Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton Studies in Political Behavior)

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by lkrubner   2022-06-21
To my mind, the most interesting question is the other way around. We have an abundance of data about the public, we have relatively little data about how the elites operate. As I've gone up in my career, and begun to reach elite levels, I've been fascinated to learn about some of the upper levels of the economy, some of the odd rituals that it has.

I have taken an almost sociological interest in some of the minor social codes of elite life, such as who is allowed to use curse words, and what they are actually communicating when they allow themselves to use curse words. But also the opposite: who never uses curse words, and why?

But my point is, if I want to learn how coal miners in West Virginia use curse words, I can easily learn about that. I own several good books about working class life in Appalachia, I've read half of them. But good books about the use of curse words among the elites? That is much more rare, and the situation tends to evolve at a faster rate.

Also, I'll point out, this form of journalism is fairly common. Over the last year I've seen several good essays that suggested various elite groups were misunderstanding the mood of the public. What is somewhat more rare is to read a book about how the public misreads the elites. Into this category I would, arguably, suggest that Democracy For Realists is the best:

I read this at the end of last year, and posted a few excerpts here:

The public also seems to misunderstand how much any political system, but especially democratic systems, depend on certain elites, and in particular political parties, to allow the system to continue to function. Consider the Panama Exception:

Occasionally someone is born into wealth and they turn out to be a great novelist, so they can write a novel that gives us some sense of growing up in the upper class. Interesting stuff. But in general, if I want to learn how poverty persists in Appalachia, I have many more books to read than books that teach me how the upper class transmits its status to its children. Some of the details of that operation are hidden, and difficult to learn about, save when we make friends with people who had that upbringing, and even then, we are only seeing a narrow slice of the overall process.

And obviously, the life of the wealthy frequently shows up on television and movies, but not in a realistic way. Such shows amount to a kind of obfuscation of elite reality.

by patcon   2022-06-12
disclaimer: i'm a bit of a lateral thinker so you might not like some of my metaphors, but fwiw they're backed by a biochem degree and a not-insignificant number of years working at intersection of tech/society/democracy.

I'm not a crypto fan, but am mostly understanding it as a financial churn mechanism. Wealth and power tend to pool and become self-stabilizing -- power is inherently conservative imho. Assets moving between hands is part of renewal cycles -- generally a chance for change or something different. It allows new possibilities to be stumbled into. Even just assuming we're doing a random walk of the possibility space, churn is better than stasis, no?

If there's any value in crypto, it's imho mostly about moving money between hands. Crypto has funded a ton of garbage and fads, but also a ton of research and advocacy. So yea, new garbage, but also new and different research and advocacy, different than we'd have had otherwise. I could certainly judge and express opinions on which hands it's moving between (and that's a site of action for justice work) but it can still be a net positive even when that's flawed.

re: moving X between hands. The value here is comparable to how some believe the main value of democracy is that it's a stable system for moving power between hands, and nothing more.[1] We wrap it in a nice story, but some smart people genuinely believe it's nothing more, and that most things we tell us about how and why democracy works, it's pretty suspect. (I've worked in democratic reform movements for almost a decade, so that's not an unconsidered perspective.)

Again, speaking of "churn" and keeping power circulating. The value of churn is kinda like the value of tidal action or diurnal rhythms generally -- it doesn't have a goal on which to judge whether it's "succeeding", but from the churn and flow of resources, it supports ecologies that find new niches. So maybe crypto has no purpose. But even if pointless, it can still have a role in the environment we live in.

Tides, democracy, american dreams, crypto or any goldrush past -- it's maybe stuff with mystique because each is a churn that creates some sort of renewal, like turning the earth with a shovel and mixing it up. I'm glad for most any churn, especially in a society lacking it in certain spaces, even if it leaves things to be desired. imho the alternative is to allow power to entrench more and more, which isn't the team i want to be on while wishing crypto away * shrug *


by patcon   2021-05-25
Ex-biochemist here, turned political technologist (who's spent a few years engaged in electoral reform and governance convos)

> the goal of research, which is to expand the scope and quality of human knowledge.

But are we so certain this is ever what drove science? Before we dive into twiddling knobs with a presumption of understanding some foundational motivation, it's worth asking. Sometimes the stories we tell are not the stories that drive the underlying machinery.

For e.g., we have a lot of wishy-washy "folk theories" of how democracy works, but actual political scientists know that most of the ones people "think" drive democracy, are actually just a bullshit story. According to some, it's even possible that the function of these common-belief fabrications is that their falsely simple narrative stabilizes democracy itself in the mind of the everyman, due to the trustworthiness of seemingly simple things. So it's an important falsehood to have in the meme pool. But the real forces that make democracy work are either (a) quite complex and obscure, or even (b) as-of-yet inconclusive. [1]

I wonder if science has some similar vibes: folks theory vs what actually drives it. Maybe the folk theory is "expand human knowledge", but the true machinery is and always has been a complex concoction of human ego, corruption and the fancies of the wealthy, topped with an icing of natural human curiosity.


by patcon   2021-02-04
heh sorry, maybe it wasn't as strong a primer as I was recalling, since there's lots of noise around the message I was cherry-picking for my comment :)

This one's more to-the-point maybe:

by PRbox   2019-07-21

I haven't read either of these (seen them recommended elsewhere), but they seem to touch on this subject:

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

From description:

>They demonstrate that voters―even those who are well informed and politically engaged―mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents' control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly.

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

From description:

>Caplan argues that voters continually elect politicians who either share their biases or else pretend to, resulting in bad policies winning again and again by popular demand...Caplan contends that democracy fails precisely because it does what voters want. Through an analysis of Americans' voting behavior and opinions on a range of economic issues, he makes the convincing case that noneconomists suffer from four prevailing biases: they underestimate the wisdom of the market mechanism, distrust foreigners, undervalue the benefits of conserving labor, and pessimistically believe the economy is going from bad to worse.

No idea what the solution is though.

by PRbox   2019-07-21

Thanks for the recommendation. I've got a lot of "left-leaning" books (well, some of them) on my list now that all sound interesting, and Debt is definitely a high priority because people keep recommending it.

Have you read any of his other work? Bullshit Jobs sounds really interesting but a couple reviews said the original article he wrote on the topic pretty much sums the book up in a much lower word count.

A few of the books on my to-read list in case anyone sees this and is interested:

  • Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government - Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels
  • The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics - Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alastair Smith
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History - Elizabeth Kolbert
  • This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate - Naomi Klein
  • Debt - Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years - David Graeber
  • The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy - David Graeber
  • Our Selfish Tax Laws: Toward Tax Reform That Mirrors Our Better Selves - Anthony Infanti
  • Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World - Anand Giridharadas
  • How Democracies Die - Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt
by specialist   2019-07-12
I too grudgingly, fitfully made the worldview transition from "platforms" to "identity".

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government


The silver lining is that issue-based efforts have risen to fill the vacuum. I'm as partisan as they come, and I think this is a huge leap forward.

If we (USA) replace FPTP with Approval Voting and Proportional Representation, perhaps the policy-based coalition forming will transition back from 501c3's to campaigns & caucuses.