Abandoning the “folk theory” of democracy

k10671In 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inequality and serve the interests of ordinary citizens will require us to give up some cherished but badly outdated science, and to substitute for it a vision with honest 21st-century intellectual credentials.
An essay summarising the book can be read at the link below:
Christopher H Achen is the Roger Williams Straus professor of social sciences and professor of politics at Princeton University.
Larry M Bartels holds the May Werthan Shayne chair of
public policy and social science at Vanderbilt University.

4 thoughts on “Abandoning the “folk theory” of democracy”

  1. Very interesting. The “folk theory” seems to be what Schumpeter called the “classical theory” – however for Schumpeter the elitist nature of elections was not undesirable while for Achen and Bartels it is a problem to be addressed. Do they have any operative suggestions?

    1. They propose something they refer to as “group theory”, but in the abstract of the book which I have read, they don’t elaborate on what this might mean. It seems to be theory concerned with underlying principles rather than practical reform. Elsewhere they state: “What changes in society and government would be required to make democracy more effective? We have no blueprint. We are certain only that the old ways of thinking about democracy will not get us there. If the formal procedures of electoral democracy were the main tools ordinary citizens needed to produce responsive, accountable government, most contemporary democracies would already be working pretty well.”

      What I thought was particularly interesting about this work was that it was the lead book review in last weekend’s Financial Times.

      1. > “We have no blueprint. We are certain only that the old ways of thinking about democracy will not get us there.”

        Interesting admission on their side. We should contact them and offer them sortition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *