Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2017

The Group Theory


We discussed the Group Theory of democracy that Achen and Bartels sketch at the end of their book.

In this chapter, Achen and Bartels summarize the preceding chapters in the book. (The wise reader of a book in social science will, in fact, look at the last chapter first to see if there is such a summary.) The upshot is that the two parties in the US have split the electorate pretty evenly. That means elections are determined by the whims of the least informed voters. In other words, the outcomes of elections are basically random.

For example, here is Bartels’s take on the last presidential election

the search for specific explanations for Trump’s support is probably misguided. An extraordinary campaign has produced a remarkably ordinary election outcome, primarily reflecting partisan patterns familiar from previous election cycles.

As John Sides has already noted, the national election outcome was consistent with forecasts based on “fundamental” factors like incumbency and the state of the economy — though he and I and many others imagined that it would not be, given the many remarkable features of this year’s race, and of Trump’s campaign in particular. …

The impression of partisan stability suggested by the state-level results for 2016 is generally echoed in national exit polls, which showed Clinton winning 89 percent of the vote among Democratic identifiers and Trump winning 90 percent among Republicans. These percentages precisely match those in 2008, the last time there was no incumbent president on the ballot. (The corresponding percentages in 2012 were only slightly higher, 92 percent and 93 percent.) To a good approximation, Trump won because the overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for the Republican candidate, undeterred by the qualms of party leaders and conservative intellectuals. …

Christopher Achen and I have argued that in most democratic elections, “the choice between the candidates is essentially a coin toss.” In 2012, the “fundamentals” predicted a close election and the Democrats won narrowly. In 2016, the “fundamentals” predicted a close election and the Republicans won narrowly. That’s how coin tosses go. “It is a blunder to expect elections to deliver more.”

Achen and Bartels propose some reasons for thinking that democracy is a good system of government, even though their theory suggests it is not as good as it is commonly believed to be. They also caution against reform efforts that rest on false theories of democracy. Taking the nomination of presidential candidates out of the hands of party elites and putting it into the hands of voters is a good idea if you believe that more voting is always better than less. But it’s not obviously a good idea if you take their results to heart. (My example, not theirs.)

Our Discussion

Prof. Brown noted that elections involve more than just motivating the base and trying to swing the independents. There are also efforts to suppress the vote on the other side. Some of these are within the rules, such as running ugly negative campaigns. Other ways of suppressing opposition votes are out of bounds in a functioning democracy.

I said that some of the benefits of democracy that they note depend on undemocratic aspects of the state. Voting out corrupt or ineffective leaders works only if there are journalists who are free to expose political corruption or incompetence. This only works if the press is insulated from the voters. It’s a piece of cake for political leaders to convince the members of their party that the press is biased and that hostile journalists should be shut down.

Aaron said he thought that proportional representation would solve some of the problems that Achen and Bartels note. I don’t know if that is so; I’m looking forward to learning more about proportional representation from his thesis! But in the meantime, I think he has exposed a hole in the argument of this book, namely, that it is so focused on the US with its two party system. There are plenty of multi-party democracies. Do they face the same problems? Maybe. But it can’t be that their elections involve two parties that split the vote with some uninformed drifters randomly floating between them. So I would like to see how it works in other systems.

One last thing to say is that we really need some comparative judgments. Democracy is bad at doing what compared with what other system? I think that if we started asking questions like that, we would feel a little better about democracy.

Update: Why is Democracy Good?

Achen and Bartels close their chapter with five reasons why democracy is a good form of government even granting their deflation of the populist and retrospective voting theories. I wanted to add two things about this.

First, I think they are occasionally guilty of sliding into equating “democracy” with all the good stuff. For instance, they say that one of the advantages of democracy is that it produces a clear winner: there is no dispute about who is the legitimate occupant of the throne, er, presidency. By contrast, in a hereditary monarchy, you can fall into a situation where there are a variety of cousins and children born outside of marriage all staking their claims.

Fair enough. But the example they give to illustrate the point is Bush v. Gore. But in that case, the democratic process did not determine the winner. It was the Supreme Court that decided it. The members of the Supreme Court are not elected. They have lifetime tenures. And their job is to interpret the law rather than the popular will. It is the least democratic part of the government. Bush v. Gore did in fact settle the 2000 election without violence, but that is not the same thing as saying that the democratic process worked. Far from it. The only way you get to say that this is an example of democracy selecting a winner is if you include a court system perceived to be neutral and legitimate along with settled laws in your definition of democracy. That is, democracy is all the good stuff. (Now that I look it over, I see that I’m just repeating the point that I made earlier about a free press. Sorry!)

Second, we did not come up with sharp examples to show what practical difference this might make. This morning, I thought of one.

You might think that democracy involves electing officials who will represent their constituents’ ideological opinions. That is what the Populist Theory suggests, for instance. If so, it would make sense to have electoral districts that are as ideologically uniform as possible. That would maximize the degree to which people are properly represented, after all.

But if Achen and Bartels are right, the idea that people have ideological positions is an optical illusion. Rather, what is good about democracy is that it randomly turns over power between competing parties, ensuring that the losers in any one round can stay as the loyal opposition while they wait for their turn. If they are right, districts should be as competitive as possible so there will be more turnover.

These are live issues. There are academics who think that representation should be understood in ideological terms. And I think it’s an open question whether frequent turnover is desirable or not. Many states have experimented with term limits for their legislators and I think it’s not obvious that the resulting turnover has produced good government.