Unravelling the Folk Theory of Democracy – Michael D. Martinez

Many Americans, some elected officials, and a few political scientists subscribe to the “folk theory of democracy.” According to this view of our political world, elections are a contest of ideas in which (a) candidates offer alternative policies and competing agendas, (b) campaigns communicate those choices via speeches, ads, and social networks, and (c) voters evaluate those options and make choices based on which proposals best fit their policy preferences. The ideal, normatively satisfying result of this process is election of the candidate whose policy views are closest to those of the average (median) voter. In a less demanding, retrospective version of the folk theory, voters are seen to have limited ability to see into the future and instead judge whether the incumbent’s performance has been good enough job to deserve another term. Under either version, winners can claim some form of a mandate from voters.


Hogwash, or so says Chris Achen, the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Politics at Princeton University. In his keynote address at our Department’s Spring Banquet, Achen highlighted many of the themes in his book co-authored with Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists. Achen and Bartels argue that the folk theory of democracy places unrealistic expectations on voters, many of whom lack coherent preferences or knowledge about the choices offered by candidates. A few politically astute voters (like graduates of the Political Campaigning program) may appear to have policy preferences that mostly coincide with their vote choices – but, more often than not, that reflects the motivation of those voters to align their preferences with their votes, rather than aligning their votes with their preferences. Retrospective voters, for their part, tend either to focus myopically on the very recent past or to hold politicians accountable for the weather and other things they cannot be expected to control.


If voters are neither rational gods of vengeance and reward nor clear-eyed Downsians, what are elections all about? Achen and Bartels see elections as the mobilization of social identities. For most voters, social identities (such as race, class, and religion) correspond to partisan identities, so not much thinking is required. Campaigns are about reminding voters who is on their side, and whose message sounds like what voters hear in their own networks of friends, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow churchgoers. Occasionally, candidates or parties can convince some groups to switch loyalties, as Catholics (and some Protestants) did in reaction to JFK’s candidacy in 1960, and minorities and white southerners did in response to the Civil Rights Movement later that decade. But most of the time, most voters aren’t really giving elected officials a mandate, as much as they are simply voting to affirm their own identities.


Nevertheless, elections are important institutions. They determine who should hold office in a constitutional system, and the variations in motivations to vote over time produce enough turnover in office that elites should, in theory, develop a healthy tolerance for their opponents. In this era of partisan polarization, one wonders if that, too, is unrealistic.


Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels. 2016. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton University Press.