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

4.2 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Democracy, like many other organizations and systems, is filled to the brim with flawed and irrational people. Democracy Despite Itself explains, with clever arguments, how we are able to transcend these limitations and harness them to our benefit through a perfectly imperfect democratic system.

(Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, Duke University; author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty)

A provocative meditation on a profound question: why does democracy workat allwhen voters are so often irrational? In lucid prose filled with compelling examples, Oppenheimer and Edwards grapple with one of the deepest questions society faces: how to organize itself, in light of the inherent frailty of the human mind."

(Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology, New York University; Author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of The Human Mind)

A provocative meditation on a profound question: why does democracy work at all when voters are so often irrational? In lucid prose filled with compelling examples Oppenheimer and Edwards grapple with one of the deepest questions society faces: how to organize itself in light of the inherent frailty of the human mind.

(Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology, New York University; Author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of The Human Mind)

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 Leftfielder.org, a blog on politics and media.

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Product Details

  • Series: MIT Press
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; 56420th edition (January 27, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262017237
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262017237
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #220,576 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is an extremely well-written, thoughtful defense of democracy and why it works despite the irrationality of the ordinary voter. It happens to reach a different conclusion than my own book, Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, but so be it. It raises important issues thinking people will want to consider.
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