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Boaty McBoatface and the False Promise of Democracy

Is the British government’s response to a naming contest tyrannical? Or the very definition of the democratic process?

An artistic rendering of the ship briefly known (by the Internet) as Boaty McBoatface (Cammell Laird / BAS)

British democracy has survived all sorts of things: the unraveling of the British Empire, independence movements in Ireland and Scotland, Prime Minister’s Questions. But never before has it confronted Boaty McBoatface.

The boat, which is really a ship, acquired new significance this week, when a British official suggested he wouldn’t respect the results of an online government poll in which more than 124,000 people voted to christen the country’s new $300-million research vessel “Boaty McBoatface.” The name received three times more votes than the runner-up entry. The people of the Internet had spoken emphatically, and they’d spoken like a five-year-old.

Alas, Science Minister Jo Johnson was not amused. “The new royal research ship will be sailing into the world’s iciest waters to address global challenges that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people, including global warming, the melting of polar ice, and rising sea levels,” he reminded Boaty McBoatfacites. “That’s why we want a name that lasts longer than a social-media news cycle and reflects the serious nature of the science it will be doing.” (As my colleague David Graham has noted, it’s a bit rich to hear such sober talk from a government that has in the past named ships Buttercup and Cockchafer.)

Maybe this outcome shouldn’t be so surprising. The Natural Environment Research Council, which oversaw the competition, had informed participants that final authority to name the ship was vested in its chief executive, not the people. The NERC had expressed a preference for an “inspirational,” environmental science-y choice. Your “Shackleton.” Your “Endeavour.” And so on.

But the government’s position also seems like a cruel bait-and-switch—a case of elites eagerly leaning in to hear what the people have to say, and then leaping back in horror. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Johnson was asking, in announcing the contest, “Can you imagine one of the world’s biggest research labs travelling to the Antarctic with your suggested name proudly emblazoned on the side?” Did he not mean it when he said that “this campaign will give everyone across the UK the opportunity to feel part of this exciting project and the untold discoveries it will unearth”?

What happened to disapproving of what you name your boat, but defending to the death your right to name it? Is democracy a lie?

The soul-searching, the cries of tyranny, are already underway in the British press, albeit with a healthy dollop of mock outrage mixed in. (After all, the country has a very real, very high-stakes vote on whether to stay in the European Union coming up in June.) Johnson should “accept the will of the electorate and bow to the name Boaty McBoatface,” The Times declares. “Present the people with an idol, then smash it before their eyes,” muses Stuart Heritage at The Guardian. “Soon they will learn that resistance is futile, and the state’s power is absolute.” Anticipating the government’s resistance to Boaty McBoatface back in March, the journalist Ross Clark observed, “Our leaders, of course, love democracy—until it comes up with an answer different to the one they were expecting.”

But is the Boaty McBoatface Affair really a perversion of democracy? What if it’s actually a manifestation of how democracy tends to work in practice?

In their new book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels gather an array of recent social-science research to challenge what they call the “folk theory” of democracy—the popular conception that “what the majority wants becomes government policy.” Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” may be rousing, they write, but it’s not realistic. Most voters have neither the time nor inclination to pay close attention to politics. They support parties and candidates based not on specific policy issues or coherent ideological reasoning, but rather on their social identities, partisan loyalties, and immediate circumstances—things like their race or religious affiliations, the political party they’ve backed since childhood, and the state of the economy at the time of the election.

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.