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”?…

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.