What good is democracy?

617to416
14 min readMar 27, 2024

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In their book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels challenge two popular notions of voter behaviour. The first, which they label the “populist” or “folk” theory of democracy, is the conventional belief that democracy is government of, by, and for the people. This theory assumes that when people vote, they evaluate the candidates’ policy proposals and choose the candidate whose policies they believe will deliver the best results. In this view, elections allow the people to actively shape government policy and therefore govern themselves.

The second theory, which Achen and Bartels call the “retrospective” theory, accepts that the typical voter is neither adept at nor interested in carefully assessing policy, but assumes voters evaluate the candidates’ (or the candidates’ parties’) past performance and choose whichever candidate (or party) they believe has done best in the past. While this theory dispenses with the idea that people actively shape government policy, it still suggests that voters evaluate the policies enacted in the past by their leaders and choose the leaders or parties who have delivered the best results.

Achen and Bartels present solid arguments against both theories and propose a third theory, which they argue is better supported by the evidence. This third theory, which I will call the “identity” theory, suggests that voters simply vote along with the social or partisan groups to which they belong. Voting, in this view, becomes an assertion of identity rather than a process of rationally evaluating policy proposals or past performance.

I find Achen and Bartels most convincing in arguing for the identity theory and against the populist theory. Their argument against the retrospective theory is convincing to the extent it shows that voters don’t rationally evaluate a leader’s or a party’s past performance and vote accordingly. Yet the examples they present do support the idea that votes reflect the voters’ satisfaction — or, more accurately, dissatisfaction — with recent conditions. It seems that when voters are unhappy, they vote their leaders out, even if the leaders’ actions are not the cause of the voters’ unhappiness. Or, as I might put it, unhappy voters will vote to depose the king regardless of who the king is or what he has done.

The continuum of voter behaviour

Accepting as valid both the identity theory of voting and a limited version of the retrospective theory, I believe voter behaviour can best be described as falling along a continuum between the voter asserting his or her political identity and the voter expressing dissatisfaction with current conditions and therefore voting to depose the king.

In this view, voting to depose the king is an emotional response to general discontent and not a choice resting on a sound evaluation of the government’s performance or even necessarily a considered judgment against the leader. Quite simply, when voters are unhappy with current conditions, they vote to change their leaders, regardless of whether those leaders are responsible for the unsatisfactory conditions and even if the leaders are, by most measures, performing well. Voting to depose the king is mostly an expression of unhappiness, a vote to register disapproval with the way things are.

At the other end of the voting continuum, voting to assert a political identity is also an emotional choice rather than a rational one, but it is more affirmative than negative — a vote for something, not against something. To understand this voting behaviour, we must first clarify what a political identity is. Achen and Bartels assert that votes typically reflect the social groups to which the voter belongs. They include among those social groups the political party with which the voter identifies, as well as the voter’s social class, ethnic group, educational peers, and so on.

While I am convinced that a voter’s social and partisan identity is highly predictive of how the voter will vote — I believe a voters’ political identity is shaped not just by the social groups to which the voter belongs, but also by the voter’s psychology and personality traits. Even siblings, who grew up in the same family, have similar educational backgrounds, and are of the same gender and close in age can hold very different political views. While more research might clarify which personality traits are most predictive of voting preferences, things such as openness to people of different backgrounds or an intuitive sense of whether poor people should be given assistance or pushed to take responsibility for themselves certainly influence one’s political identity.

Because of this, I might prefer to define a voter’s political identity less by the social groups to which the voter belongs and more by the voter’s general feelings about how society should be structured and human behaviour regulated. Of course that identity will most often be associated with, and heavily shaped by, the social groups to which the voter belongs, but it also reflects the voters’ individual personality and general worldview.

