The Hopes and Claims of Democracy by Election
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 2.1
George Caleb Bingham, “The County Election,” 1854, via Reynolds House Museum of American Art.
Over the centuries, the meaning of the word democracy has undergone a fundamental transformation. The founders and framers of the American experiment were, by and large, opponents of democracy, equating it to chaos and “mob rule.” They were forming a republic, modeled on Ancient Rome, which nominally derived its authority from a segment of the population but was distinctly not about democratic “self-rule,” as in Athens. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Paper No. 10:
“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Eventually the term “democracy” changed what it had meant for thousands of years, and switched from being considered derogatory, to being the political ideal. Some historians credit the presidential campaigns of Andrew Jackson for the rehabilitation of the word, while others trace it back to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party founded near the end of the 18th century. By 1835, when Alexis de Tocqueville published his acclaimed book, Democracy in America, the word had completed its transformation. Walter Lippmann, the 20th century writer and political observer noted that:
“The American people came to believe that their Constitution was a democratic instrument…It is a fair guess that if everyone had always regarded the Constitution as did the authors of it, the Constitution would have been violently overthrown, because loyalty to the constitution and loyalty to democracy would have seemed incompatible.” (Lippmann  2018, 283)
A leading 20th century political scientist, Robert Dahl, used the term polyarchy to describe the system of electoral government commonly referred to as representative democracy. Dahl noted that no real world governments were actually democracies. Unlike monarchies or traditional oligarchies, in which family lineage determines who should rule, polyarchies have multiple competing alliances of elites contending for oligarchic power. Recognizing that elections revolve around subsets of elites competing for the right to govern, Dahl believed there were various cultural and institutional prerequisites for a functioning polyarchy, such as an independent press, freedom to form political parties, and a near universal adult franchise. A polyarchy may be placed somewhere between democracy (rule by the people) and an authoritarian oligarchy (rule by the few).
To have an actual democracy, Dahl set out a more demanding set of criteria. Citizens would need equal rights and equal opportunities to influence the public agenda. They would need to have information, time and other resources necessary to form enlightened opinions and form policy preferences. They would need equally weighted power. In particular, the necessity for an entire citizenry to be well-informed makes achieving this vision of democracy by means of election a Utopian goal, rather than a possible reality. Nevertheless Dahl believed existing polyarchies might be judged as being either more or less democratic.
However, these distinctions between polyarchy, republic and democracy are generally only recognized within academia. In common parlance the word polyarchy is unknown, while the republic of Madison has essentially been rebranded as a representative democracy today. The word democracy among ordinary people and politicians is now a catch-all term that is underpinned by different, and perhaps mutually exclusive ideals. Free elections, political equality, the rule of law, freedom, majority rule, and the prevention of tyranny are some of the commonly understood ideals of democracy.
The hope of electoral democracy can be grounded in at least two distinctly different claims — one optimistic and one minimalist. In brief, the optimistic claim is that by voting for preferred candidates, the population can steer the ship of state in their preferred direction. It is forward looking. The minimalist view is that at least when things go badly, voters can throw the bums out (more on that in the next post).
The optimistic claim is grounded in the notion that the people know their own interests best, and therefore democracy allows for optimal decision-making by a society. Utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham argued in the eighteenth century that each person was the best judge of their own self-interest. The ability to judge one’s own self-interest is not always reliable, of course. Psychologists have shown that a person’s present self, which makes decisions for the future, can be a rather poor judge of their own self-interest as an experiencing self at some future point in time. This is why the present self may condemn the past self for over-indulging in sweets, or failing to save enough for the retirement needs of the future self.1
Setting aside concerns of individual self-delusion or circumstances that foster error, extrapolation of an individual’s ability to judge self-interest to society as a whole is still complicated. Since individual interests vary and are often in conflict, it is not self-evident that “the people” can also judge their collective self-interest. Yet the notion that everyday people (as opposed to powerful elites) are the better judges of their own interests seems reasonable as a general rule. Each individual does have some unique knowledge about what makes them happy, but perhaps more importantly, each individual, and the people collectively, are unlikely to intentionally work against their own interests. Even if people make mistakes in judging their own best interests, at least they will sincerely seek to promote them, and are less likely to have corrupting hidden agendas. Such corruption is nearly universal when an oligarchic elite substitutes its judgment for the people’s.
When we overlay an electoral scheme on this optimistic view of democracy, the hope is that voters, knowing their own preferences, will judge the candidates by this measure and elect candidates who most closely match their policy preferences. But careful examination of actual voter behavior calls this optimistic view of elections into question. In his book Follow the Leader? How Voters Respond to Politicians' Policies and Performance, Gabriel Lenz summarizes his research indicating that:
"Voters don't choose between politicians based on policy stances; rather, voters appear to adopt the policies that their favorite politicians prefer. Moreover, voters seem to follow rather blindly, adopting a particular politician's specific policies even when they know little or nothing of that politician's overall ideology."
As an example, Trump supporters chanting “build the wall” at a campaign rally in New Hampshire almost certainly took up their candidate’s policy opinion, rather than having a policy preference about the Mexican border (2,000 miles away) first and then seeking out a candidate who had such a position. In Part II of this book I will examine the interplay between candidates, partisan supporters, and policies, showing why this positive democratic vision, when translated through elections, is a mirage. But first, the next post will examine the minimalist hope for elections.
In a classic experiment described by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his landmark book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he describes a study in which participants were asked to place their hand in painfully cold water three times. The first time they placed their hand in water that was a constant 14 degrees Celsius, which was painful but not intolerable. They kept their hand in this frigid water for 60 seconds. The second time they submerged their hand in water at the same temperature for the same 60 second duration, but then remained in the water an additional 30 seconds as the water temperature was raised just one degree. Participants were then given a choice to repeat the first experience, or the second for their third submersion. Most participants chose the second version, even though the duration of the painful experience (90 seconds) was greater, and the first 60 seconds was identical, with the mere addition of a slightly less painful additional time in painfully cold water. However, the slight relief at the final stage of the second version left a better overall memory of that experience. These “duration neglect” and “peak-end rule” effects have been verified with many other experiments. People mistakenly choose additional pain, because of the way their memory works.