Democracy Is Not Magic


Get used to hearing about Gilens and Page. The two political scientists — from Northwestern and Princeton, respectively — have a forthcoming article in the Fall 2014 of Perspectives on Politics*. The article reaches the conclusion that economic elites and interest groups representing business have greater policy influence than the mass public. In the Year of Piketty this finding has already attracted quite a lot of attention. That’s them on The Daily Show above, and Krugman discussed the article a few weeks ago. The BBC declares that article demonstrates that the “US is an oligarchy, not a democracy” and in the authors’ conclusion they argue:

Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

I don’t find the overall message to be very surprising — although there are some possible issues with their empirical strategy — and because I don’t particularly care if the U.S. clears the bar of some technical definition of democracy. But I still take issue with this kind of conclusion. Democracy is not measured by policy outcomes and is not defined by where the balance of power in society lies at any particular moment. If a representative democracy represents some groups better than others that does not mean it is not a representative democracy. Or, as I put it a few years ago:

The fact is that “democracy” is a catch-all word that describes a host of political institutions which are similar only in that they aggregate the preferences of their citizens through some type of electoral process which is guided (and constrained) by previously established law. “Democracy” is decidedly not a description of a set of particular outcomes favored by the technocratic center-left … Given that, it is not completely clear to me that the U.S. has lost its ability to function; conflicting interests, partisanship, gamesmanship, interest group lobbying, rent capture, and vituperative campaigns are all par for this course, not evidence that things have gone horribly awry.

The desire to declare outcomes that we normatively prefer as “democratic” and outcomes that we do not prefer as “non-democratic” is ahistorical and, I believe, damaging. We need to accept the fact that no political regime is perfect. We need to accept the fact that economic inequality is not only possible but likely in a “true” democracy, as are plenty of other bad outcomes including war, slavery, patriarchy, discrimination, censorship, and environmental degradation. Among other reasons, this is why constitutions are so important.

The Gilens and Page results are interesting and useful. Folks should absolutely read the paper and take it seriously. But wild extrapolations from the results are not trustworthy. The true message of the paper is this: Democracy is not magic. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again. The U.S. is a democracy. If you don’t like certain outcomes in the U.S. then you don’t like democratic outcomes.

*Disclosure: Perspectives on Politics is edited by one of my colleagues at Indiana University, my academic home, and has published my work in the past.

By Kindred Winecoff

5 thoughts on “Democracy Is Not Magic”

  1. Great points and well said. This reminds me of the way the word “objective” has come to describe “my own [correct] beliefs.” Or the way that both parties cop to constitutional originalism only when it’s convenient for them (the left re: 4th amendment and modern communications technology; the right re: the second amendment and rocket launchers).


  2. Obviously, I am not an academic (or literate in the specifics of building models) so on and so forth, but.. isnt it not so much that the US might no longer qualify by ‘some technical definition’ as a democracy that should concern political scientists, but much more practically for the work that political scientists do (if these findings turn out somewhat correct) that the assumptions built into mainstream political scientists models,(primarily around MVT) or about how policy is created are mistaken at best, perhaps usless at worst ?
    (Of course I’m not looking to caricature the worlds political scientist’s, or add anything original to what is already undoubtedly an internal debate, but isn’t there a professional problem here as well?)


  3. The article only looks at legislative initiatives of the last 20 years and in the US, right? It would be interesting to see their methodology applied to the 50s and 60s and/or to other OECD countries, particularly the “strong” parliamentary democracies of central and Northern Europe…


  4. Ronan,

    I’m not sure. They model the median voter as the person at the 50th income percentile. There are tons of potential problems with this, but the biggest is probably that wealthier people generally are more politically aware and politically active than poorer people. So the median voter might not be at the 50th income percentile but at the 75th, and the median political “actor” (someone who is well-versed in the issues and candidates and participates in party activities) is probably in the 80th or 85th income percentile. In that case US politics might be reflecting the interests of *those who actually participate* much more cleanly. Maybe that’s still a problem, but it’s a different kind of problem.


    Yes, I agree. The past 20 years in the US have been distinctive in a number of ways. But the data collection effort to produce this paper has already been enormous so it’d be a lot to ask of the authors to do more for this project. Hopefully they or others will follow up to look at other times and places.


  5. “The fact is that “democracy” is a catch-all word that describes a host of political institutions which are similar only in that they aggregate the preferences of their citizens through some type of electoral process which is guided (and constrained) by previously established law.”

    I couldn’t agree with that statement more. It is especially pertinent to what I have seen of politics here in Japan. Yes, the economic elites and interest groups representing business have greater policy influence than the mass public. I would say that there influence is even more pronounced in Japan (and probably South Korea and China too) because business and government are so intertwined. In fact, business and government actively try to “sell” economic, fiscal, energy, and other strategies as being in the best interest of the public. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Japan has electoral systems in place, and that the average citizen has the right to participate in the democratic process. These rights are guaranteed in the Japanese Constitution that was ratified after WW2 (though it is almost entirely “American” in design because it was drafted during the Allied Occupation). While postwar Japan has seen its citizens largely exercise their democratic rights to express their approval of the strategies “sold” to them by business and government, we have seen instances in which they reject this influence and clamor for change (1993 and 2009). Unfortunately, each time political change has been achieved in Japan the nation has suffered devastating national disasters (Kobe earthquake of 1995, and Tohoku earthquake of 2011). Following these disasters, the citizens elected to restore the “old regime” because they felt it was better able to cope with the aftermath. Many bemoan these reversions, but we cannot deny the fact that they were realized through the exercise of democratic processes laid out within a constitution. That, I feel, is an appropriate example of the definition of democracy prescribed in your quote.


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