Are voters the problem with democracy?

Thinking about the quality of citizens

When democracy fails, we typically blame leaders and elites. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s best-selling How Democracies Die tells us to focus on the actions of elites - their rejection of the democratic rules of the game, their denial of the legitimacy of the political opposition, their toleration or encouragement of violence, and their readiness to curtail the civil liberties of their opponents. In her book Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, my dissertation advisor, Nancy Bermeo, likewise wrote that citizens were not the ones responsible for democratic breakdowns; instead, they were manipulated by elites who were the real cause of breakdown. Indeed, our current breakdown seems easy to lay at the feet of one man and his many enablers.

By contrast, much of the literature on political behavior, particularly in the US context, tends not to have a lot of faith in citizens. The headline of a article on Achen and Bartels’s Democracy for Realists reads: “The problem with democracy is voters.” Their book, drawing on large literatures in political science, points out how citizens are myopic, uninformed, misinformed, and practitioners of motivated reasoning among other flaws. This means that democracy cannot work according to standard civic ideals with voters choosing parties closest to them and sanctioning incumbents who perform poorly.

Where does that leave us? Some of this divergence is due to a focus on less stable countries in the critique of elites and on the US in the critique of citizens. As Paul Musgrave tweeted in the wake of Trump’s election

In short, elite failures like Trump make a lot more sense to comparativists who study places outside the US than to scholars of American politics. They have seen his like before in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and even Europe.

As a comparativist myself, I thought that I would switch gears and focus on citizens around the world. I don’t think comparative political science has gotten very far in thinking about the quality of citizens (we have worse things to worry about). If I asked a typical comparativist about what a good citizen should look like, I think they would go back to the hoary classic of The Civic Culture (published in 1962) with its subject and participant cultures or newer work that identifies a more assertive citizen. There are of course enormous literatures in comparative on individual aspects of citizenship - whether tolerance, participation, or more recently misinformation - but they don’t tend to integrate these into large conceptions. . 

In trying to draw these thoughts together, there are three points that I think have been neglected and which I would like to highlight:

  • There are wide variations in the degree to which citizens act according to civic ideals both across countries and groups. This suggests that it is hard to make blanket judgments about whether citizens are the cause of problems or not.

  • There are two competing views of good citizenship, which I label hot and cool citizenship. The former emphasizes participation and commitment, while the latter privileges rationality and pragmatism.

  • There may be cycles in the types of citizenship. In particular, we might expect that an equilibrium of cool citizens might be disturbed by some shock leading to a new equilibrium of hot citizens.

Variations in citizenship

In the first place, it is not enough to identify systematic problems in citizens as Achens and Bartels do. Citizens vary. They vary both within and between polities. There are places, whether groups, communities, or even states, where a majority of citizens act in ways that democratic theory expects. Conversely, there are groups, communities, and even states where citizens suffer profoundly from the problems that the realist view of democracy identifies.

Table 1 below shows some country-level differences on a handful of characteristics that we might want good citizens to hold - whether they are informed, open to new information, tolerant, participatory, and deliberative. The measures (most of them imperfect) are all drawn from the World Values Survey, which covers 60 countries. I would draw your attention to the large standard errors and the dramatic differences between the highest and lowest scoring countries. 

A key question for skeptics (or realists) about democracy is how far the failings need to go before we give up on standard conceptions of democracy. Is it too much if 5% of citizens switch their votes due to irrelevant events like shark attacks, to use one of Achen and Bartels’s famous examples. Or 10%? How much myopia is too much - focusing on the last month, three months, or six months in judging incumbents?

Just as there are variations across citizens and polities, there are variations over time. The quality of citizens is not static. Citizen quality is at least partially a product of a country’s politics. Comparativists often show how elites help to create a low quality citizenry, for example, by inciting intolerance or limiting access to information. Factors like the economy, income, and education tend to have consistent effects on citizenship. We are even getting a sense of potential interventions that can improve characteristics of good citizenship like tolerance (Broockman and Kalla’s analogic perspective taking) and informedness and deliberation (Fishkin’s deliberative polling).

In sum, the quality of citizens is not a constant but a variable. This implies both that we should not judge democracy with a broad brush and that our recommendations should be based on the actual quality of citizens in a given place and time, not to mention their potential quality given feasible policy changes.

Hot and Cool Citizenship

A second point is that many of the characteristics that we desire in good citizens do not all fit together. There are tradeoffs. Indeed, I think these characteristics tend to bundle into two groups (see Table 2). The standard conception sees citizens as having real preferences and ideologies, as following politics in order to become informed, and as participating in politics in order to have influence. I call this hot citizenship because it is based on passion and commitment. This is typically how we imagine things in civics courses. It is both how voters keep politicians honest and how political movements effect change.

But there are some aspects of good citizenship that do not fit well into this conception. We also hope that citizens are open to alternative perspectives and wish to avoid being misinformed, that they are tolerant of others, and that they deliberate with their fellow citizens. I call this cool citizenship and it might be more appealing to many academics. This is how we operate. The goal is to get the right answer rather than to take one’s aims as given and doggedly pursue them.

