Last post we talked about problems with our politicians, but most voters aren’t any better. In fact, they’re often worse. Most politicians at least know something about the major issues of the day; most voters don’t.
Economists say that voters’ ignorance is rational: because each persons’ vote has such a small marginal impact on an election result, it doesn’t make sense to spend much time learning about the candidates or issues. What makes sense for each voter to do on an individual level, though, has disastrous consequences in the aggregate. The result is collective stupidity.
And rational ignorance isn’t the only problem—natural ignorance is too. Some people are dumber than others, yet everyone’s vote counts the same. Many good, sensible policies can’t be enacted because ignorant voters misunderstand them and oppose them on spurious grounds, often because the media and the entertainment industry have warped popular perceptions about what is right and true. Elected representatives thus sometimes can’t do what makes the most sense because ignorant constituents will vote them out of office if they do.
Surveys since the 1950s have consistently shown that most Anericans are poorly informed about basic, important civic facts about our country, government, and political situation. A majority of Americans were unable to answer sixty percent of such basic questions. Astoundingly, a majority of Americans didn’t know the answers to questions about
definitions of key terms such as liberal, conservative, primary elections, or the bill of rights; knowledge of many individual and collective rights guaranteed by the Constitution; the names or issue stands of most public officials below the level of president or governor; candidate and party stands on many important issues of the day; key social conditions such as the unemployment rate or the percentage of the public living in poverty or without health insurance; how much of the federal budget is spent on defense, foreign aid, or social welfare; and so on.*
Defenders of our current system may ask, isn’t having a republican form of government designed to solve this problem? We elect representatives who can inform themselves about the issues and vote for what would be best for us, so what difference does it make if voters are ill-informed? A lot, actually. How can an ill-informed citizen know how to pick the best representative in the first place? Indeed, research shows that people’s
political knowledge seems to increase citizens’ ability to consistently connect their policy views to their evaluations of public officials and political parties, as well as to their political behavior. For example, more-informed citizens are more likely to identify with the political party, approve of the performance of office holders, and vote for candidates whose policy stands are most consistent with their own views.**
Moreover, the better-informed demonsttate good citizenship beyond just choosing the optimal candidate or political party. Professor Michael X. Delli Carpini explained that
the larger literature strongly suggeststhat informed citizens are “better” citizens in a number of ways. Specifically, research has found that more-informed citizens are more accepting of democratic norms such as political tolerance; are more efficacious about politics; are more likely to be interested in, follow, and discuss politics; and are more likely to participate in politics in a variety of ways, including voting, working for a political party,and attending local community meetings. Research also suggests that more-informed citizens are more likely to have opinions about the pressing issues of the day, are more likely to hold stable
opinions over time, are more likely to hold opinions that are ideologically consistent with each other, and are less likely to change their opinions in the face of new but tangential or misleading information but more likely to change in the face of new relevant or compelling information.***
Beyond rational ignorance and basic stupidity, other voters vote against the public welfare act not out of ignorance, but out of naked self-interest, voting for benefits for themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens and future generations. The Baby Boomers have turned this into an art form.
To fix our system, we need voters who are informed, engaged, and public-spirited, rather than ignorant, apathetic, and selfish.
*Michael X. Delli Carpini, “An overview of the state of citizens’ knowledge about politics,” in M. S. McKinney, L. L. Kaid, D. G. Bystrom, and D. B. Carlin (Eds.), Communicating politics: Engaging the public in democratic life, pp. 29-30, http://repository.upenn.edu/asc_papers/53
**Same, p. 35 (citations omitted).
*** Same (citations omitted).