Our selections usually have a Kenyon-affiliated author or come from a recent syllabus used in a Kenyon classroom. Keep an eye on this site over the summer as new recommendations will be added.
A Sobering, Necessary Read
CSAD Student Associate Nicole Predina '23, a political science major and dance minor from Mentor, Ohio, reviews "Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government" by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels.
My blind optimism has rarely served me well in political science classes, yet I like to think that the pinnacle of American democracy is that U.S. citizens have the right to vote in every local, state and national election. Where authoritarian regimes forbid their people from choosing who sits in government and makes policy, American citizens are encouraged to rush to the polls for every election. Ideally, voters make well-informed, uncoerced decisions to produce a government that genuinely reflects the nation’s interests.
In "Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government," political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels upended my notion of the responsible voter and prompted me to re-evaluate how I approach my vote. Over the course of nearly 16 years, Achen, professor of social sciences and politics at Princeton University, worked on this book with his former student Bartels (now chair of public policy and social science at Vanderbilt), exploring the difference between democracy as a theory and democracy in its application.
Each semester, my political science classes return to this question: Is democracy truly the best form of government? To address that question, "Democracy For Realists" shifts the focus from our institutions to the basis of democracy itself: the average American voter. As the title suggests, Achen and Bartels encourage readers to face the reality of human behavior. Democratic elections have little to do with issues, and everything to do with party attachments, social identity and the strength of group influence. As more Americans begin to question the legitimacy of our voting system (a concern that came to a head on January 6, 2021) and the importance of going to the polls, "Democracy for Realists" is an essential contribution to our society’s understanding of how our leaders discern which populations will support particular platforms, and whether or not serious campaign efforts are needed to win the trust of those voters.
Achen and Bartels reexamine the “folk theory” of democracy embraced by political scientists for the latter half of the 20th century, which asserts that elections reflect the will of the majority accurately, thus implying that the issue positions of our representatives are ours to begin with. Most of their book recounts how voters actually behaved over the past 100 years and takes readers through key electoral events ranging from a pro-life to pro-choice shift in the Democratic Party, to FDR’s landslide victory at one of the lowest points in U.S. history, to — a personal highlight — a spike in shark attacks along the New Jersey coast that cost Woodrow Wilson nearly 10 percentage points in the 1916 presidential election in surrounding beach counties.
With these historical examples, Achen and Bartels explore how instant gratification and risk aversion motivate voters’ decisions, regardless of which policies are on the table. Election results are essentially toss-ups, dependent on the health of the economy, policy platforms of the competing parties, and external events outside of the candidates’ control. For example, in chapter 8, they review psychology research demonstrating how group norms influence humans, including racial and ethnic prejudices that often infiltrate political behavior.
The discrepancy between our perceived realities (instilled from early childhood as our families and immediate communities defined our social identities) and our genuine knowledge of a candidate’s performance and policy positions holds serious consequences for our representative democracy. Completely contradicting my prior idea of how elected leaders operate, Achen and Bartels write that “there is little or no electoral incentive for presidents to promote myopic voters’ well-being during much of their time in office” (170). This is because voters tend to focus on immediate concerns (e.g., the economy’s current condition), so incumbents seeking reelection are seldom held accountable for what they did early in their terms of office.
After the 2016 election, the authors added an afterword that reflects on voting procedures from the primaries to the general election, the cultivation of demagoguery in the United States, and the stark reality that perhaps Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was exactly the result we should have expected if we understood the political power of a shared identity. Trump’s strength predominantly came from non-college-educated, working-class, White Americans, while Hillary Clinton attracted the highly-educated demographic and various minority groups. Both candidates had bases of support willing to overlook their candidates’ ethical issues in order to vote identities that the political parties strongly reaffirmed. A favorable vote distribution in the Electoral College and a unified, loyal Republican Party ultimately determined Trump’s victory, but only by “minuscule margins, ... that could have easily gone the other way” (339).
I will admit that reading Achen and Bartels’ research, and immediately understanding their point, was a difficult task. Perhaps this is because the many factors that actually determine America’s voting patterns are not at all what I thought they were, and because this is a work of scholarship for a sophisticated reader. Nevertheless, this is an essential read for those (like me) who are struggling to grasp the intensity of an American divide that seems to invade almost every aspect of our social and political lives.