Political identities tend to be fixed over long periods, often lasting a lifetime, though they can evolve gradually or, more rarely, change precipitously, such as when a young adult rebels against the political identity he or she may have acquired from his or her family. General policy preferences (for low taxes or for better social benefits, for instance) may be attached to a political identity, but policy preferences are secondary for most voters and often unspecific and subject to change. As Achen and Bartels recognize, a voter’s political identity is to a significant degree shaped by the party and candidates the voter gravitates toward. So if the voter’s preferred party shifts its policy positions, the voter is likely to shift his or hers as well.

When a voter asserts his or her political identity he or she is essentially voting for the candidate or party that best reflects the voter’s political identity. This is not a vote for a specific set of policy preferences, nor is it a vote to reward or punish a leader or party for past performance. Instead, it is a vote for a particular type of ruler with whom the voter feels emotionally connected and emotionally comfortable.

The most politically active voters tend to have stronger, more fully developed, and less changeable political identities. These voters are the most likely to fall at one extreme of the behavioural continuum, almost always voting to assert their political identity. Their votes, therefore, tend to be “for” candidates rather than “against” candidates.

The least politically active voters tend to have weaker political identities and, if they vote at all, are mostly voting to depose the king. These voters rarely vote “for” someone. They often do not vote at all, but when they do vote, they typically are voting to “throw the bums out” or voting simply for change. If they do vote for an incumbent, it’s typically not because they strongly support the incumbent, but because they are not dissatisfied enough to throw the incumbent out or because they decide the incumbent is the lesser of two evils. Sometimes it may simply be that the incumbent is familiar and the challenger unknown or unconvincing, in which case sticking with the known is the easiest and safest option.

Most voters likely fall in-between on this continuum, with moderately developed political identities, which may also be somewhat fluid and likely influenced by the opinions of friends, family members, and others in their social groups, as well as by the politicians and media they follow. In elections, they will tend to vote to assert their political identity or maybe vote for a familiar incumbent if they are not dissatisfied, but if they are dissatisfied with their present situation they may vote mostly to depose the ruler. Continued dissatisfaction may lead to a shift in their political identity, especially if the dominant political identity within their social group also changes.

Is democracy really a good form of government?

So if democracy is as described — a system in which the voters make emotional choices for leaders who are “like them” or vote to depose their leaders when the voters are unhappy, regardless of the leader’s policy or performance, is democracy really the good system of government we like to believe it is? In particular, is democracy truly better than autocracy?

Achen and Bartels answer the question in the affirmative, and in their concluding chapter present some preliminary reasons why this might be the case. I also agree that democracy, while not the rational form of self-government the populist theory suggests, still offers significant advantages over alternative systems. These advantages fall into three broad categories — the process for replacing leaders, the responsiveness of leaders, and the competence of leaders. These are each addressed in the following three sections.

Out with the old, in with the new

The first way to answer the question, “what good is democracy?” is to consider whether the voting behaviour we’ve just described is itself a social good. On the surface, this behaviour doesn’t appear to generate better policy. Nor does it appear to hold leaders accountable for their performance or improve the quality of leaders. But it may provide other, less obvious, social goods:

  • First, it allows the voters to depose their rulers without resorting to violence. It is maybe human nature to react to unsatisfactory personal, social, or economic conditions by wanting to get rid of leaders. Unlike autocracy, democracy makes deposing the ruler easy, thereby avoiding violence, political unrest, or long periods of popular dissatisfaction with rulers. If the people are going to depose their rulers, better to have them do it with ballots than with bullets.
  • Second, it allows the voters to choose rulers with whom they feel an emotional bond. This means the people — or at least the majority that prevails in an election — are more likely to be happy with the leader and to be willing to give the leader benefit of the doubt. This contributes to social stability and may increase the general satisfaction of the population with its leaders.
  • Third, it gives the people a sense of choice and control. Leaders aren’t seen as oppressors who can’t be shaken off. They are viewed as servants of the people, easily replaced when the people are unhappy, and elevated to power only when the people choose them. This also contributes to social stability. People can choose to be patient and wait for the next scheduled election rather than feeling a need to take more immediate and disruptive action. A sense of control eliminates a sense of desperation.
  • Lastly, it means that no leader is likely to stay in power long enough to become a dictator. The regular replacement of leaders through elections means that leaders cannot get too powerful. It also, as Achen and Bartels suggest, may encourage leaders in power to treat their opposition with fairness and respect as they understand that at some point the tables will be turned.

