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Throw the Bums Out: The Minimalist View of Democracy
From "The Trouble With Elections: Why Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 2.2
The minimalist, or perhaps pessimistic, argument for “democracy” by elections is agnostic about the first optimistic claim (that people are the best judges of their own interests, and will use an election system to elect candidates that match their preferences), but asserts that at least giving people the ability to replace the current ruling elite with a different ruling elite is a powerful defense against tyranny. In this view, democracy is about the power to throw the current bums out, and little more. This concept of democracy is more widely held than generally acknowledged (even by those holding it) because the shibboleths like “self-rule” will still be piously mouthed. In the 1920’s the debate over the possibility of a real democracy that had any hope of living up to the positive claim was fleshed out by two political observers who fell on different sides of a divide – democratic philosopher John Dewey and journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann.
Dewey, who believed democracy required a fundamental change in American society down to the way its children were educated, described Lippmann’s 1924 book, Public Opinion, as possibly the most effective indictment of existing democracy ever penned. Lippmann argued that democracy was dependent on the general public being nearly omniscient and omnicompetent, which was impossible. He pointed out that most citizens would not take a keen interest in policy, study the facts, read reports and carefully monitor their representatives’ daily activities. The media critic Eric Alterman summarized Lippmann’s views, saying he compared the average citizen to a deaf spectator in the back row of a sports stadium. “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen; he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.”
Thus, according to Lippmann, it fell to the media and the elite to “manufacture consent.” While Dewey failed to set out a specific institutional design that would allow the democracy he sought, Lippmann resigned himself to the inevitability of elite rule. Voters may not know what particular candidates will actually do in the future if elected, nor know what policies would be optimal, but, so the thinking goes, they can vote retrospectively and remove the current crop of politicians if things have gone badly lately. This has been compared to driving a car while only looking in the rear-view mirror, taking note of what carnage your car is leaving in its wake.
The American experience of democracy through elections clearly comes up short of the “optimistic” hope, but with a solid incumbent reelection rate typically above 90 percent, there isn’t any evidence that it satisfies the minimalist “throw the bums out” vision in most elections either. The one scenario where there is evidence of this dynamic being in play is the election of chief executives. Political science research has proved beyond any doubt that vanishingly few voters have a good grasp of the vast array of policy issues, have been able to monitor the incumbents’ performance on these countless issues, understand the proposals of the incumbents’ competitors, or have even formed opinions one way or the other on which policies would be better. The one thing voters presumably can evaluate is whether their personal circumstances, or their community’s, have recently gotten better or worse.
In their book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, Christopher Achen of Princeton University and Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University examined the relationship between growth or decline in disposable income per capita during the preceding immediate period and the election prospects of incumbent party in national elections through much of the 20th and early 21st century in the United States and various other countries. They confirmed that there is a definite connection. While this shorthand analysis may not be widespread among voters, many of whom have a persistent partisan favoritism, enough voters are swayed by what Achen and Bartels call this “myopic” view to throw elections one way or the other.
It is not clear how much influence incumbent presidents or governors actually have over the ups and downs of business cycles. It is also not clear whether policies that may result in short term pain or benefit, compared to long term impact, should be weighed more heavily. Yet there is an argument to be made that the threat of being thrown out of office by vindictive voters may at least induce politicians to do all they can to assure positive economic outcomes in the period immediately preceding the election (and for parties in opposition to try and tank the economy, knowing the dominant party will get the blame).
As an analogy, imagine that the optimal course for the ship of state is due east. If one team of partisan politicians steers off to the northeast, the voters might remove that team and replace it with one that steers back to the southeast, resulting in a zig-zagging course in the desired direction. But instead, as we will see, the course changes are much more chaotic. Depending on the politicians offered on the ballot, emotional triggers, and countless unknown factors, one team of elite rulers may head due north while their replacements head southwest, making no progress at all along the optimal route.
Achen and Bartels did an analysis of the impact of the international “Great Depression” of the 1930s. They looked at both the real GDP per capita and government elections of eight major countries, finding that:
“Around the world, electoral reactions to the Depression produced momentous realignments of established party systems in a bewildering variety of configurations. Incumbent governments were deposed with impressive consistency during the worst days of the Depression, regardless of their ideologies. And new incumbents who presided over robust economic recoveries [not of their doing] were rewarded with long runs in office – again, regardless of ideologies.”
So, throwing the bums out in the United States led to replacing the Republican President Herbert Hoover with the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, while in Germany the same dynamic replaced a center left government (akin to Roosevelt) with Adolf Hitler (far to the right of Hoover).
Achen and Bartels also report that factors for which politicians cannot reasonably be blamed can have a similar effect on reelection prospects. In one interesting example, they point to a spate of shark attacks on swimmers at New Jersey beaches in 1916, and the apparent effect on that year’s vote totals in President Wilson’s reelection. They compared Wilson’s level of support in 1912 and 1916 in waterfront beach counties, where the local tourism-dependent economy had suffered, with inland New Jersey counties, which had seen no impact from the more distant shark attacks. They found a substantial diminution in Wilson’s vote percentages in counties that had experienced the shark attacks.
If your economic (or shark) situation gets worse, instinct says vote the incumbents out. Voter anxiety or elation resulting from matters that politicians have no impact on at all may well decide elections all the time. As the authors conclude:
“Politics is full of complexities and uncertainties, even for those who can devote full time to it. The voters, not knowing what the best policies are, content themselves with asking at election time whether events have gone well or badly lately. Then they vote that myopic judgment.”
Imagine a scenario in which the dominant incumbent party was pursuing the objectively best possible policies to deal with some crisis. The voters, having minimal information or policy awareness, cannot know this is the case. Further, imagine that the opposition party did everything in its power to sabotage and undercut those beneficial policies. If the crisis was too powerful to fend off (or the sabotage worked) the “throw the bums out” minimalist dynamic would likely result in replacing the beneficial policies with worse ones.
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