Summary of Democracy for Realists

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Democracy for Realists book summary
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  • Controversial
  • Scientific
  • Eye Opening


The stunning 2016 election outcomes around the world have raised questions about the workings of democracy. Political scientists Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels go further and say that democracy doesn’t work – at least not the way most people imagine. Achen and Bartels argue that voters don’t make reasoned, purposeful selections at the ballot box; instead, their social identities determine their partisan loyalties and political choices. Citing research and analyses from early 20th-century studies through the present day, the authors take apart one comfortable assumption about democracy after another. They then propose a new theory of democracy – less idealistic, but better suited to the real world and real voters. Although lay readers might find the detailed data analyses tedious, getAbstract recommends persevering through to the authors’ fascinating conclusions.

About the Authors

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. 



The Populist Theory of Democracy

Americans continue to cling to a populist, or “folk” view of democracy’s meaning and workings. According to this idealistic theory, the citizen governs. Voters deliberately and thoughtfully choose who will lead and what policies the government will pursue. Democratic processes assure that the government which results from elections comes reasonably close to reflecting citizens’ interests and preferences. The populist theory of democracy – rooted in the belief that regular people should wield political power – celebrates human rationality and dignity. And, so the thinking goes, given democracy’s multitude of virtues, the more of it the better.

But the folk view of democracy breaks down in the light of experience and research. According to the populist perspective, voters enact their will by electing obedient representatives or by directly choosing policy in referenda and initiatives. But observers since Plato have noted that public opinion is very often ill-informed and otherwise flawed. Most people lack sufficient time, interest and motivation to learn...

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