Since voters aren’t fixated on policy, elected representatives and other top government officials—the rare members of society who are seriously and consistently liberal, conservative, or otherwise ideological—are left “mostly free to pursue their own notions of the public good or to respond to party and interest group pressures” in formulating policies.
To illustrate their point, Achen and Bartels offer a harsh assessment of democracy by the political theorist John Dunn. Romantic perceptions of the democratic process, Dunn asserts, amount to an “illusion”:
To be ruled is both necessary and inherently discomfiting (as well as dangerous). For our rulers to be accountable to us softens its intrinsic humiliations, probably sets some hazy limits to the harms that they will voluntarily choose to do to us collectively, and thus diminishes some of the dangers to which their rule may expose us. To suggest that we can ever hope to have the power to make them act just as we would wish them to suggests that it is really we, not they, who are ruling. This is an illusion, and probably a somewhat malign illusion: either a self-deception, or an instance of being deceived by others, or very probably both.
Achen and Bartels also cite data comparing the voting record of each member of the U.S. Congress to the policy preferences of voters in their congressional districts. The data indicates that Republican and Democratic lawmakers whose constituents have similar policy preferences actually vote in quite different ways.
“The key point is that representatives’ voting behavior was not strongly constrained by their constituents’ views,” Achen and Bartels write. “Elections do not force successful candidates to reflect the policy preferences of the median voter.” The authors claim there’s no hard evidence to suggest that these dynamics would vary in countries with political systems of proportional representation and more parties than in the U.S.
In other words: By voting, you can play some role in electing your member of Congress. But you have far less control over which policies that member supports once in office, let alone which policies the government as a whole pursues. Similarly, you can cast a ballot for Boaty McBoatface and help shoot the name to the top of an online poll. But you’re pretty powerless when it comes to what the science minister does with that information.
Perhaps, deep down, Boaty McBoatface supporters know all this. Writing about the episode in The Guardian, Nell Frizzell speculated that the British public had responded to the contest the way it had precisely because people suspected that NERC’s outreach, however well-intentioned, was insincere. “[T]here is an age-old desire to thumb our nose at pomposity,” she argued. “Nothing makes my lips twitch for a knob joke or silly name like a group of middle-aged professionals trying to be inspiring, profound or historic. Like blowing a raspberry in the dramatic pause of a Shakespearean soliloquy, this is how we, the little guys, kick back against the sombre, the sober and the austere.”
And just as you might expect, the big, sober guy has now returned the kick. Science, Jo Johnson says, is far too Serious for the likes of Boaty McBoatface. The government appreciates the people’s suggestion, but now it’s time for the professionals to take over.