Do Elections Produce Responsive Government? [Spoiler Alert – Nope] – A Review of Democracy for Realists

Do elections actually work? Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels investigate in their book Democracy For Realists. Spoiler alert – they conclude that no, elections are not effective at producing responsive government.

Are Voters Competent?

In what the Achen and Bartels deem the “folk theory of democracy”, proponents of elections believe that people should choose their leaders at the polls and hold them accountable. “Voters should be represented, not just governed… Good citizens would engage in thoughtful monitoring of their government.”

Unfortunately there is little to no evidence that citizens are up for task. According to the authors,

“Numerous studies have demonstrated that most residents of democratic countries have little interest in politics and do not follow news of public affairs beyond browsing the headlines. They do not know the details of even salient policy debates, they do not have a firm understanding of what the political parties stand for, and they often vote for parties whose long-standing issue positions are at odds with their own. Mostly, they identify with ethnic, racial, occupational, religious, or other sorts of groups, and often – whether through group ties or hereditary loyalties – with a political party. Even the more attentive citizens mostly adopt the policy positions of the parties as their own: they are mirrors of the parties, not masters. For most citizens most of the time, party and group loyalties are the primary drivers of vote choices.”

The Theory of Retrospective Voting

Even if voters are incompetent, it is possible that they are still able to hold politicians to account “by assessing the performance of incumbent officials, rewarding success and punishing failure [pp 91]”. In the retrospective theory of voting according to Morris Fiorina, “[Voters] need not know the precise economic or foreign policies of the incumbent administration in order to see or feel the results of those polices…. In order to ascertain whether the incumbents have performed poorly or well, citizens need only calculate the changes in their own welfare. If jobs have been lost in a recession, something is wrong. If sons have died in foreign rice paddies, something is wrong. If thugs make neighborhoods unsafe, something is wrong. If polluters foul food, water, or air, something is wrong.”

Unfortunately, Achen and Bartels show that voters are typically not capable of applying retrospective feedback. “Governments are punished willy-nilly for bad times, including bad times clearly due to events beyond the government’s control. Voters along the Jersey Shore punished the incumbent president, Woodrow Wilson, for the panic and economic dislocation stemming from a dramatic series of shark attacks in 1916, reducing his vote share there by as much as 10 percentage points.” Parties also suffer at the polls due to droughts, for too much or too little rain.

Achen and Bartels also show that voters are extremely sensitive to income growth only in the past 12 months before election night. Income growth before the election year has little effect on the incumbent party’s prospects at the polls. For example, “Jimmy Carter in 1980 was punished for an election-year recession despite considerable economic growth earlier in his term. Ronald Reagan in 1984 was reelected in a landslide thanks to an election-year boom, despite lackluster growth earlier in his term. [pp 305].”

Voter Rationalization and Group Identity

Achen and Bartels argue that “Most citizens support a party not because they have carefully calculated that its policy positions are closest to their own, but rather because ‘their kind’ of person belongs to that party. When people are asked what they like and dislike about political parties, or what characterizes the different parties, they often talk about perceived ties between the parties and prominent social groups. Their own partisan identities are likewise frequently bound up in their social identities and commitments. [pp 307]”.

“Citizens tend to adopt the views of the parties and groups they favor. If they are unusually highly engaged in politics, they may even develop ideological frameworks rationalizing their group loyalties and denigrating those of their political opponents. Sometimes they even construct convenient ‘facts’ to help support their group loyalties.”

“Well informed citizens are likely to have more elaborate and internally consistent worldviews than inattentive people do, but that just reflects the fact that their rationalizations are better rehearsed…. the political beliefs of more attentive, knowledgeable citizens are often more subject to partisan bias than those of their less attentive neighbors [pp 310].”

Achen and Bartels conclude that “democratic theory is too hard for everyone.… The historical record leaves little doubt that the educated, including the highly educated, have gone astray in their moral and political judgments as often as anyone else. In the antebelleum era, prominent southern professors and university administrators often defended slavery. Brilliant 19th century German professors helped give shape to German nationalism and the racial identity theories that led to Nazism, and German university students in the 1930s were often enthusiastic supporters of Hitler [pp 310].”

What is to be Done?

