What’s wrong with democracy?

Are U.S. voters capable of democracy?

It will come as no surprise to you, perhaps, that it’s not working well at the moment, either nationally or locally.

In Minnesota, for example, legislators are shocked — shocked — that Gov. Dayton responded to a sneaky poison pill in budget bills that forced him to sign them, by going low in his own way: stripping funding for the Legislature. See you in court.

In its editorial today, the Star Tribune calls it a “circus”:

A democratically elected government must operate within the confines of legal rules. It is designed to be the civilized alternative to just letting warring tribes go at each other with swords and battle axes for the right to dole out the spoils. Tactics that threaten the very basis of government further erode public confidence in the ability of institutions to work through differences while maintaining the rule of law.

Let’s consider, however, that politicians aren’t doing anything that voters didn’t enable.

A couple of interesting articles today are worth pointing out for discussion.

First, on the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Rauch argues that efforts to increase voter participation won’t work.

Voters aren’t capable of playing a bigger, smarter role in such democracy, he suggests.

This is true not because voters are stupid, but because they are smart. Given their vote’s infinitesimal effect, they are rational to limit their investment in policy knowledge and instead to treat their vote as an expression of protest, prejudice or tribal solidarity. Moreover, cognitive psychology finds all kinds of ways in which humans, regardless of their IQ, are systematically biased in their perceptions and priorities. Those biases, expressed at the polls, distort both politics and policy, and neither increasing nor decreasing political participation will obviate them.

Second, even if voters were rational, unbiased and well-informed, they still would be incapable handling the kinds of complex decisions that government must routinely make — even if they wanted to, which they assuredly do not.

Third, the populist, elite-bashing tenor of our times denigrates the great value that professionals and experts offer. The Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve are often-cited examples of how expert decision-making can not only work effectively but enjoy relatively high popular esteem. Ben and I develop another example: intelligence oversight. Although the system for overseeing the intelligence community spans all three branches of government, it is inherently both technocratic and secretive. (It deals, after all, with secrets.) Yet it has proven remarkably effective, popular and representative — more so, we believe, than a more directly democratic system could be.

He theorizes that more democratization is what’s thrown things out of kilter.

Meanwhile, at Vox, Sean Illing interviews Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, whose book, “Democracy for Realists“, is spawning this democratic navel gazing.

“I want to believe in those comforting myths about democracy, mostly because the alternatives are worse,” he writes about his interview. “But even if democracy is the least bad form of government, we still ought to know how it works and, more importantly, how it doesn’t.”

How doesn’t it? Voters.

“I think it’s hard to see how the public as a whole would steer the country in any particular direction,” author Larry Bartels writes. “Usually when we think about public input, we think about public input in response to particular kinds of choices that have been framed by political elites of one kind or the other, whether they’re party leaders or elected officials. And whether people come to the right conclusions about the choices that are offered to them, I think this is most of what is interesting and consequential, which is how the choices get framed in the circumstances under which people are allowed to have input into deciding what path to take.”

Co-author Christopher Achens argues that stronger political parties would be a step in the right direction, where party endorsements — for the record, Gov. Dayton didn’t get his when he first ran for the job — mean more, not less.

The model state? New Jersey, he says, where a party endorsement is crucial for winning. Compare that to Minnesota, where its value is declining.

The result is good schools, no measles and mumps outbreaks because of low vaccination rates, and much else by way of good government because it’s harder for the voters to harm themselves here than in other states where interest groups and nutty ideas have more control through unrestricted primaries and initiatives. Of course, New Jersey has lots of problems, but a bad state governmental structure isn’t among them.

The pair argue for a return to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, favoring a more politically elitism and say that those who merely say, “well, many were slaveholders and their ideas no longer should be taken seriously” provide “a recipe for ignorance and not the one that we believe.”