Was Democracy for Realists too pessimistic and US-centric? A call for contributions

When Democracy for Realists was published in 2016, it challenged decades of work by political scientists – arguing that voters make largely unconscious and un-thought through choices based on social and group identities. Hanna Wass, Antje Schwennicke, Pedro Magalhães and Mark Franklin plan to respond with an edited volume that will take a less US-centric view of what political science has achieved. They explain the project and invite potential contributors to propose chapters.

french voters

“But I’m not there!” Two men search for their names on the list of voters, France, c1817. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France. Public domain

Are voters rational? How vulnerable are they to manipulation? Do they have the information they need to make informed choices? Recent elections have challenged our capacity to understand and respond to voters’ behaviour.

This may be partly because many of the prevailing models of political behaviour were developed when circumstances were dramatically different from those of today. Christopher H Achen and Larry M Bartels’ iconoclastic Democracy for Realists (2016) addressed this new world by calling for a return to old verities. They argue that political science has learned little that is useful since the earliest studies emphasised that political preferences are founded on social and group identities.

Above all, Achen and Bartels attack what they describe as the “folk theory of democracy” (Robert Dahl 1956, Anthony Downs 1957), which in their view relies on unrealistic assumptions about ordinary citizens. These include the assumption that voters have distinct policy preferences, are aware of these preferences, are well-informed about policy alternatives, and can choose the candidate who most closely matches their own preference. They challenge the corresponding expectation that political parties respond by tailoring policy positions accordingly. Instead, they develop an alternative “realist theory,” that emphasises social identity and group attachment as core determinants of how voters behave.

We plan an edited volume in which world-class scholars of comparative electoral research assess Democracy for Realists from a comparative perspective. We think comparativists should point out that neither the theory Achen and Bartels debunked, nor their assessment of research achievements in this realm, look very familiar to us. In Europe, with its long history of dynastic warfare, electoral democracy is widely seen as providing a decision rule for political succession that renders unnecessary the mayhem that so often ensued when a king died without an heir. And the major achievements in studying electoral democracy seem to us to be hints (often more than hints) that electoral democracy may in practice offer more than “just” a solution to internecine conflict, however fundamental that may be for the happiness of millions: electoral democracy may even produce more responsive government than did kings and princes.

So we will ask our authors to review Democracy for Realists’ themes from two perspectives:

  • In the world beyond the United States, is there a similar tradition of “overselling” the benefits of democratic governance? Could it perhaps be argued that the “folk theory” was something of a straw man, even in the United States? And:
  • Have fifty years of electoral research yielded as few advances outside the US as Achen and Bartels claim to find within it? Or can one find more glimmers (perhaps even nuggets) of useful and perhaps optimistic insight in the comparative literature than Democracy for Realists is able to discern in the US?

We hope the chapters will run the gamut from spirited defences of Achen and Bartels to equally spirited critiques, with a focus on evaluating the state of play in scholarly writing on electoral democracy in the wider world.

The political world has changed a great deal since the 1950s, when “frozen cleavages” – the relative sizes of different social groups – decided elections. Today group loyalties do not offer the easy explanations they once did, and this creates opportunities that might indeed be exploited by party elites. But we wonder if these opportunities are moderated by institutional variations – a question that can only be answered by taking a comparative focus, benefitting from the many cross-national datasets that have become available in recent years..

Moreover, investigating behavioural change calls for research methods other than those of cross-sectional survey research, which is the source of most of the findings that Achen and Bartels dismiss. Much of the research in the past two decades has been based on dynamic modelling and, more recently, on experimental methods. Democracy for Realists ignores most findings from this research. It seems to us that a view of electoral democracy as a world in dynamic flux would yield different – and more positive – evaluations of the achievements of political science, even in the United States. Whether we are right is for our authors to say.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit.

hanna wassHanna Wass (@hanna_wass) is an Academy Research Fellow and University Lecturer in the Department of Political and Economic Studies at the University of Helsinki.




antje schwennickeAntje Schwennicke is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Virginia Wesleyan University.




pedro mPedro Magalhães (@PCMagalhaesis a researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences (ICS) of the University of Lisbon.




mark franklinMark Franklin is a past professor at the European University Institute and Professor Emeritus at Trinity College Connecticut.

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