Anyone who has studied, or even glanced at, democratic elections knows they are flawed. The most ardent proponents of democracy can tell you that they are flawed. Even presidential elections, which feature endless coverage of the candidates’ policy positions, public records, and character traits, result in millions of people choosing candidates for reasons that don’t make much sense. National votes tend to swing on issues as simple as how voters think the economy is doing in the months leading up to the election. If, by that measure, things are going well, incumbents are usually rewarded with re-election. If the economy has experienced a recent downturn, incumbents are usually punished.
The reality of democratic practice does not square with the ideals we, as good democrats, like to believe. It’s nicer to believe that voters make well-informed decisions based on careful consideration of the issues and relevant characteristics of the candidates. I personally like to think that voters are smart enough, for instance, to know that presidents are not all-powerful, and that economic conditions happen largely outside the president’s control. These beliefs about democratic behavior are difficult to shake, though the evidence points in the opposite direction. Even pessimists tend to believe that, if granted a more responsible media or more robust civic education, voters will live up to these ideals.
In their book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Governments Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue that such optimism is a waste of time. The book is a thoroughgoing attack on what they call “the folk theory of democracy,” which I summarized above. Voters, they argue, on the whole tend to make decisions that do not stand up to any kind of rational scrutiny. They are capricious, irrational, and self-centered.
Even voters who do seem to have well-informed opinions on issues usually don’t. They don’t tend to hold onto pre-existing ideas of what government should look like and subsequently select candidates whose views align with their own. Instead, voters tend to align their thinking with their preferred candidate or party. They rationalize their decisions afterwards.
We’ve seen this kind of post hoc rationalization recently with Republicans’ shifting views on Vladimir Putin. Recent polls have found Republicans warming considerably to the Russian dictator. In July of 2014, just 10% of Republicans held a favorable view of Putin. A poll conducted last December found, though, that 37% of Republicans now said they viewed Putin favorably. What changed between July 2014 and December 2016? Did Republicans grow to like Putin because they read stories about him doing good things? Did Putin change Russia’s posture towards the United States? Well, no. In the U.S., media coverage of Putin and Russia has remained antagonistic, and Putin’s stance towards the U.S. hasn’t changed. What did change, however is the candidate most Republicans were supporting. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe.” At that time, it’s safe to assume, Republicans were as skeptical of Putin as they would be two years later. Romney was not saying anything out of the ordinary for Republican politicians, who mostly view Russia with suspicion and enmity. In 2016, however, most Republicans voted for Donald Trump, who had a decidedly different line on Russia. He has spoken fondly of Putin and has refused to criticize him. He hasn’t made a public case for why we should be more friendly with Putin, he just seems to like him. Republicans are following suit. Achen and Bartels would argue that this shift is pretty obviously due entirely to voters aligning their views with someone they already prefer, rather than taking the time to consider the issue with any kind of rigor. That’s just not how people behave.
This alignment happens not just with opinions, but also with objective facts. For example, in the 1990s, the deficit fell under Bill Clinton. Democrats tended to believe correctly that the deficit was shrinking, while Republicans tended to believe the deficit was growing. It did not matter if the person in question was a so-called “high-information” citizen or a “low-information” one. People who liked Bill Clinton tended to believe a true thing that reflected well on him. People who didn’t like him tended to believe the opposite.
Achen and Bartels go beyond taking down the idealized portrait of voter behavior, which has been debunked many times over, and go after other theories of democratic behavior. They argue against any theory of democracy that assigns real agency to voters or suggests that their behaviors, however irrational, tend to lead to rational outcomes. They show how voters will punish incumbents not only for the economy or for foreign quagmires, but for things they could not possibly control, like droughts, floods, and shark attacks (really). Voters, it turns out, often make decisions for no good reason.
In place of the prevailing theories of democracy, Achen and Bartels argue that voters make decisions based on the complex web of social identities that make up who they are. Elections are about which social identities get activated, and which get suppressed. For instance, much has been made of the voters who flipped from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to supporting Trump in 2016. Achen and Bartles would argue that rather than careful consideration of things like trade or immigration, economic conditions, or shifts in opinions on the role of government in American life, what happened to those voters was that Trump helped bring to the fore certain identities that had been suppressed in previous elections. Trump animated parts of themselves that had laid dormant in 2012, and used them to his advantage.
This makes sense on a gut-level. It also makes it easier to square Trump’s win with the seemingly incongruent facts of America in 2016. The economy was doing well, we weren’t engaged in a major war, the incumbent was popular, etc. But Trump tapped into something within certain voters far more potent and influential than any issue that might have swayed them. He tapped into parts of who they were, some of which had rested undisturbed for years.