Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels delve into the meaning of the “folk theory of democracy” (p. 1) and whether it works effectively and efficiently in the United States on a practical level when it comes to elections reflecting Americans’ political preferences. The main focus of the book is that there is a huge gap between the theoretical approach and the practical form of democracy in the United States due to Americans’ lack of knowledge about how their democracy really operates; the authors reflect on the meaning of democracy and its origin so they can analyze American democracy under a realist framework and identify its problems. The key issue in their minds is that “folk theory” does not work, and that people’s actual choices in elections are problematic due to premature identification with a party without questioning its economic and social policies. Their major criticism of U.S. democracy is that individuals cannot construct their political preferences without being influenced by the groups to which they belong, whether they be religious, ethnic, racial, or economic, as in the case of a workers’ union. These group identities narrow “the limitations of individual rationality” (p. 216); moreover, the authors assert that “race has always been central to American politics, both southern and northern, from the shaping of the Constitution through the Civil War” (p. 246). They come to a conclusion about modern American democracy at the beginning of the book by indicating that elections are broadly extraneous on a practical level due to the lack of an audit mechanism for elected officials, so “the folk theory of democracy fails” (p. 299).
Additionally, the authors argue, Americans do not have much information about political parties and their programs due to their lack of interest in politics, but they do know the political parties’ ideological stances. Thus, they frame their political choices on ideology without deeply invest