In an effort to better understand whether too much or too little democracy is to blame for recent hyper-partisanship, a new paper by Thomas E. Mann of the nonprofit Brookings Institution summarizes the findings of “Democracy for Realists” by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels and competing research by Paul Sniderman and Arthur Lupia.
For their part, Achen and Bartel argue that conceptions of voters as rational decision-makers do not hold up against empirical evidence. Voters are better understood, they say, as members of partisan groups that influence their perceptions of campaigns and issues. In other words, perceived social identities drive voting decisions rather than black-and-white rationality.
Sniderman and Lupia, on the other hand, maintain that voters have enough rationality and information to ensure a well-functioning democracy. From their perspective, the mud-slinging and ugly rhetoric of the current presidential contest can best be understood as the result of citizens having been systematically locked out of the governing process.
Mann ultimately concludes that the findings of “Democracy for Realists” are not anti-democratic, despite their claims that individual voters are often ignorant of policy specifics. Instead, he believes the book reveals an “asymmetry in political resources and representation of different segments of American society.”
Exactly how that asymmetry will shape government and politics in the years to come remains an open question.
Read Mann’s paper here: