In an important new work, “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government”, Christopher Aachen and Larry Bartels argue that we have developed a “folk theory” of democracy, which prevents us from critically examining the flaws in our current political systems.
The “folk theory” is thus:
Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose parties and leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, in this view, what the majority wants becomes government policy – a highly attractive prospect in light of the dreary historical experience that human beings have generally endured with respect to governments. Democracy makes the people the rulers, and legitimacy derives from their consent.
Using this theory as their benchmark, the authors review the history of democracy over the last 50 years, and conclude that the ideals of democracy “crumble under empirical inspection”.
Just as a critical step towards democracy occurred when people lost faith in the notion that the king had been anointed by God, we believe that abandoning the folk theory of democracy is a prerequisite to both greater intellectual clarity and genuine political change. A great deal of hard thinking and organising will be required to develop more sophisticated notions of real democracy, and to implement the deep transformations that will be required. None of us, as individual citizens, can do it alone. But one vital implication of our account is that more realistic party doctrines of democracy are central to progress. Developing them will require robust debate in journals like this one. The conventional wisdom about democracy too often leads us toward policies that fail to improve people’s lives. A progressive agenda that can curb illegitimate inequality and serve the interests of ordinary citizens will require us to give up some cherished but badly outdated science, and to substitute for it a vision with honest 21st-century intellectual credentials.