Accountable leaders

Even if voters are generally bad at evaluating leaders, the fact that elections occur and that leaders must win them to gain and hold power, may indeed make leaders more accountable or responsive to the people. Achen and Bartels recognize that elections may put pressure on leaders to avoid corruption or other malfeasance that would likely turn the voters against them.

Achen and Bartels seem less convinced that elections give leaders an incentive to govern well (defined here as formulating and implementing policies that make the lives of their voters better) or remain responsive to the people. Yet to the extent that rulers are less likely to be deposed if the voters are happy, leaders should have some incentive to try to keep the voters pleased. This could mean pandering to the voters’ prejudices or their short-term interests (Achen and Bartels find evidence that they do the latter), which is not necessarily the same as governing well, but at least leaders should be trying to keep the people content.

Of course, these incentives work only if elections remain free and regular. So a ruler could seek to retain power not through governing well or responding to the wishes of the voters but by making elections less free or less frequent. Or a ruler may decide to place his or her own self-interest above remaining in power — for instance, by doing things that maximize the ruler’s own wealth even if those things make the ruler’s reelection less likely.

As Achen and Bartels explain, the risk of rulers failing to govern well may also be increased by the fact that the ruler may not have much control over the events that cause satisfaction or dissatisfaction among the voters and will likely be rewarded or punished for those events regardless of what the ruler does. A ruler who believes that satisfying the people is largely out of his or her control may abandon the attempt to satisfy the people in favour of satisfying himself or herself.

All these objections aside, it’s hard to see how democracy could be worse than autocracy in holding leaders accountable and responsive to the people. Democratic leaders need to convince the people to vote for them, while autocrats can hold their power by force. Of course autocrats will be interested in avoiding a violent end (something democrats have to fear much less), but whether this gives autocrats a greater incentive to keep the people happy than exists for democratic leaders who must regularly face the voters at the polls is questionable. More likely, autocrats simply have a greater incentive to deploy violence against those who might oppose them while democrats have more durable incentives to try to please the people.

Competent leaders

Accountability and responsiveness are important, but they aren’t necessarily equivalent to governing well. Ultimately, a good system of government needs to encourage the development and deployment of policies that improve the lives of the voters and the people at large. Does democracy do this better than autocracy?

In some ways, autocracy has significant advantages over democracy:

  • The ruler has absolute power, retained indefinitely. This gives him or her the ability to formulate and execute policy without obstruction or compromise and to take whatever time is required for the policy to be fully executed. Theoretically, this could lead to better, more coherent policy, more successfully implemented.
  • The ruler can assemble whatever team he or she requires to formulate and execute policy and set whatever budget is needed. The ruler is not dependent on the voters (or their other representatives) to give him or her what is required.
  • The leader is not subject to the vagaries of popular opinion. If doing the best thing is not doing the most popular thing, the leader can do what is best without fear he or she will lose an election because of it.

The problem with autocracy, however, is that there is no guarantee a leader will be either competent or interested in governing well or for the benefit of the people. Many autocrats govern purely to enrich themselves. And even if an autocrat is benevolent, there’s no guarantee he or she will be a good policymaker. In fact, the likelihood (I suspect supported by historical evidence) is that autocratic leaders are very often poor governors, incompetent, self-serving, or both.