As our generation fights to increase voter turnout and accessibility, and learns how (and how not) to build campaigns of our own, I strongly urge you to pick up Achen and Bartels’ "Democracy for Realists" as a tool to gain perspective on our democratic system at-work and on the deeper psychology of voting. Anyone old enough to vote in this country would greatly benefit — and consequently think deeper about their responsibilities at the polls — from reading Achen and Bartels’ account of real democracy at work and why our country is struggling to maintain the legitimacy of our electoral system.
Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, "Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government." Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. 408 pages. ISBN: 9780691178240 (ppk), $18.95. Ebook available.
In March 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to one of the most catastrophic economic disruptions in world history. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of businesses shut down, and with these shutdowns, hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs. Among its many lessons, the pandemic showed us the fragility of the global economy and the economic insecurity faced by workers.
COVID-19 did not, however, suddenly make workers and their families insecure. Instead, economic insecurity has been increasing for decades due to a gradual shift of financial risk from employers and the government to employees. In the 2019 revised edition of his 2006 book "The Great Risk Shift," Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker terms this gradual shift of economic risk “the great risk shift.” He makes the case — through a seamless combination of moving anecdotes from ordinary working people and hard-hitting arguments — that workers have become more insecure in employment, family, retirement, and health care due to structural change in the economy and deliberate policy changes. This book is especially relevant today in light of recent unionization efforts at Amazon, inflationary pressures on working-class budgets, and a potential recession on the horizon.
Before writing this book, Hacker was best known for his scholarship on health policy, particularly his development of the public option in the Affordable Care Act. He wrote books on a variety of topics related to social policy, including his New York Times bestseller written with political scientist Paul Pierson, "Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class." Therefore, "The Great Risk Shift," although ambitious in scope, is right up Hacker's alley in terms of his previous work.
Hacker makes a compelling case that the “great risk shift” is real and that the government should take on greater responsibility to address the problem. The structure of the economy has changed significantly since the 1970s. Gone are the days of good-paying manufacturing jobs that employed workers their entire working lives and offered a stable, middle-class income with a secure retirement income and health benefits. Today, with the rise of the service and gig economy (e.g., Uber drivers), employment is more sporadic and of less duration, and as a result, health and retirement benefits tied to specific employers are much less dependable. In addition, in an effort to lower labor costs to increase their competitiveness in a globalized economy, employers have cut benefits and transferred more of the financial burden of benefits onto employees. Finally, middle-class wage stagnation combined with the rising cost of essentials like health care and education over the past few decades has made two-income households increasingly essential for maintaining family income, leading more women into the workforce. Yet even though a two-income household reduces the risk of family income dropping to zero, it increases the likelihood and frequency of family income shocks.
Although impersonal economic forces certainly played a role in the great risk shift, the main villains of Hacker’s story are those he terms “personal responsibility crusaders,” conservatives who for decades pushed for less government involvement in health care, retirement, and family policy in the name of promoting a national ethic of “personal responsibility” for economic well being. In his characteristically punchy prose, Hacker writes:
"The Personal Responsibility Crusade is all about putting more 'skin in the game' — making people more responsible for the management and finance of the major economic risks they face. More skin means we reap the rewards when the game goes well. More skin also means we bear the losses when the game goes badly" (27).
Examples of the personal responsibility crusade include the push for the partial privatization of social security during the Bush administration and the fierce resistance to the Affordable Care Act, although the movement emerged far earlier, during the Reagan years.
Unlike personal responsibility crusaders, Hacker convincingly advocates for a role for government in areas like health care, for the sake of greater risk pooling and coverage of pre-existing conditions. However, I think Hacker too quickly dismisses conservatives’ concern about big government. One does not have to be a personal responsibility crusader to believe that government largesse crowding out the private sector could be harmful, not only to the economy but to the welfare state that relies on a robust economy to provide its benefits. Policymakers should consider public-private solutions that pool risk broadly but do not rely so heavily on the government. For example, I do not think Hacker’s idea of a Medicare part E (Medicare for everyone), where Medicare gradually phases out private insurance companies, is politically feasible, given the power health insurance companies have in the political system. In my mind, a more realistic solution would be something like Germany’s system of highly regulated non-profit insurance companies that compete with each other for customers.
In addition, I think there are policies addressing the great risk shift that could achieve bipartisan support in the future. As the composition of the Republican Party changes with greater numbers of rural, working-class voters, there could be an opportunity to pursue bipartisan predistributive policies (as opposed to redistributive policies) that increase worker power without increasing taxes or spending. Such policies include laws making it easier to form unions and bargain on wages across entire sectors of the economy, a higher minimum wage, and requirements for labor representation on corporate boards.
