From the Folk Theory to Symbolic Politics: Toward a More Realistic Understanding of Voter Behavior
Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’s Democracy for Realists makes a persuasive case that standard theories of democracy rest on shaky empirical ground, and that optimistically interpreted empirical findings about public competence do not save the day. However, I argue that the solution does not lie with theories of elite competition or accountability to other institutions. Instead, I turn to theories of symbolic politics. These theories capture the empirical reality of how voters engage with politics and make decisions. While they tend to emphasize human irrationality, they also contain the potential for a symbolic kind of rationality that could provide a solid foundation for democratic politics.