Lecturer offers political realism

On Tuesday, Nov. 2, the Institute for Freedom and Community hosted a lecture titled “Democracy for Realists and the 2016 Presidential Election,” with the aim of offering a pragmatic perspective to the U.S. presidential election. Professor Larry Bartels from Vanderbilt University was the main speaker of the event, which was based on the realistic perspective he discusses in the book “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” which he co-authored with Princton University Professor Christopher Achen this past spring.

This lecture is the second in the series of events held by the Institute this past semester. The first event, held on Oct. 20, titled “Who’s in Your Wallet? Hamilton, Jackson, Tubman, and the Presidential Election,” discussed the 2016 presidential election in the context of the debate over which American figures should be pictured on the $10 and $20 bills.

Bartels began by pointing out two contemporary perspectives to democracy, the first one being the populist ideal, which emphasizes the significance of citizens in determining major public policies. The second ideal is the leadership selection ideal, in which citizens get an opportunity to accept or refuse their leaders. Based on these two perspectives, Bartels argues that most citizens assume they are using the election as a way to express their views of current societal events.

However, Bartels continued by arguing what is commonly called the retrospective voting theory, which suggests that election outcomes are more contingent upon voters’ perception of the performance of incumbent politicians than on voters’ belief systems. Several historical examples help to solidify this point, demonstrating that voters will often vote for seemingly irrational reasons. For example, incumbent President Woodrow Wilson lost his home state of New Jersey in the election of 1916 because many voters believed that he failed to adequately react to shark attacks in the state that year.

Bartels continued to argue that voters often vote based on social identities. He suggested that these identities shape how people think, what they think and where they belong in the party system. Using statistical analyses, he showed how Americans have voted based on social identities such as religion, economic class or party identification dating back to the 18th century. As time progressed, these analyses showed that elections have done little to constrain the ideological preferences of the political elites or shift the ideological preferences of the voters.

As for voters who believe they are truly well-informed, Bartels argued that their perception mirrors their social identities, and is a reaction to what party leaders have instructed them to think. Despite the constant presence of information through social and mass media, Bartels remarked that people will not necessarily use the available technology for the purpose of obtaining information, often opting to seek out entertainment instead. The political belief systems of the average citizen are “generally thin, disorganized and ideologically incoherent,” Bartels said.

Nevertheless, Bartels sees positivity in democracy. In his view, the essential randomness of election outcomes prevents one single party or group from becoming entrenched in power. Furthermore, groups who feel neglected or ostracized from the democratic system make attractive targets for recruitment, making democracies relatively inclusive. Finally, democracy stems politicians who seek re-election from violating any consensual norms.

These points reflect those made in Bartel’s and Achen’s book, in which they conclude, “Group and partisan loyalties, not policy preferences or ideologies are fundamental in democratic politics. Thus, a realistic theory in democracy must be built not on … the devotion to human rationality and monadic individualism, but on the insights of the critics who recognized that human life is group life.”


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