Modern anti-democrats tend to make two mutually reinforcing points. First, that voters cannot be trusted because they make poor choices and that science shows that their opinions and votes are swayed by factors that should be irrelevant. Second, that some superior alternative to democracy (perhaps rule by the enlightened few, perhaps rule by the market) is available. In her book, Fuller argues against the democracy pessimists on both these points.
Voters aren’t as irrational as they are made out to be
Fuller pushes back against some of the claims that voters make poor choices by analyzing examples of how voting can go wrong and by pointing out that those overall votes went as they should have. For example, in a much-discussed study originally from 2002, political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argued that Woodrow Wilson lost a significant number of votes in the 1916 election because certain New Jersey voters were irrationally punishing the government for a wave of shark attacks at some local beaches. Here at TMC, Anthony Fowler and Andy Hall refuted the statistical claims about the purported effects of shark attacks. Fuller goes on to explain the shaky reasoning underlying Achen and Bartels’s claims regarding the implications for electoral politics — including the fact that efforts to measure any shark effects that do not pay attention to the distorting effects of the electoral college might be focusing on the wrong target.
Fuller also suggests that apparently shortsighted decisions such as property-tax referendums in Illinois and California had some rational justification. More generally, voters might have good reasons for their choices, even choices that a particular pundit disagreed with or sought to explain uncharitably. For example, she provides evidence that many people in Britain supported Brexit in spite of, not because of, the racism of some of the supporters of that measure. Fuller also criticizes anti-democratic empirical arguments by pointing out weaknesses in the evidence for such claims as that from economist Bryan Caplan, who said that “people focus too much on the profit-making motives of business and neglect the discipline imposed by competition.” People who say voters are ignorant can point to studies showing that they don’t know facts, such as the names of elected representatives, but Fuller suggests this information isn’t necessary for good political decision-making.
However, there is also good evidence of bias and ignorance that she does not address. For example, Bartels and other political scientists have shown, even before the recent era of hyper-polarization, that Democrats and Republicans have changed their beliefs about inflation based on which party’s president is in office. As Achen and Bartels note, there is no reason to believe that the elites of the left and right are any less biased than voters, so this isn’t an argument for rule by elites rather than the people — but it does suggest the potential for systematic biases in democratic evaluation of leaders.
The alternatives to democracy are questionable
People on the right of the spectrum tend to argue for solving democracy’s weaknesses with rule by elites or shrinking government and letting the market rule. Those closer to the center argue that political insiders should have more power. Fuller responds by suggesting that the evidence these arguments rely on comes from questionable empirical research. For example, she quotes Brookings Institution fellows Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes as suggesting that “despite being ‘high-handed, devious [and] secretive … state and national party committees, county party chairs, congressional subcommittees, leadership PACs, convention delegates [and] bundlers’ … have [in the past] ‘brought order from chaos.’” Fuller notes these are convenient conclusions that are not well-founded in the political science literature.
However, Fuller has her blind spots. She is on the left and argues that the United States would get more left-wing policies if voters had their say. Although public opinion polls suggest voters would prefer less spending on the military and more on social programs, she might be dismayed by their preferences on other issues, such as immigration. In any event, attitudes and votes can be swayed by political campaigns, news, social media and political events, so it would be a mistake to think of the public will as fixed.
Fuller also discusses alternative ideas such as “sortition,” a proposal under which general voting would be replaced by small random samples of the electorate, groups of 100 or so people at a time, who would make decisions. While sortition might seem to combine the representativeness of democracy with the advantages of small-group deliberation, Fuller argues that setting up decisions in this way removes the “negotiation and ‘fairness’ between different genuinely conflicting interests,” which is essential to her view of democracy. She does not seem to oppose interest groups (even PACs and bundlers, perhaps!) but wants them to function as part of the political give-and-take, intermediaries among voters, interest groups and legislators, rather than powers in themselves. Finally, Fuller offers a program for a “direct, digital democracy” that involves more referendums, using sortition “to oversee executive tasks and support decision-making.” As is so often the case in this sort of effort, the criticisms in the early chapters are more convincing than the policy recommendations at the end of the book. But Fuller’s appeal for a modern implementation of Athenian democracy is at least as well thought out as some of the well-publicized alternatives she is criticizing. Political scientists may wish to research how these different ideas work in smaller settings, like local governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations and working groups.
In the meantime, when discussing how best to run our countries, we may wish to remain alert to the fact that proposals that give existing elites more power are likely to get much of the attention — and remain wary of criticisms of democracy that do not consider the corresponding problems with proposed alternatives.