Bartels and the state of democracy

Unequal democracy: The political economy of the New Gilded Age by Larry Bartels

Unequal Democracy was written in 2008; strange to think that’s almost a decade ago now. I started it before Democracy for realists, but finished it second. As with most of his writing, Bartels seems to have a habit of bogging down in inordinate numbers of tables, and quoting randomly from different pieces of commentary in the media to illustrate his argument. It makes the book feel a bit patchy.

Bartels focuses on inequality, and the relationship between economic inequality and political outcomes, and vice versa. He finds that Democrats substantially boost incomes for low income earners, but the reverse isn’t true for Republicans. He also finds that there are some issues where strong public support hasn’t been clearly reflected in decision making, or takes a long time to be reflected – minimum wages and estate taxes are his two examples.

He concludes with a reflection on what this means for democracy. In line with Democracy for realists, below, he concludes that economic outcomes impact politically, and that the prognosis isn’t good.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Democracy for realists, but it’s an interesting piece. Worth it if you’re looking for something a little more in-depth on political economy.

Economic inequality is, in substantial part, a political phenomenon …

On average, the real incomes of middle-class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans.

My analysis in chapter 4 identifies three distinct biases in political accountability that explain much of their success. One is a myopic focus of voters on very recent economic performance, which rewards Republicans’ surprising success in concentrating income growth in election years. Another is the peculiar sensitivity of voters at all income levels to high-income growth rates, which rewards Republicans’ success in generating election-year income growth among affluent families specifically. Finally, the responsiveness of voters to campaign spending rewards Republicans’ consistent advantage in fundraising.

First, voters are myopic, responding strongly to income growth in presidential election years but ignoring or forgetting most of the rest of the incumbent administration’s record of economic performance.

Rather than contributing to accurate apprehension of that fact by conservative and liberal observers alike, political awareness seems mostly to have taught people how the political elites who share their ideological commitments would like them to see the world.

… it would be a mistake to characterize public opinion as a primary impetus for the major shifts in tax policy. At most, public opinion was a resource to be used-and shaped-by elites in their own policy struggles.

… increasing economic inequality may produce increasing inequality in Political responsiveness, which in turn produces public policies that are increasingly detrimental to the interests of poor citizens, which in turn produces even greater economic inequality, and so on. If that is the case, shifts in the income distribution triggered by technological change, demographic shifts or global economic development may in time become augmented, entrenched, and immutable.

In Aristotle’s terms, our political system seems to be functioning not as a “democracy” but as an “oligarchy”. If we insist on flattering ourselves by referring to it as a democracy, we should be clear it is starkly unequal democracy.

Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels

The title says it all, really. Or says the key bits. This is a disconcerting read, and a detailed one. Achen and Bartels set out to show that many of the intuitive ideas we have about democracy may be incorrect; and not just mildly inaccurate, but wildly wrong.

Their book is thought provoking, and disconcerting. I’m not an expert in the field, so I won’t comment on whether their data and conclusions are right – I’ll leave that to other political scientists. But as a reader, it was certainly interesting and challenging.

Bartel seems to have a habit of going painstakingly through detailed figures from surveys and regressions, that could perhaps be better summarised, or put in an appendix. It makes for exhausting reading if you check every number. It may prove that as with Reinhart and Rogoff, that his detailed work is subsequently proved wrong. I’m not planning to check.

But regardless of their presentation, Achen and Bartels argue that not only are voters poor decision makers (often inconsistent), but that a key theory (retrospective voting) is also wildly incorrect, with retrospection focussing only on the recent past, and including factors that may be completely outside political control.

From there, they argue that voters often decide based on identity – which seems fairly plausible. Their discussion of what the practical implications of that are is intriguing.

There are two particular illustrations that stuck with me. One is the shark election – how a series of shark attacks impacted the 1916 US Presidential election. Another is their chart showing a relationship between democratic responsiveness and fluoride uptake – jurisdictions that had more frequent elections were less likely to have fluoride in the water.

If you’re interested in political theory, this is a thought provoking read, and well worth it.