I suspect that democracies have three advantages over autocracies when it comes to producing good government:

  • First, I suspect democracies have more consistent quality in their leaders. While any single autocrat may be a good leader, the chance of multiple autocrats in succession being good leaders is low. In a democracy, however, elections will tend to weed out the worst leaders, so those that remain in power will tend to be of at least acceptable quality. Because of this, the leaders in a democracy may on average have more consistently acceptable quality than those in an autocracy.
  • Second, the party system (which exists in all democracies and appears to be inherent in the democratic system) creates a leadership team rather than leaving leadership to a single person. The leader is both supported and constrained by his or her party, with policy and government more the responsibility of a team than of a single individual. If enough of the team members are competent , leadership overall will likely also be competent.
  • Finally, with leaders replaced often, bureaucrats — the experts who do most of the actual work of governing — are less likely to be beholden to any particular leader. They retain some independence, meaning they can do their jobs as their experience and expertise suggest is best. They are less likely to be cronies of the leader and more likely to be professionals loyal to their job rather than to any single leader.

Populism — democracy at a crossroads

While many of the strengths of democracy described above tend to increase the stability of the government, it is worth noting that electoral democracies are also prone to being shaken by the destabilizing force we call populism.

Populism arises during periods of broad and sustained popular discontent, when the desire to depose the ruler may become so strong that it itself becomes a powerful political identity. In a sense, the two ends of the voting continuum become the same, and voting to depose the ruler is also voting to assert a particular political identity.

These “populist revolts” may adopt a leftist or rightist character, but they are mainly about defining an identity group, “the people,” to which the voters belong, which is then pitted against the ruler or, more generally, the ruling class, and often also against others seen as outsiders or enemies of the people. Populist movements often coalesce around a charismatic leader who presents himself or herself as the champion or saviour of the people against the ruling power and other enemies of the people.

Populism turns indifferent voters who normally have weak political identities into activist voters with strong political identities, fervently dedicated to overthrowing the political status quo and installing leaders they believe will empower them. During periods of populism, the normal continuum of voter behaviour compresses, and the nature of the democracy itself is on the ballot. The result can be positive — a period of reform that revitalizes the democracy. Or it can be catastrophic — encouraging the rise of authoritarian demagogues and the collapse of the democratic system altogether. Populism is neither good nor bad; it can be either — and in fact may be necessary to allow democracies to change significantly when change is essential to protect the democracy— but it is by nature destabilizing and thus always creates a period of risk for any democracy.

Toward a better democracy

If this description of democracy and its strengths is accurate, how should a democracy be designed to ensure the potential good within the system is realized? While answering this question fully is beyond the scope of this essay, a few features seem likely to help a democracy achieve its full potential for good:

  • First, free, inclusive, and regular elections are essential. Elections should occur frequently enough to give the people confidence they will not have to endure an unsatisfactory leader too long, but not so frequently that the government lacks stability.
  • A democracy also should provide sufficient representation to all the major political identities in a society. Two-party systems are not ideal. Proportional representation, which tends to produce multiparty systems, is probably best as it allows more diversity of representation to satisfy a wider range of political identities.
  • In a multiparty system, the elected parties must be able to work together to form a majoritarian consensus on important issues. Democracies that promote the coalescence of multiple parties into a unified governing coalition are more effective than separation of power systems that too often lead to ineffective, divided governments.
  • Parties should be strong. One of the strengths of democracy in this view is that it is a team sport, not an individual one. Parties are the teams, and they both support and constrain their leaders, helping to maintain quality of leadership and to prevent individual leaders from catering to narrow interests not supported more generally by the party and its voters.
  • Likewise the bureaucracy must retain some independence and professionalism. An independent, professional bureaucracy supports competence in policy making and limits the ability of a leader to bend the government to self-serving ends.
  • Finally, guardrails to prevent leaders and majorities from abusing their power need to be in place. In addition to an independent and professional bureaucracy, a constitution and charter of rights upheld by an independent constitutional court can counterbalance a powerful leader and governing coalition.

In Democracy for Realists, Achen and Bartels call into question the folk theories we often rely on to convince ourselves that democracy is the best form of government. But we shouldn’t be discouraged when these theories fail to hold up under scrutiny. Rather, we should be glad that, no longer misled by attractive but false conceptions of democracy, we can better understand what truly makes democracy good. Only then can we design our democratic systems to turn democracy’s potential good into real good.

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