Citizen Action Monitor

“Democracy cannot work as it is meant to; human nature does not allow it.”

The presumption that voters make informed political decisions is a myth.

No 1856 Posted by fw, December 26, 2016

“’Democracy for Realists’, published earlier this year by the social science professors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, argues that the ‘folk theory of democracy’” – the idea that citizens make coherent and intelligible policy decisions, on which governments then act – bears no relationship to how it really works. Or could ever work. Voters, they contend, can’t possibly live up to these expectations. Most are too busy with jobs and families and troubles of their own. When we do have time off, not many of us choose to spend it sifting competing claims about the fiscal implications of quantitative easing. Even when we do, we don’t behave as the theory suggests.” —George Monbiot

Monbiot summarizes the findings of social science professors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ new book, Democracy for Realists, and relays to readers a depressing account of voters’ failings to live up to the idealized demands of democracy. As Monbiot puts it in his conclusion, informed citizen activists “cannot rely on what democracy ought to be. We must see it for what it is.

Consider my paraphrased interpretation of selected key highlights that Monbiot extracts from the researcher’s empirical results:

  • For starters, voters are too busy to do what a democratic system expects of them
  • Voters do not read critically for information, analyze evidence, and engage in informed debate leading to a rational choice
  • Voters possess little useful information, aren’t interested in becoming responsibly informed, and avoid political arguments
  • Voters support politicians/parties that reflect their own (voters’) cultural identity, values and beliefs
  • Moreover, the presumption that parties are guided by their (voters’) policy preferences is a myth
  • Voters are ill-equipped to reconcile discrepancies between what politicians say they stand for and what they end up doing
  • Voters’ short-term memory can be exploited by parties to repeat lies about opponents

Despite the evidence, Monbiot concludes the situation is not hopeless:

“Persistent, determined, well-organized groups can bring neglected issues to the fore and change political outcomes. But in doing so they cannot rely on what democracy ought to be. We must see it for what it is. That means understanding what we are.”

We infer that, apart from the study’s methodological shortcomings, Monbiot subscribes in large part to Achen and Bartels’ research thesis – “the idea that citizens make coherent and intelligible policy decisions, on which governments then act – bears no relationship to how it really works.”

On a related, positive note, in the US, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, (CELDF) has demonstrated that a sophisticated educational program offered to citizens in communities across the US can inspire grassroots movements to rise up against the fracking industry.

Below is a repost of Monbiot’s article, including subheadings and text highlighting. To read his piece on his website, click on the following linked title.

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What We Are  by George Monbiot, www.monbiot.com, October 6, 2016

Democracy cannot work as it is meant to; human nature does not allow it.

What if democracy doesn’t work? What if it never has and never will? What if government of the people, by the people, for the people is a fairytale? What if it functions as a justifying myth for liars and charlatans?

Recent events that might undermine believers’ trust in the democratic process

There are plenty of reasons to raise these questions. The lies, exaggerations and fear-mongering on both sides of the Brexit non-debate; the xenophobic fables that informed the Hungarian referendum; Donald Trump’s ability to shake off almost any scandal and exposure; the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who gleefully compares himself to Hitler: are these isolated instances, or do they reveal a systemic problem?

Moreover, new academic research challenges naïve notions about how the democratic process “really works”

Democracy for Realists, published earlier this year by the social science professors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, argues that the “folk theory of democracy” – the idea that citizens make coherent and intelligible policy decisions, on which governments then act – bears no relationship to how it really works. Or could ever work.

For starters, voters are too busy to do what a democratic system expects of them

Voters, they contend, can’t possibly live up to these expectations. Most are too busy with jobs and families and troubles of their own. When we do have time off, not many of us choose to spend it sifting competing claims about the fiscal implications of quantitative easing. Even when we do, we don’t behave as the theory suggests.

The process is not grounded in citizen research, analysing evidence, informed debate leading to a rational choice

Our folk theory of democracy is grounded in an Enlightenment notion of rational choice. This proposes that we make political decisions by seeking information, weighing the evidence and using it to choose good policies, then attempt to elect a government that will champion those policies. In doing so, we compete with other rational voters, and seek to reach the unpersuaded through reasoned debate.

Most voters possess little useful information, aren’t interested in becoming responsibly informed, and avoid political arguments

In reality, the research summarized by Achen and Bartels suggests, most people possess almost no useful information about policies and their implications, have little desire to improve their state of knowledge, and have a deep aversion to political disagreement.

We base our political decisions on who we are, rather than what we think.

Voters support politicians/parties that reflect their cultural identity, values and beliefs

In other words, we act politically not as individual, rational beings, but as members of social groups, expressing a social identity. We seek out the political parties that seem to correspond best to our culture, with little regard to whether their policies support our interests. We remain loyal to political parties long after they have ceased to serve us.

Of course, shifts do happen, sometimes as a result of extreme circumstances, sometimes because another party positions itself as a better guardian of a particular cultural identity. But they seldom involve a rational assessment of policy.

The presumption that parties are guided by voters’ policy preferences is also a myth

The idea that parties are guided by the policy decisions made by voters also seems to be a myth; in reality, the parties make the policies and we fall into line.

So, how do voters reconcile discrepancies between what politicians say they stand for and what they actually do?

To minimize cognitive dissonance – the gulf between what we perceive and what we believe – we either adjust our views to those of our favoured party or avoid discovering what the party really stands for. This is how people end up voting against their interests.

Party pollsters’ vague survey phrasing can be used to mislead voters

We are suckers for language. When surveys asked Americans whether the federal government was spending too little on “assistance to the poor”, 65% of them agreed. But only 25% agreed that it was spending too little on “welfare”. In the approach to the 1991 Gulf War, nearly two thirds of Americans said they were willing to “use military force”. Fewer than 30% were willing to “go to war”.

Voters’ short-term memory can be exploited by parties to repeat lies about opponents

Even the less ambitious notion of democracy – that it’s a means by which people punish or reward governments – turns out to be divorced from reality. We can remember only the past few months of a government’s performance (a bias known as “duration neglect”) and we are hopeless at correctly attributing blame. A great white shark that killed five people in July 1916 caused a 10% swing against Woodrow Wilson in the beach communities of New Jersey. In 2000, according to another analysis by the authors, 2.8 million voters punished the Democrats for the severe floods and droughts which struck that year. Al Gore, they say, lost Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, Florida, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Missouri as a result; which is ironic in view of his position on climate change.

Improved information and voter education doesn’t help because voters tend to twist the truth to enhance their biases

The obvious answer is better information and civic education. But this doesn’t work either. Moderately-informed Republicans were more inclined than Republicans with the least information to believe that Bill Clinton oversaw an increase in the budget deficit (it declined massively). Why? Because, unlike the worst-informed, they knew he was a Democrat. The tiny number of people with a very high level of political information tend to use it not to challenge their own opinions but to rationalist them. Political knowledge, Achen and Bartels argue, “enhances bias”.

Evidence suggests referenda and citizens’ initiatives produce even worse results

Direct democracy – referenda and citizens’ initiatives – seems to produce even worse results. In the US, initiatives are repeatedly used by multi-million dollar lobby groups to achieve results that state legislatures won’t grant them. They tend to replace taxes with user fees, stymie the redistribution of wealth and degrade public services. Whether representative or direct, democracy comes to be owned by the elites.

This is not to suggest that it [direct democracy] has no virtues, just that they are not the principal virtues we ascribe to it. It allows governments to be changed without bloodshed, limits terms in office, and ensures that the results of elections are widely accepted. Sometimes public attribution of blame will coincide with reality, which is why you don’t get famines in democracies.

But, when all is said and done, Achen and Bartels’ research has flaws: the situation is not as hopeless as they portray it

In these respects it beats dictatorship. But is this all it has to offer? A weakness of the book is that most of its examples are drawn from the US, and most of those are old. Had the authors examined popular education groups in Latin America, participatory budgets in Brazil and New York, the fragmentation of traditional parties in Europe and the movement that culminated in Bernie Sanders’s near miss, they might have discerned more room for hope. This is not to suggest that the folk theory of democracy comes close to reality anywhere, but that the situation is not as hopeless as they propose.

Nonetheless, citizen action groups should understand democracy’s pitfalls, and have no false illusions about voters

Persistent, determined, well-organized groups can bring neglected issues to the fore and change political outcomes. But in doing so they cannot rely on what democracy ought to be. We must see it for what it is. That means understanding what we are.

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This entry was posted on December 26, 2016 by in academic counterpower, evidence based counterpower, political action and tagged , .
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