The 2018 mid-term elections could keep American democracy from getting worse, but it really can’t make democracy any better.

That’s because elections and voting are overrated.

This is a terrible time to argue that about voting. I’m going to do it anyway.

To show you what a daunting job I’ve carved out for myself, a recent study showed that the views of the 4 million people who voted for Obama in 2012 but did not vote in 2016 are much closer to the Obama-to-Clinton voters than to the Obama-to-Trump voters.


So if those nonvoters had turned out instead of staying home, then quite possibly …

More daunts: anticipating the 2018 battle, a recent New York Times editorial celebrated the power of the vote this way:

A ballot is the best opportunity most of us will ever get to have a say in who will represent us, what issues they will address and how they will spend our money. The right to vote is so basic, President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965, that without it “all others are meaningless.”

Very patriotic, very conventional, but way overboard and essentially wrong. That view fetishizes voting, giving it a kind of magical power it does not have at all.

This leap of faith about the power of the vote is an example of a belief in what Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels in their book “Democracy for Realists” call the “folk theory of democracy,” which is the basis for American democracy’s most common justifications.

It is a theory without substance. As Achen and Bartels put it, these “most prominent popular and scholarly intellectual defenses of democracy are incompatible with the empirical evidence.”

Elections do not produce responsive government, which is the essence of democracy.

Wait, it gets worse.

Voting is important if only to stem the tide of bad things that are happening in our democracy. Brian Tseng/Civil Beat

The folk theory of democracy is based on the idea of an informed, knowledge-seeking citizenry holding politicians accountable through elections. This assumes that people know what their elected officials are doing and that there is a clear link between what people want and what elected officials deliver.

In fact most people are not vigilant information seekers. They are quite unaware of what their elected officials are doing. Most of all, studies show that over time individual preferences have virtually no impact on pubic policy.

So the theoretically vigilant voter is hardly vigilant and quite possibly does not pay much attention to politics at all.

Elections are not mandates about policies and have what the political scientist V.O. Key once described as having more than a few characteristics of a lottery.

As for politicians, according to a 2014 study, regardless of party, they are far more likely to take their cues from organized groups or elites rather than from the preferences of the average individual. This study has its critics.

But it remains a convincing piece of work.

It’s tempting to shame people who behave in ways counter to the folk theory, especially the person who just does not seem to follow what’s going on.

That does little good because, as Achen and Bartels show, this kind of behavior is inherent and, given the time constraints in everyday life, quite rational.

Now considering all this, two comments: One is that the critique of the folk theory is really important. The second is “so what?”

The 2018 election is the “so what,” which suggests 2018’s importance as well as its limits.

Whatever the outcome, the upcoming mid-term will barely touch upon democracy’s flaws, but it can definitely keep democracy from getting farther off the rails.

And that’s really important. Think of the coming midterms as what David Remnick calls a stress test for American democracy.

Passing a stress test does not make you totally healthy, but it sure is a crucial step in that direction.

So even though the best mid-term results will not get at the chasm between democracy in theory and democracy in practice, it could stem the worsening tide.

And, as the Texas Tornados put it, a little enchilada is better than nada.

In this case in fact it is far better.

For 2018, it makes sense not to focus on the whole enchilada. Just don’t let your illusions about democracy get the best of you.

Keep in mind “Democracy for Realist”’s conclusion that the benefits of America’s democracy as it stands “are real benefits nonetheless, and constitute a substantial, albeit limited argument in favor of democratic systems compared to their authoritarian alternatives. However, they do little to answer the broader questions.”

Defeating Trumpism is challenge enough for now. But just for now.

About the Author