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Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  519 ratings  ·  76 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
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Hardcover, 408 pages
Published April 19th 2016 by Princeton University Press
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Ira
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: N
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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
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Eve
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 ex
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Vagabond of Letters
Mar 08, 2019 rated it liked it
7/10.

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 theo
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Ruby
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."
Carl
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. ...more
Steve
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
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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 constrai
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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
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Kristofer
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
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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.

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Jill
Mar 13, 2017 marked it as to-read
Recommended by: The Weeds (podcast) from Vox.
Kyle
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 complet
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columbialion
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
Caroline
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. A
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Vinay
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.
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
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 deal with, ...more
Yariv
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
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Spencer
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
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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
Bryn
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
Diego
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
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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 a
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Blake Gilmore
Nov 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Somewhat depressing. Most important parts were the solutions, which the authors didn't go too deep into: reduce inequality, fight big money's influence in politics.

Some sobering quotes:

"...from the viewpoint of governmental representativeness and accountability,
election outcomes are essentially random choices among the available parties—musical chairs.
Elections that “throw the bums out” typically do not produce genuine policy mandates, not even
when they are landslides. They s
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Franz
Aug 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book explains why so many anti-democratic leaders have been elected world wide, including in the United States. My faith in democracy has been severely shattered in the last few years, and this book shows how my faith was misplaced. The authors empirically evaluate the major theories of democracy and show that they are simply wrong. The solution isn't the abandonment of democracy, but an understanding of its limitations and taking them into account in forming the appropriate institutions. I ...more
Bill
Dec 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book is a summary of most of the empirical evidence about what actually motivates voters and how they behave in elections. The so-called folk theory of democracy which is how most people think about democracy just doesn't really line up with the evidence. The retrospective theory in which voters merely decide whether to reward an incumbent based on his/her performance also doesn't really stand up against the evidence.

Voters have very poor information about politics and current e
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JQAdams
Jun 26, 2017 rated it liked it
This is a hard book to review as a whole. Large chunks of it are very academic-y, and feel like the authors had scholarly papers that they couldn't get published elsewhere so they threw in here. (Diminishing returns had set in well before the third chapter on retrospective economic voting, which is the tendency for voters to punish or reward incumbent politicians based on how the economy was doing in the few months before the election regardless of whether the incumbents had any control over or ...more
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“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
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