Is it possible that democracy doesn’t work? It’s reasonable to ask the question amid the xenophobia of Brexit, the Hungarian referendum, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who gleefully compares himself to Hitler.
“Most people possess almost no useful information about policies and their implications, have little desire to improve their state of knowledge, and have a deep aversion to political disagreement,” writes George Monbiot at The Guardian, reviewing the book Democracy for Realists, published earlier this year by the social science professors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels.
“We base our political decisions on who we are rather than what we think. In other words, we act politically – not as individual, rational beings but as members of social groups, expressing a social identity. We seek out the political parties that seem to correspond best to our culture, with little regard to whether their policies support our interests. We remain loyal to political parties long after they have ceased to serve us.”
The obvious answer is better information and civic education. But this doesn’t work […] Moderately informed Republicans were more inclined than Republicans with the least information to believe that Bill Clinton oversaw an increase in the budget deficit (it declined massively). Why? Because, unlike the worst informed, they knew he was a Democrat. The tiny number of people with a very high level of political information tend to use it not to challenge their own opinions but to rationalise them. Political knowledge, Achen and Bartels argue, “enhances bias”.
Direct democracy – referendums and citizens’ initiatives – seems to produce even worse results. In the US initiatives are repeatedly used by multimillion-dollar lobby groups to achieve results that state legislatures won’t grant them. They tend to replace taxes with user fees, stymie the redistribution of wealth and degrade public services. Whether representative or direct, democracy comes to be owned by the elites.
This is not to suggest that it has no virtues; just that those it does have are not those we principally ascribe to it. It allows governments to be changed without bloodshed, limits terms in office, and ensures that the results of elections are widely accepted. Sometimes public attribution of blame will coincide with reality, which is why you don’t get famines in democracies.
In these respects it beats dictatorship. But is this all it has to offer? A weakness of Democracy for Realists is that most of its examples are drawn from the US, and most of those are old. Had the authors examined popular education groups in Latin America, participatory budgets in Brazil and New York, the fragmentation of traditional parties in Europe and the movement that culminated in Bernie Sanders’ near miss, they might have discerned more room for hope. This is not to suggest that the folk theory of democracy comes close to reality anywhere, but that the situation is not as hopeless as they propose.
Persistent, determined, well-organised groups can bring neglected issues to the fore and change political outcomes. But in doing so they cannot rely on what democracy ought to be. We must see it for what it is. And that means understanding what we are.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly