The celebrated political philosopher H. L. Mencken once characterized democracy as "the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." Democratic theorists have mostly focused on the latter issue, without taking seriously the complexities lurking beneath the notion that "the common people know what they want." The ubiquity of opinion polls probing every conceivable aspect of modern politics and government both reflects and reinforces the notion that the primary problem of modern democracy is to translate definite public preferences into policy. Leaders may ignore the dictates of public opinion, but they are assumed to do so only with good reason--and at their electoral peril.
My aim here is to suggest that this conventional view of democracy is fundamentally unrealistic. Whether it would be desirable to have a democracy based on public opinion is beside the point, because public opinion of the sort necessary to make it possible simply does not exist. The very idea of "popular rule" is starkly inconsistent with the understanding of political psychology provided by the past half-century of research by psychologists and political scientists. That research offers no reason to doubt that citizens have meaningful values and beliefs, but ample reason to doubt that those values and beliefs are sufficiently complete and coherent to serve as a satisfactory starting point for democratic theory. In other words, citizens have attitudes but not preferences--a distinction directly inspired by the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. My argument extends Kahneman and Tversky's research, which challenges the behavioral assumptions underlying conventional economic theory, to the realm of politics and emphasizes particularly the challenge it poses to the most fundamental assumptions of democratic theory.
Kahneman and Tversky have called attention to "framing effects"--situations in which …