Christopher Achen and Larry Bartel: Democracy for Realists

This semester, the PPE Reading Group will discuss Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (2016).

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels employ a wealth of social-scientific evidence to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters—even those who are well-informed and politically engaged—mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents’ control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly. These empirical findings provide a powerful challenge to conventional thinking, pointing the way toward a fundamentally different understanding of the realities and potential of democratic government. Achen and Bartels conclude that democratic theory needs to be founded on identity groups and political parties, not on the preferences of individual voters. 

The reading group is (provisionally) scheduled for every other Tuesday from 4-5:30pm in the conference room of the Kellogg Center. Participation is open to students (whether you are already a PPE student or interested in becoming one) and select faculty.

PPE Core Faculty member Dan Gibbs ( will lead the reading group. Please sign up with him to receive your book in time to read. Enjoy free pizza and soft drinks with our discussions!

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