American democracy has always been a work in progress. What Abraham Lincoln called “the unfinished work” of ensuring “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has suffered its share of setbacks. For decades, Americans’ trust in government has been declining, signaling that not all was well. Yet until recently, democracy seemed secure in the United States.
No longer. President Donald Trump has unleashed a barrage of attacks on the underpinnings of democratic governance, threatening checks and balances, civil liberties, civil rights, and long-established norms. During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump discarded the notion of facts as necessary anchors of political discourse and challenged the legitimacy of his political opponent, threatening to “lock her up” if he won. Since his inauguration, he has castigated sections of the mainstream media as “fake news” and called them “the enemy of the American people,” attacked the judiciary, and claimed—without evidence—that electoral fraud cost him victory in the popular vote. These displays of illiberalism suggest that the American project of self-governance, which Americans have long taken for granted, may be in a more precarious condition than most assumed.
How did the United States come to this point? And how can it revitalize its democracy? Two new books offer useful guidance. Democracy for Realists, by the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, helps explain the roots of the current crisis. And Democracy, by the historian David Moss, reveals how Americans have overcome political divisions in the past.
The authors of both books make clear that political conflicts in the United States are nothing new. Today, Americans face serious threats to their country’s democracy, but they can draw on a long tradition of conflict resolution. They should relearn how to use the institutions and tools—leadership, negotiation, and compromise—that have sustained American democracy in the past.
In Democracy for Realists, Achen and Bartels explain that deep-seated social identities and group affiliations motivate political action far more than rationality does. They convincingly debunk what they term the “folk theory” of electoral democracy, an idealized view in which informed voters assess candidates on the basis of their own policy preferences or ideology and the leaders they elect then respond to the wishes of the majority, producing public policies that meet voters’ demands. Drawing on a vast literature, Achen and Bartels argue that, in fact, most people are uninterested in politics and poorly informed about issues. So they act not primarily on the basis of individual preferences or rational choices but rather on the basis of “emotional attachments that transcend thinking.”
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