Democracy is one of the most cherished features of our nation. But we have many misconceptions about what it is, how much of it we have, how it works and what place it occupies in history. Perhaps more than at any time in recent American history, democracy is now a subject of debate, as populist movements abroad and at home cause many to question the nature of the rule of the many. The U.S. has just finished one of the most divisive elections in recent history, and there is no sign yet that consensus is on the way. While we ponder last week’s election, there are certain facts about democracies at large that are worth considering.
Myth No. 1: Voters are selfish.
Back in 2012, Mitt Romney’s infamous claim that “47 percent” of Americans would vote for President Obama because they were “dependent on government” may have cost him the election. But the misapprehension Romney subscribed to is still conventional wisdom: Most people vote their pocketbooks. Rich taxpayers, the supposition goes, vote for low-tax Republicans, and poor tax consumers vote for high-tax Democrats. People vote to promote their narrow, selfish interests — or so the myth goes.
But political scientists who have studied voter behavior have found little evidence for this claim. The young and the old are about equally in favor of Social Security. Men and women are about equally supportive of abortion rights. The rich and the poor have roughly the same attitudes toward taxes and redistribution. Self-interest is a weak predictor of voter behavior.
Voters are not selfish. Instead, they tend to vote for what they believe is in the national interest.
Myth No. 2: Democracy relies upon the consent of the governed.
The Declaration of Independence pins the government’s power to “the consent of the governed,” and the Library of Congress considers the phrase key to the formation of the United States. Indeed, the idea that ours is a government of the people is a key aspect of our national self-conception.
But we no more tacitly consent to our government than a person kidnapped and placed on a ship consents to the captain’s rule by refusing to jump overboard. Democracy gives the masses the power to change government, but that doesn’t mean we consent to it. Philosopher David Hume made this point 25 years before the American Revolution, arguing that nearly all governments originated out of conquest.
Consider a consensual transaction. You order a pizza from Papa John’s. The pizza comes only if you do something that signals you want it. If you tell Papa John’s you don’t want pizza, it doesn’t send one. Further, when you give the company your money, it has to hold up its end and give you pizza.
Your relationship to government isn’t like that, even in a democracy. Regardless of what you do — whether or how you vote, or if you dissent — the same laws are imposed upon you. For government, your “no” means “yes.” Further, the Supreme Court has ruled (e.g., in Castle Rock v. Gonzales) that the government has no specific duty to protect you, even if you pay your taxes. Imagine if Papa John’s took your money but never sent you pizza; you wouldn’t say you consented to that deal.
Myth No. 3: Political participation helps bring us together.
The democratic ideal is that people with different perspectives and ideas will come together, talk, work out their differences and reach a compromise. From presidential debates to citizen comments at city council meetings, many of our attempts at political engagement center on efforts to hear one another out and join together in the project of democracy. But does it really work that way?
Many political scientists have checked. The results are generally disappointing. As political scientist Tali Mendelberg summarizes, political deliberation tends to increase conflict rather than reduce it. Deliberators either avoid talking about heated issues or, if they do talk about them, tend to become angry, try to manipulate one another or even come to blows. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein finds that deliberation pushes people to more extreme versions of their ideology; after talking to people with whom they disagree, they become more rigid in their views. Political scientist Diana Mutz finds that when people do try to understand the other side, it causes them to lose enthusiasm and stop participating in political activity.
Myth No. 4: America is a democratic country.
So common is the know-it-all refrain that “America is a constitutional republic, not a democracy” that the Washington Post tackled that very issue last year, ruling that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. And they aren’t: The U.S. is a republic with democratic features.
But we’re not all that democratic.
What’s supposedly distinctive about democracy is that elected leaders try to give the majority what they want. Or, perhaps more precisely, politicians try to implement the policy preferences of the median voter, i.e., the voter who falls right in the middle of the ideological distribution, regardless of income or other characteristics.
However, recent work puts this picture in doubt. Political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page asked: When voters at the 90th, 50th and 10th percentiles of income disagree about policy (keep in mind that they usually agree), with whom do presidents side? The answer: Presidents are much more likely to do what the wealthiest Americans want than what ordinary or poor Americans want. Surprisingly, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and President Obama tended to side with the rich even more than George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan did. Presidents respond more to what high-income voters want than what the ideological majority wants. Just why this pattern hold is still being researched.
One possible upside: High-income voters tend to be better informed, so perhaps siding with richer voters gets us better government.
Myth No. 5: Democracy is inevitable.
In 1989, as the Cold War wound down, political scientist Francis Fukuyama claimed that liberal democratic capitalism was the “end of history” — “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Likewise, authors in the Harvard Business Review argued that widespread democracy is simply an inevitable consequence of the march of time. Listening to these theorists, you might conclude that the entire world is poised to adopt market economies and democratic government.
But don’t get too excited.
Each year, Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization, and the Economist magazine independently produce indices measuring how many countries are democratic and how democratic they are. While the world generally became more democratic after the Cold War, in recent years, it’s grown more authoritarian. Some formerly democratic countries are becoming nondemocratic, and some democratic countries are becoming less democratic.
Freedom House says that 2015 was the “10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom,” meaning that political freedom and freedom of the press both regressed.
Anti-democratic attitudes also seem to be on the rise. Some recent polls have found that fewer than half of millennials in Canada, the U.S. and Australia believe that democracy is the best form of government or that it is essential for justice.
Jason Brennan is the Flanagan Family Chair of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.