance that, despite being at times blatantly divorced from reality, continues to go unquestioned in the bulk of popular and academic discourse. The concept of an informed and rational citizenry "steering the ship of state from the voting booth" is attractive but holds little water in the face of serious s
Tonstant Weader
Dec 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics
Democracy For Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government takes a long hard look at our cherished notions about democracy and stomps them into ashes. However, as painful as the process is, any long observer of politics and elections will know they are telling us, with substantial evidence to make their case, some very hard truths. For those of us who hope for a more just world, it is time to pay attention.

There is no good news here. The authors Christopher H. Achen and Larry M.
« previous 1 3 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It
  • Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity
  • How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future
  • How Democracy Ends
  • Think Like an Anthropologist
  • The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters
  • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Revised Edition)
  • Thinking Sociologically
  • Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy
  • Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics in the Age of Crisis
  • Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy
  • The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
  • China's Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption
  • How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World's Most Dynamic Region
  • Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
  • Knowledge And Decisions
  • What Would the Great Economists Do?: How Twelve Brilliant Minds Would Solve Today's Biggest Problems
  • Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression
See similar books…

News & Interviews

Need another excuse to treat yourself to a new book this week? We've got you covered with the buzziest new releases of the day. To create our...
45 likes · 12 comments
“Well-informed citizens, too, have come in for their share of criticism, since their well-organized “ideological” thinking often turns out to be just a rather mechanical reflection of what their favorite group and party leaders have instructed them to think” 2 likes
“Elections do not force successful candidates to reflect the policy preferences of the median voter,” 1 likes
More quotes…