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Hardcover | $24.95 Trade | £17.95 | ISBN: 9780262017237 | 256 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 12 figures| January 2012
Paperback | $16.95 Trade | £11.95 | ISBN: 9780262525213 | 256 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 12 figures| September 2013

Essential Info

Democracy Despite Itself

Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well


Voters often make irrational decisions based on inaccurate and irrelevant information. Politicians are often inept, corrupt, or out of touch with the will of the people. Elections can be determined by the design of the ballot and the gerrymandered borders of a district. And yet, despite voters who choose candidates according to the boxer–brief dichotomy and politicians who struggle to put together a coherent sentence, democracy works exceptionally well: citizens of democracies are healthier, happier, and freer than citizens of other countries. In Democracy Despite Itself, Danny Oppenheimer and Mike Edwards explore this seeming paradox: How can democracy lead to such successful outcomes when the defining characteristic of democracy, elections, is so flawed?

Oppenheimer, a psychologist, and Edwards, a political scientist, draw on cutting-edge research in their fields to investigate the question and suggest an answer.

Oppenheimer and Edwards argue that democracy works because regular elections, no matter how flawed, produce a variety of unintuitive, positive consequences. Mass participation in contested elections creates psychological pressure for voters to be better citizens and for politicians to be better leaders; alternating power regularly between different factions helps avoid instability; citizens are sometimes able to overcome their ignorance and make informed choices; and voters do have the power to punish politicians for excessively bad behavior. The brilliance of democracy, write Oppenheimer and Edwards, does not lie in the people’s ability to pick superior leaders. It lies in the many ways that it subtly encourages the flawed people and their flawed leaders to work toward building a better society.

About the Authors

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.


"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