In a conversation with our "Politics of the Welfare State" seminar sponsored by the Kenyon Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) this spring, Hacker discussed such a possibility:
"We have to think about policies that I call predistribution, these are policies that often don’t involve taxes or spending but involve changes in market power, and I think there is actually sincere Republican support for policies that curtail power at the top," he said.
"In this kind of narrow division, it's very hard to see pressure for that kind of cross-partisan and cross-class coalition forming, but I would say if I were working on the Republican side to say, ‘how can we get Republicans to sign up for a true economic populism?’ I would focus on predistribution. I would tie in antitrust–stuff to revive rural America and worker power of some sort."
Solving the problem of the great risk shift will be difficult, both because of the scope of the policy areas involved and the political compromises that solutions may require. However, regardless of one's ideology, Jacob Hacker’s "The Great Risk Shift" is worth a read for its acute examination of one of the defining economic trends of our era.
Jacob S. Hacker. "The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream," 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 264 pages, ppk or ebook. ISBN: 9780190844141, $17.95.
The United States Senate is unique for many reasons. Speaking about the Senate’s function, George Washington thought of it as the “saucer” that cools legislation from the House of Representatives. Under the modern process of filibuster, we might instead call the Senate a freezer, because any senators can use the filibuster, the right to keep debate going, to delay (and block) the Senate’s business. Recently, Senate Democrats failed in their attempt to remove the filibuster for voting rights legislation, leaving their party’s priority legislation frozen in place. How do political scientists explain the persistence of a legislative rule that stymies the majority will?
For the minority party, the filibuster preserves their rights, but for the majority party, the filibuster is a threat to advancing their agenda. James Wallner, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, and an expert on the theory and practice of democracy, takes a close look at the filibuster in his 2017 book, "On Parliamentary War." Wallner gives us an overview of some of the historical developments of the filibuster, in addition to a new perspective on the battle between the two major parties to curb the filibuster.
Wallner opens the book with an overview of filibuster reforms. The earliest successful reform in 1975 lowered the number of senators required to “break” a filibuster, from 67 to 60, while allowing for a minority of senators to put a stop to legislation or nominations without actually conducting the filibuster. The (failed) 2005 reform and the (successful) 2013 reform, initiated by different parties attempted to eliminate the filibuster for non-Supreme Court nominees, while the 2017 reform extended that to Supreme Court nominees. Although these reforms were of different scales and had various purposes, they had a point in common — the legislative filibuster remains intact. Since the goal of the majority party is to pass legislation to advance its agenda, this begs the question: why would the majority circumvent itself when it can do otherwise?
Previous studies offered two possible explanations. One suggests that the minority party yields to some of the majority party’s requests so that the filibuster would be kept intact. The other argues that the majority party fears retaliation from the minority party, mainly because the majority party knows that they cannot be in the majority forever.
Wallner offers a third reason that is based on predictive behavior, known as the “bargaining model.” In this model, the willingness of the majority party to abolish the filibuster depends on how big of a threat the minority party can pose. If the threat is small, the cost of removing the filibuster is low, so the majority party might proceed to do it, and vice versa. Thus, the “bargaining model” could be seen as a combination of the previous two explanations, and it is more of a “predictive” model rather than a “deterministic” model.
Wallner demonstrates the strength of the bargaining model by applying it to the 2005 and 2013 filibuster reforms. First, in the case of the 2005 reform, Democrats were in the minority, and they had used the filibuster to block many of President Bush’s judicial nominees. The Republican majority wanted to stop this, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had signaled that he might force the Senate to lower its threshold for a cloture vote (a vote to end a filibuster), if necessary. In essence, Frist was calling for the so-called “nuclear option.” However, the threat that the Democratic minority posed in 2005 was rather high: if the Senate GOP pursued this path, Senate Democrats would retaliate by forcing a vote on the minimum wage bill and the Social Security bill. This was a serious threat, since it would force everyone “on the record in opposition to the policies,” while “divert[ing] public attention from the battle over judicial nomination.” Since the GOP would have to be careful in defending their majority in 2007, in the end, they had to back down from the nuclear option, since the consequences of an “up-or-down” vote might be bad for them.