Thus, the book resulted in a kind of intellectual conversion experience for us. Much of what we had believed and trusted turned out to be false. To be faithful to the evidence and honest with ourselves, we had to think very differently …

The folk theory of democracy celebrates the wisdom of popular judgements by informed and engaged citizens. The reality is quite different. Human beings are busy with their lives. Most have school or a job consuming many hours of the day. They also have meals to prepare, homes to clean, and bills to pay … For most, leisure time is at a premium … Without shirking more immediate and important obligations, people cannot engage in much well-informed, thoughtful political deliberation, nor should they …

The psychological indeterminacy of preferences revealed by these “framing effects” … and question-wording experiments calls into question the most fundamental assumption of populist democratic theory – that citizens have definite preferences to be elicited and aggregated through some well-specified process of collective choice …

As a blueprint for government, the folk theory [of democracy] is hopelessly flawed. Primaries and referendums with no admixture of party or legislative influence exemplify the failure. Overlooking “the elemental necessity for organized leadership in a democratic politics” … has produced a mishmash of heightened responsiveness to popular impulses, behind-the-scenes elite influence, and self-defeating choices stemming from the limited political expertise and attention of ordinary citizens …

An even more fundamental problem is that voters may have great difficulty accurately assessing “changes in their own welfare.” Proponents of retrospective voting have routinely assumed that voters know when “thugs make neighborhoods unsafe” or “polluters foul food, water, or air” as Fiorina puts it. But that is by no means obvious. To the extent that voters’ assessments of their own well-being are erroneous, retrospective voting will succeed much less well in selecting good leaders and in disciplining them to pursue voters’ interests …

In most recent scholarly accounts, retrospective voting is a natural and rational feature of democratic politics. In our view it is natural, but not so obviously rational. Indeed, blind retrospection of the sort we have documented in this chapter seems to us to provide a significant challenge to the conventional understanding of political accountability in modern democracies … Our analysis suggests that “blind” retrospection on the basis of overall well-being, with no consideration of the impact of government policies on that well-being, is very unlikely to provide much in the way of effective accountability, notwithstanding the fact that it may be “rational” in a narrow sense. Voters ignorant about evidence and causation, but supplied with a tale of incumbent responsibility, will punish incumbents whenever their subjective well-being falls below some fixed standard, regardless of whether or not their pain is in fact traceable to the incumbents’ policies …

Blind retrospection afflicts us all. It is the inevitable consequence of bewildering social complexity and human cognitive limitations-limitations that the rise of democratic government has not altered. The conventional account of retrospective voting, minimalist as it is, fundamentally underestimates the limitations of democratic citizens and, as a result, the limitations of democratic accountability …

… for thinking about democracy, rational choice liberalism is a scientific error …

For most people, partisanship is not a carrier of ideology but a reflection of judgements about where “people like me” belong. They do not always get that right, but they have much more success than they would constructing their political loyalties on the basis of ideology and policy convictions. Then, often enough, they let their party tell them what to think about the issues of the day …

… each party organizes the thinking of its adherents. A party constructs a conceptual viewpoint by which its voters can make sense of the political world. Sympathetic newspapers, magazines, websites, and television channels convey the framework to partisans. That framework identifies friends and enemies, it supplies talking points, and it tells people how to think and what to believe … For the voters who identify with a party, partisanship pulls together conceptually nearly every aspect of electoral politics … In fact, the more information the voter has, often the better able she is to bolster her identities with rational-sounding reasons …

Most of the time, voting behavior merely reaffirms voters’ partisan and group identities. They do not rethink their fundamental political commitments with every election cycle … In the political sphere, the most salient groups are parties, and the self-justifications that sustain group life are primarily grounded in-and constructed to maintain – partisan loyalties. People tend to adopt beliefs, attitudes, and values that reinforce and rationalize their partisan loyalties. But those loyalties, not beliefs or ideologies or policy commitments, are fundamental to understanding how they think and act …

… from the viewpoint of governmental representatives and accountability, election outcomes are essentially random choices among the available parties — musical chairs … This bloodless change of government is a great deal better than bloody revolution, but it is not deliberate policy change. The parties have policy views and they carry them out in office, but most voters are not listening, or are simply thinking what their party tells them they should be thinking. This is what an honest view of electoral democracy looks like. It is a blunder to expect elections to deliver more …

In our view, the most concrete and potentially important benefits of elections are not those envisioned in the folk theory. First, and perhaps most obviously, elections generally provide authoritative, widely accepted agreement about who shall rule … Moreover, in well-functioning democratic system, parties that win office are inevitably defeated at a subsequent election … This turnover is a key indicator of democratic health and stability … electoral competition also provides some incentives for rulers at any given moment to tolerate opposition …


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