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Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well Hardcover – January 27, 2012

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (January 27, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262017237
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262017237
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,086,707 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Danny Oppenheimer is on the faculty at UCLA with a joint appointment in Psychology and the Anderson School of Management.

Mike Edwards founded and regularly contributes to, a blog on politics and media.

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Rachel M. on February 13, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Churchill had two great quotes about democracy, that "the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter," and that "democracy is the worst form of government, except all of the others that have been tried."

In the alternately hilarious and depressing first half of the book, the authors explore the truth behind the first quote -- that voters are dismally ignorant about many issues and make terribly flawed decisions when choosing candidates. The authors combine great experimental data on decision making biases with real world examples of how those biases play out in real elections -- how election results are demonstrably influenced by the order of candidate names on the ballot, how they can be predicted by 100 millisecond assessments of how "competent" a candidate looks, how voting in a school or firehouse can prime voters to the issues of education or public safety, and dozens more interesting facts.

The second half of the book grapples with why, despite all this, democracies work better than any other form of government. It explores how the wisdom of crowds, a sense of fairness in the system, and opportunities for peaceful transitions of power lead to reasonable outcomes and incentives for both leaders and the electorate to fully participate and abide by the rules of the society. In one of the book's most moving sections, the authors describe how we should not take for granted an event like the peaceful transition of power from George W. Bush to Barack Obama in 2009, and how the guarantee of such events is one key to the success of democracy.

Overall, this is a great and thought-provoking read, useful for both amassing fun factoids about irrational behavior and for thinking seriously about why our form of government works, and what could still be improved.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A. J. Sutter on July 23, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a pleasant book and a quick, fluid read, filled with interesting vignettes about the influence of our psychology on our political choices. However, its definition of democracy is so broad that I have a hard time imagining whose views about democracy could be changed by reading it.

1. The authors (O&E) define a country to be "democratic" if it holds "free, fair and meaningful elections." Right off the bat, this neglects many other aspects of democracy, such as protection of minority rights and even human rights generally. But even within this classification, what are "free," "fair," and "meaningful"? The authors' acknowledge that this definition is "purposefully vague" (@5), but that's an understatement.

The state of democracy in Japan, where I live, helps to gauge how vague O&E's standards are. For example, they highlight Japan as an example of "meaningful" elections (@id.), because "winners of parliamentary elections become legislators, capable of creating the laws of the land." Technically this is true, but actually very, very few laws in Japan are written by elected legislators -- the vast majority are written by unelected career bureaucrats. Moreover, 5 out of the most recent 7 prime ministers in Japan were NOT selected in general elections -- in fact, in only 8-1/2 out of the past 25 years, i.e., during only 1/3 of all that time, has Japan been governed by PMs with electoral mandates. Maybe even more shocking to an American's sensibilities, Japan's Supreme Court has held several elections unconstitutional for violating the principle of 1-person, 1-vote -- but in each case has refused to set the election aside or to call for a do-over. This kind of puts a different spin on "meaningful" and "fair," but none of this is mentioned by O&E.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Humble on September 25, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Ever since I read about the "Voter's Paradox" (about 25 years ago), I have have been puzzled why people vote (when their vote will for all practical purposes not change the outcome) and pondered about the implications of democracy. As an engineer, I have often tried to craft solutions that would incentivize people to vote or I would try to think of voting mechanisms or selection processes that would give democracy more bite and make it more valuable. However, for each solution I came up with there were new problems that would sprout up. I am still fascinated by democracy, how it works, and why it works.

This book, Democracy Despite Itself, is wonderful. It explains and addresses many of my questions. It does not necessarily resolve them in all cases but it has raised my understanding of the subject and introduced me to the research that has been conducted on democracy -- on different questions.

Things that are wonderful about this book are that it is: well written and well organized; concise and succinct, on the issue; and, in the end, gives the reader more faith in democracy.

I shall keep it book on my favorite books shelf for a long time. It has inspired me to do some research and look into some evidence. For me, the book was a joy to read!
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Kam on February 20, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This insightful and thought-provoking book explores how democracy can do such a good job of ensuring the rights, freedoms, and prosperity of the people in it even though those people often make decisions--political and otherwise--for crazy reasons. The first half of the book mainly uses information from psychology to show how people's irrationality impacts the political process in ways most of us would like not to think about too much. Here, though, it's much less painful than usual to face our shortcomings, because the book presents them with balance and humor. The second half shifts the focus to how democracy is uniquely suited to allow societies to flourish in the face of the craziness of their members, using insights from political science, history, and psychology.

You don't have to know a lot--or even anything at all--about psychology or politics to enjoy this book. Everything is presented in a clear and engaging manner. But there's no need to worry about being bored if you're an expert, either. The authors combine the disciplines in an exciting way that will make you think about both human decision making and politics in ways you haven't before. And whether you go into the book knowing a little or a lot, you'll come out having learned a lot, including a deeper understanding of our flawed nature, plenty of fun and fascinating historical and psychological tidbits (enough for at least several years' worth of cocktail parties), and--most importantly--a new appreciation for all that democracy does for us as citizens and allows us to do together as a society.
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