Achen and Bartels do not have many recommendations to alleviate the ignorance and incompetence of voters. Instead they recommend “a greater degree of economic and social equality” without specifics on how to reach such a goal. Achen and Bartels criticize leading ideas about how to achieve a better democracy:

“Generations of thoughtful Americans have promoted with genuine sincerity reforms deriving from the folk theory of democracy. But they tend to be badly flawed in practice, primarily because they make life all too easy for special interests. Especially at the state level, proponents of mind-numbing clichés about giving power to ordinary people bear considerable responsibility for the domination of government by narrowly self-interested groups…. It is the folk theory that props up elite rule…”

Perspectives with Respect to Democracy by Lottery

Achen and Bartels narrow the scope of their book on observations of American elections, mostly focused on the highest offices such as Congress and the Presidency. I think it is unfortunate that the scope of the book is not wider. Democracy for Realists does not perform any substantial empirical study on other nations asides from the United States. There is no significant discussion about Parliamentary or Party-based governments. There is also no discussion of direct democracy practiced in Switzerland, worker cooperatives, or in small-town America. Finally Achens and Bartels do not explore the resurgence of sortition, where democratic representation is constructed through a lottery of the people.

Criticism of Deliberative Democracy

Deliberative democracy is a relatively new model of democracy focused on using deliberation for decision making. In the deliberative model, citizens deliberate with one another before making a decision in order to acquire information to the topic and understand differing viewpoints on the topic. Achen and Bartels discuss deliberative democracy briefly, but believe that “these models… rest on essentially the same unrealistic expectations about human nature embodied in folk theory… theorists of deliberative democracy are ‘try[ing] to whip the public into doing things it does not want to do, is unable to do, and has too much sense to do’. Most ordinary citizens do not want politics to be more like a philosophy seminar.”

Achen and Bartels seem to me to be contradicted with the latest evidence from Citizens’ Assemblies and Deliberative Polls conducted throughout the world, for example with American with One Room – though it should be noted that many of these Citizens’ Assemblies were conducted after Democracy for Realists was published. Any how, Achens and Bartels criticize Citizens’ Assemblies for being unable to make voters into better voters. “In each case [of Citizens’ Assemblies in British Columbia and Ontario], a body of ordinary citizens engaged in an elaborately funded year-long process of education, consultation, and deliberation aimed at recommending a new voting rule to be employed in provincial elections. And in each case, their nearly unanimous recommendation was decisively rejected by their fellow citizens in a subsequent referendum.” Achens and Bartels describes this disconnect as a “shortcoming” of deliberation, believing that “the point of the assemblies was to shape the judgment of the broader electorate” [pp 302].

Criticism of Criticism of Deliberative Democracy

I think Achens and Bartels have missed the point of deliberative democracy. The objective of Citizens’ Assemblies shouldn’t be to shape the judgment of the broader electorate. A Citizens’ Assembly is obviously a bad tool for marketing, advertising, propaganda, and other techniques needed to persuade the public. As Achen and Bartels have shown throughout their entire book, the broader electorate is incapable of refined decision making and making sophisticated referendum choices. Citizens’ Assemblies are instead a demonstration of exactly how we can create a more informed, more considered, and more rational democracy that Achen and Bartels believe is yet unachievable. A deliberative democracy can be achieved, because we do not need every American participating in the deliberative process, but only a cross-section of the public constructed through random sampling. With this smaller sampling, we can paradoxically create citizens who temporarily specialize in democratic work, and are financially compensated for performing democratic work. Moreover in contrast to Achen and Bartel’s perceived lack of public interest in participating in these Citizens’ Assemblies, other work finds that “a majority of people wish to take the opportunity [Dryzek et al 2019, The Crisis of Democracy and the Science of Deliberation]”.

Achen and Bartels believe that Deliberative Democracy is a purely academic exercise that cannot be implemented in the real world, because they likely believe that in order for Deliberation to quality as Democracy, everyone must participate. Yet according to James Fishkin, the model of Deliberative Democracy is not committed to full participation of the entire citizenry. Instead, Deliberative Democracy can be achieved while maintaining political equality through democratic lotteries otherwise known as sortition. “The ancient Athenians achieved political equality first via random sampling, and second via processes exhibiting political equality (equal counting of votes) among those selected randomly” [Fishkin, When the People Speak, pp 43].


Achen and Bartels have done significant work in cataloguing the many ways in which elections produce lackluster democratic results. They however offer no solutions. In my opinion, the vast majority of their critiques against elections can be solved through Deliberative Democracy and Democratic Lottery. I think Achen and Bartels have also bought into their folk theory of democracy, that democracy is achieved by elected leaders and holding them to account retroactively. By restricting themselves to the liberal folk theory, it is unsurprising then they have no solutions to offer.