Meanwhile, when Democrats were in the majority in 2013, they faced GOP filibusters on President Obama’s nominees. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had also warned the Senate that he was willing to use the nuclear option. In turn, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated, as early as 2011, that he might proceed to repeal Obamacare as soon as the GOP returned to the majority. This was not a serious threat, however, because Reid “only proposed using the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster for motions to proceed to legislation, not for the legislation itself,” so Obamacare would still have been protected in that situation. Furthermore, McConnell’s threat was undermined by the fact that if the GOP were to be in the majority in the future, he also would want to utilize the nuclear option. Thus, in this case, the GOP minority “fail[ed] to threaten any adverse or concrete retaliation to increase the costs of going nuclear,” and since Democrats had the vote, they successfully changed the filibuster rule in 2013.
Wallner’s model offers a new look at the filibuster in the Senate. This is useful for those who want to understand how the Senate conducts its business. By knowing the “players” and their possible “actions,” serious readers will deepen their understanding of the strategic considerations involved in the political parties’ Senate floor fights, past, present or future.
James I. Wallner, 2017. "On Parliamentary War: Partisan Conflict and Procedural Change in the U.S. Senate." Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 264 pages. ISBN 978-0-472-12324-7 (Ebook), $59.95. Also available in cloth.
Children stand on metal toilets to speak to each other through vents. The psyches of men corrode as they spend twenty-three hours a day in complete isolation, their food shoved through metal grates. These conditions violate the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisons created in honor of Nelson Mandela. They are happening in the United States’ "corrections" system.
Clinical psychiatrist Dr. Christine Montross challenges the efficiency and morality of this system in her book "Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration" where she gives a first hand account of performing competency-to-stand-trial evaluations. She tells the reader of the teenage boys who spoke into their cell vents in a desperate attempt to connect with another, even if that communication was in the form of an echo. Her recount of people’s stories demands that readers reflect on their views about punishment, cruelty, and individual freedom, as they are confronted with the underlying truth behind their prejudices towards criminals. As Montross says, "it is easier to live a free life while others live in cages if we see those who are caged as utterly distinct from ourselves" (79).
"Waiting for an Echo" is broken into three parts, challenging each part of the current correctional system and one’s perspective of it. The first part makes the reader reevaluate their perception of who a criminal is, and why people end up in the system. Underscoring her point, Montross gives examples of individuals who exhibit very similar abnormal behavior, but are met with different outcomes based on whether they were taken to jail or a mental hospital. In my interview with her, she explained that her work in psychiatric hospitals made her aware of how often her patients came in contact with police and "when I would talk with my patients it was so frequently not due to any kind of criminal intent, but rather due to untreated symptomatology." This realization catalyzed her interest in corrections as she saw "that there was not a bright line between the people that were my patients and the people in the jails or prisons." She humanizes the people that we characterize as evil.
The second part draws attention to the conditions of modern prisons and jails. Making the reader question their definition of "cruel and unusual punishment," especially regarding solitary confinement. Montross asks why the resounding opinion on punishment in the U.S. considers the state taking a person’s time and hope as more ethical than inflicting physical pain. "How is it, exactly, that we came to believe that ravaging one’s life is less cruel than ravaging one's body?" (193). Montross’ background in psychiatry gives invaluable insight into what is occurring in the human mind when faced with solitary confinement. She focuses especially on the juvenile mind and the long-term effects on the brain when subjected to extended time in penitentiary. And yes, solitary confinement is a punishment used on children.
In the final part of the book, Montross presents the reader with alternative forms of incarceration used in much of Scandinavia. She describes the outcomes and facts of their effectiveness in contrast to the American system. But what does it mean for a prison to be effective? Montross argues that much of the current system was born out of fear with the goal of punishment, not rehabilitation. Concern for morality vanishes from the conversation as soon as the public is afraid. To make their constituents happy, elected representatives make "tough on crime" or "war on drugs" their campaign slogans and impose laws on people they know nothing about.
Are drug addicts criminals? Or hospital patients? Should the man screaming in the streets about conspiracy theories be jailed for disorderly conduct, and then sequestered to solitary confinement for his continual violent outbursts? Or should he be placed in a mental health facility? The answer changes drastically depending on whether people view the man as a threat or as sick. Ironically, the level of risk the man poses after he is released back into society also depends on whether he remained untreated while being further traumatized, or was properly rehabilitated and medicated. Waiting for an Echo is an essential read for the study of American democracy as it confronts these major questions about human rights and individual liberty.
Christine Montross, "Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration." New York: Penguin Books, 2021. ISBN: 9780143110668. $18/ppk. Also available in other formats. 352 pages.