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Asking Too Much of Democracy

We tend to have this idea of voters evaluating the evidence put in front of them over the course of a campaign and then making an informed decision on election day. This is a fantasy.

By Seth Masket


Attendees wave signs for Donald Trump as he speaks at a rally at Erie Insurance Arena on August 12, 2016. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

The 2016 election cycle has confounded a good deal of scholarship and punditry so far. But one book that’s coming out smelling like a rose is Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ new book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. This book’s novel argument is that we’ve been thinking about democracy all wrong.

We tend to have a view of voters evaluating the evidence put in front of them over the course of a campaign, deciding what is useful and what is irrelevant, and then making an informed decision on election day. This is a fantasy, as Achen and Bartels capably show. In fact, we pick our group and party allegiances at a pretty early age and tend to vote accordingly throughout our lives. Occasionally, we’ll cast a vote based on new information, but not always in a very realistic way. We hold leaders accountable for things they couldn’t possibly have any control over.

In perhaps their most famous example, in a chapter that has made the rounds for several years, they note that voters on the New Jersey seashore in 1916 blamed President Woodrow Wilson for a series of shark attacks that summer. Voters turned against Al Gore in 2000 for some drought and flood conditions. If things are going well, whether they’re controllable or not, they’ll reward the party in power; if not, they’ll look for someone else to lead them.

This book is particularly important when considering the 2016 presidential election. This is not a typical presidential campaign. Well, I should be more specific. Hillary Clinton is running a pretty typical campaign. She’s raised money, made promises, given speeches, run advertisements, built a large and competent campaign organization, and visited competitive states. Ideologically, she’s right around the middle of her party. She’s campaigning pretty much as Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have since the invention of television.

Donald Trump is still at around 40 percent support, and unless his party’s leaders completely abandon him and urge support for someone else, he’ll likely maintain that support just by virtue of being the Republican nominee.

Her opponent, however, is unlike any major party presidential candidate we’ve seen in the modern era, and perhaps ever. In addition to his weak commitment to his party’s ideals and his flimsy and unprofessional campaign organization, Donald Trump, as Jonathan Chait notes, seems to be running against the very idea of democratic government. He claims that the very electoral system in which he is running is rigged, and he’s trying to form a brute squad to deter non-existent voter fraud. He suggests that voters dissatisfied with the election results should resort to violence. He calls for military tribunals for citizens. He accuses the president of founding an international terrorist organization. He suggests that we’ve been too cautious in our use of nuclear weapons. And when his words prove too bombastic, he says he was kidding. Mind you, this is just in the past week.

If both Clinton and Trump were part of a company and applying for the same promotion, Trump would likely have been fired by now. His comments about women and racial and religious minorities, along with his casual exortations to violence and his frequent fabrications, would disqualify him from many positions. Were he not a presidential candidate, his comments about Second Amendment supporters dealing with Clinton would have led to a lengthy sit-down with Secret Service officers, and possibly his arrest.

But we don’t really have any authority overseeing a presidential race. The Federal Elections Commission doesn’t have much power to govern the behavior of candidates, and law enforcement is understandably wary about being seen as interfering in an election. The media can report and contextualize outrageous behavior, but it can’t enforce its verdicts. The only real authority here is the voters. And their one instrument for evaluating him is a pretty blunt one: either they give him the most powerful office on Earth or they don’t.

This is a lot to throw at voters. In fairness, they actually seem to be responding to the information they’ve been presented. Most forecasts for this year’s election — ignoring the specifics of the candidates and just focusing on the election fundamentals — suggest a pretty even match, possibly with a slight edge for the Republican. The fact that Trump is trailing by double digits nationally, that Georgia, Arizona, and South Carolina are swing states this year, and that Clinton is making a play for Utah, suggests that voters have been paying attention to his comments and they really don’t like them.

To many, this may not be a sufficient judgment. After Trump’s Second Amendment comments, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman responded: “I only pray that he is not simply defeated, but that he loses all 50 states so that the message goes out across the land — unambiguously, loud and clear: The likes of you should never come this way again.”

The electorate’s judgment is not likely to be that severe. He’s still at around 40 percent support, with pluralities in roughly 20 states, and unless his party’s leaders completely abandon him and urge support for someone else, he’ll likely maintain that support just by virtue of being the Republican nominee. But this is what the judgment of history looks like. This is about the most a democratic system can do to a fundamentally anti-democratic candidate.

If today’s polling patterns hold on election day, he’ll simply lose. He won’t go to jail. He won’t be forced to apologize. He won’t be exiled outside the city walls. He’ll just keep whining on Twitter and TV until people lose interest. And that could take a while.