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Variations: Biba change!

MANY voters are apolitical. That’s not a bad thing.

But many voters also have ideas about politics and governance that usually bear little or no resemblance to what politics and governance actually are in practice. Not surprisingly, many voters are seldom happy with both.

In a book published in 1913 (and cited in “Democracy for Realists”), legal scholar and Harvard University president A. Lawrence Lowell stated that “the American people despise legislatures, not because they are averse to representative government, but because legislatures are in fact despicable.” In 1900, the head of the Direct Legislation League declared that over a century of representative government “has borne its legitimate fruits, and they are the dead sea apples of corruption and insidious injustice. Representative government is a failure.…”

According to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center, most of the respondents stated that “democratic government is a very important factor in the nation’s success; but most also believe that ‘the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.’ ”

In their 2016 book “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels noted that “popular thinkers and scholars alike have combined enthusiasm for democracy, however vaguely defined, with a clear-eyed realization that democratic practice is…dispiriting almost everywhere. In most cases, they have simply ignored the conceptual contradictions or attributed the failings of democracy to corrupt leaders or faulty institutions.”

But who elected those leaders? Who approved the creation of those institutions?

In 1894, British jurist and Liberal politician James Bryce observed “how little solidity and substance there is in the political or social beliefs of nineteen persons out of every twenty. These beliefs, when examined, mostly resolve themselves into two or three prejudices and aversions, two or three prepossessions for a particular leader or party or section of a party, two or three phrases or catchwords suggesting or embodying arguments which the man who repeats them has not analyzed.”

In 1942, political economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote that citizens were “especially prone ‘to yield to extra-rational or irrational prejudice and impulse’ in the political sphere. By comparison with other realms of life, he argued, ‘the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests.’ ”

Walter Lippmann wrote in 1914 that “the cherished ideas and judgments we bring to politics are stereotypes and simplifications with little room for adjustment as the facts change…. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations.”

Many of our policy preferences are “vague, uninformed or incoherent.” We are genuinely surprised (and hurt) that we cannot have something for nothing. And so, in every election year, many of us advocate for change! (It’s always spelled with an exclamation point.) All we need, we tell ourselves, are “real leaders” who are educated and sincere, etc. And that’s it. No need to change our expectations and demands, our ways of dealing with one another and with our government — no need to change our own social and political habits and attitudes that have spawned many of the problems we always complain about in every election year.

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