A Discussion of Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels’ Democracy for Realists

A Discussion of Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels’ Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

by Christopher H. Achen, Princeton, University and Larry M. Bartels, Vanderbilt University

Liberal democracy is often viewed by its supporters as a system of government that responds to the informed and rational preferences of the public organized as voters. And liberal democracy is often viewed by its critics as a system that fails to respond to the informed and rational preferences of its citizens. In this book Larry Bartels and Chris Achen draw on decades of research to argue that a “realistic” conception of democracy cannot be centered on the idea of a “rational voter,” and that the ills of contemporary democracies, and especially democracy in the U.S., must be sought in the dynamics that link voters, political parties and public policy in ways that reproduce inequality. “We believe,” write the authors, “that abandoning the folk theory of democracy is a prerequisite to both greater intellectual clarity and real political change. Too many democratic reformers have squandered their energy on misguided or quixotic ideas.”

Read the full review symposium.


  • Antje Schwennicke, Virginia Wesleyan College
    In 2016, American citizens voted against the wisdom of policy experts and elites. A historic election campaign came to a close with a result that was feared by many and predicted by few. The economic and political consequences of the future policies enacted by the Trump administration still remain uncertain—much depends on the degree to which campaign promises (and threats) will be enacted. However, President-elect Trump’s campaign proposals for trade, foreign policy, climate change, and energy policy (to name a few) alarmed experts and politicians alike, and a vocal elite from both sides of the aisle warned repeatedly of the potentially long-lasting deleterious effects of such policies on the lives of ordinary citizens. Read the full article.
  • Elizabeth F. Cohen, Syracuse University
    In a year when voter dissatisfaction with electoral choices and outcomes has reached fever pitch, enter Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels with social-scientific evidence demonstrating that the act of voting reflects neither a forward-looking political vision held by individual voters nor a retrospective verdict on the past performance of parties and politicians. In short, people don’t seem to like or even understand the political choices they make. Democracy for Realists explains this counter-intuitive circumstance by showing that “liberalism is simply too shallow to bear the weight put on it in conventional [folk] democratic theorizing” (p. 216). Read the full article.
  • Neil Roberts, Williams College
    “My black studies and philosophy of religion self is telling my political science self that political scientists don’t know shit about politics. If it weren’t so late in the process, I’d go so far as to say that the American Political Science Association should scrap its legitimacy theme for the September 2017 annual meeting and instead make the theme a discussion of the future of the field. Any field that can subordinate the study of race and the study of women domestically and internationally is a field living in a delusion. And I say this with love, not despair. Parrhesia isn’t easy to hear.” I posted those words on my Facebook wall the morning after the November 2016 U.S. Presidential election, to a bevy of responses. Yes, they’re hardly what you’d expect for inclusion in a symposium on Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’s Democracy for Realists. But I stand by them, developments in the wake of the Perestroika movement’s aftermath, this journal including, notwithstanding. To comment on Achen and Bartels, thankfully, is to address exceptions to disciplinary norms. Read the full article.
  • Andrew Sabl, Yale University
    Impirical political scientists (especially Americanists) differ sharply with political theorists regarding how they measure democracy’s quality or proper functioning (Sabl 2015). This book exemplifies both the size of this gap and some of its costs. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels aim to refute a prevalent model of democracy under which “what the majority wants becomes government policy” (p. 1). Read the full article.
  • Isabela Mares, Columbia University
    Larry Bartels and Chris Achen have written a path-breaking book, which synthesizes several decades of research on the shortcomings of democratic politics. The book is unique in our discipline, due to its ability to bring together empirical research covering a broad range of topics in voting behavior and electoral politics and normative research about the foundations of democratic politics. Read the full article.
  • Gerald C. Wright, Indiana University
    Chris Achen and Larry Bartels have written a brilliant book. It is also a distinctly pessimistic assessment of the quality of American democracy. They are quite successful in showing a number of major deficiencies our common sense idea of democracy, what they call “the Folk Theory.” The Folk Theory is not an empirical model, it is a normative ideal. It may be on the naive side, but is it nevertheless deeply embedded in both popular conceptions of democracy and in the fabric of a great deal of political science research. In many parts of their book, however, it appears that Achen and Bartels attack the Folk Theory as though it were being offered as an empirical model of how the system actually works. But we have known for generations that the American voter falls short of the Folk Theory’s idealized democratic citizen. While Achen and Bartels provide interesting new data, their basic message is not news. Read the full article.

Read the full review symposium.

Perspectives on Politics  /  Volume 15Issue 1  /  March 2017, pp. 148-162