The problem is that there are tradeoffs. Mutz (2006), for example, has shown that those who participate more deliberate less and vice versa. Similarly, those who are well-informed and passionate about their team also tend to swallow misinformation and close themselves off to other points of view. Perhaps ultimately we would want to combine hot and cool citizenship just as Almond and Verba combined the participant and subject orientations. Whether this is possible and how to do it is the big question. Indeed, hot citizenship is well-known to be highly effective and if one side gives it up, that would be something like unilateral disarmament. In short, as every political scientist chants, not all good things go together.

Citizenship cycles

These types lead me to a third point. Thinking about styles of citizenship can potentially help us to better understand politics. One can argue that these two styles move in cycles. There is feedback between them. Start with a citizenry divided into two main groups – left and right – but where each possesses the positive aspects of cool citizenship – they are deliberative, open-minded, and tolerant, a political scientist’s dream

Let’s say, however, that one side defects. It decides to mobilize. Elites on this side encourage their supporters to engage in contentious collective action, to read only party media, and to hold strong ideological beliefs. This is a winning formula and that side begins to capture elections and its now inflamed supporters encourage party elites to go further, to push against the existing norms of politics in order to solidify and consolidate these gains.

The other side may not initially realize what is happening. It may assume that the old rules still apply and in the name of comity and civility it acts as it did before. Ultimately, however, its losses force a response and it begins to mobilize hot citizenship as well. The result is a highly polarized society with two groups of ideological and participatory citizens facing off against each other. This feverish mood cannot be maintained indefinitely. Likely is that the winning group will trumpet the virtues of cool citizenship – we must be civil and tolerant – in order to consolidate its gains, while the losing group will push hot citizenship until it wins elections and the roles reverse. This cycle may end only when one side wins decisively.

Such a cycle seems to describe recent US history. Bare-knuckles tactics by the Republican Party have led to the rise of similar tactics on the Democratic side (Mann and Ornstein 2012). However this dynamic is not a preserve of the right. The cool citizenship of the 1950s gave way to a mobilization on the left in the 1960s, which was followed by mobilization on the right. A cycle appears to be underway in Europe where it is mostly the far-right which has started to use the hot citizenship model, though the old mass party model of the early 20th century socialists shows how the left once used these tactics to socialize and mobilize its members (until those techniques were adopted by fascists).

This citizenship cycle could be initiated by either elites or citizens. Out-of-power elites may be the impetus in their drive to win power. This elite focus corresponds with work by Snyder (2000) and Bermeo (2003) on the ways that supposed mass hysteria actually has roots in elite persuasion. The impetus, however, could equally come from the grassroots, from citizens who believe that their cool approach has led them to be excluded from politics. A minority faction in the opposition may use mobilized citizens to first gain power in its own party and then in the polity as a whole. Trump’s rise has been interpreted in just this way by Arlie Hochschild who famously describes the white people who see themselves as working hard and waiting patiently in a long line that is not moving and then notice others cutting in line.


If democracy implies citizen rule, then it can fail in two ways. The way that has been emphasized in existing work is that elites pursue their own interests and ignore citizens. But an alternative diagnosis is the failures of citizens as has been emphasized in a number of recent works showing how they do not live up to democratic ideals.

One response to these findings is to reconceive democracy as Achen and Bartels do with their group theory. Another response and the one that we argue for is to work more on conceptualizing, measuring, and determining the causes and effects of the quality of citizens. This post has made three points about this project.

First, rather than treat citizenship as a constant, scholars should be aware of the wide degree of variation in the quality of citizens across and within polities as well as the potential for the quality of citizens to change. Democracies may work differently depending on the quality of their citizens and there may be ways to improve their quality. Our recommendations should be alert to these variations and the potential for changing them.

Second, the characteristics of good citizens may not all go together. There may be tradeoffs. One tradeoff may be between hot citizenship based on strong ideologies, information, and participation and a cool citizenship that focuses more on openness, tolerance, and deliberation. 

Third, attention to the nature of citizenship may explain some aspects of contemporary politics. In particular, there may be a cycle of citizenship where hot citizenship overcomes and replaces cool citizenship leading to the sort of polarized politics that we see today. The quality of citizens may also help to explain some failures of democracy in the developing world.

These claims are provocative and I realize that I have not provided a lot of evidence for them. I hope to do that in the future. In the meantime, integrating the work that comparativists have done on citizens should help us better understand current failures in democracy and the rise of populism. Further elite bashing might make us feel better, but it also plays directly into the populist narrative.


Achen, Christopher and Larry Bartels. 2016. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Almond, Gabriel and Sidney Verba. 1963. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Culture in Five Nations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bermeo, Nancy. 2003. Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Role of the Citizenry in the Breakdown of Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Broockman, David and Joshua Kalla. 2016. “Durably Reducing Transphobia: A Field Experiment on Door-to-Door Canvassing.” Science 352(6282): 220-224.

Fishkin, James S. 2009. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.

Mann, Thomas E. and Norman J. Ornstein. 2012. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. New York: Basic Books.

Mutz, Diana. 2006. Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Snyder, Jack. 2000. From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict. New York: Norton.