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The Politics of Ignorance: Election Day Reflections

JURIST Guest Columnist Ilya Somin of the George Mason University School of Law says that while political ignorance among voters is more the byproduct of rational calculation than laziness or stupidity, one way to address the problem is to reduce the size and complexity of government...


Nancy Pelosi may soon become the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. But 67% of Americans admitted in a recent survey that they don’t know enough about her to have an opinion. Fifty-five percent say the same thing about her political rival Dennis Hastert, the current Republican Speaker of the House. These findings are not surprising to experts; indeed, they are consistent with decades of research showing uniformly low levels of political knowledge in the American electorate. Moreover, such ignorance is not primarily the result of laziness or stupidity, but is usually caused by perfectly rational behavior. Not only does political ignorance lead to low levels of information acquisition, it also leads many voters to make poor use of the knowledge they do have. There is probably no way to eliminate political ignorance in the foreseeable future. But its harmful effects could be mitigated by reducing the size and complexity of government.

The Extent of Ignorance

The extent of political ignorance is well-documented. Despite ongoing debate over gay rights over the last few years, a recent survey showed that only 36 percent of Americans realize that homosexuality is an inherited genetic trait rather than a result of upbringing or lifestyle choices. A 2003 poll showed that 70 percent don't know Congress passed a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens, even though the Bush Administration-supported law is the largest new government program in forty years and is expected to cost more than a trillion dollars over the next ten years. Voters also often misunderstand issues they are aware of. For example, high gas prices have become an important issue in this year’s election despite the fact that experts overwhelmingly agree that there is little or nothing that the President or Congress can do about short-term trends in this area.

Public knowledge of the war on terrorism is not much better. 58 percent admit they have heard little or nothing about the USA Patriot Act and 52 percent of Americans say they do not know enough about the highly publicized report of the 9/11 Commission to have an opinion about it. Since many people are reluctant to admit ignorance on surveys, the true proportion of citizens with little or no knowledge of Hastert, Pelosi, Patriot Act, and 9/11 Commission report is likely to be even greater than the numbers suggest.

However sad those results may be, they are not surprising. Decades of research show that most citizens know very little about politics and public policy. Even more alarming is that most citizens often lack basic background knowledge about political leaders, parties and the structure of government.

For example, the majority of Americans don't know the name of their congressman, and most do not know which branches or levels of government are responsible for which issues. Furthermore, studies show that most do not understand the basic differences between liberal and conservative ideologies.

Voters do not have to be policy wonks to make an informed decision. Sometimes they can get by through the use of what scholars call "information shortcuts," relying on small bits of information as a substitute for deeper knowledge. For example, even if a voter knows nothing about Candidate X as an individual, a lot of useful information about X's policy positions can be derived simply from knowing what party he belongs to. But lack of basic knowledge is difficult to overcome through shortcuts. Knowing that a candidate is a Democrat is only useful information to a voter if he or she has some idea of what positions the Democrats stand for, how they differ from the Republicans, and what the likely effects of their competing policy proposals are.

Why Political Ignorance is Rational

It is tempting to conclude that voters must be lazy or stupid. But even a smart and hardworking person can rationally decide not to pay much attention to political information. No matter how well-informed a citizen is, one vote has only a tiny chance of affecting the outcome of an election; about one chance in 100 million in the case of a presidential race. As a result, even a citizen who cares a great deal about public policy has little incentive to acquire sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice. Becoming a well-informed voter is, in most situations, simply irrational. Unfortunately, the rational decisions of individuals create a dysfunctional collective outcome in which the majority of the electorate is dangerously ill-informed.

People who can influence politics in ways beyond casting a vote and those who simply find politics interesting might learn about it for perfectly rational reasons. Political professionals such as lobbyists and interest group leaders have strong incentives to become informed. But few of us are influential activists, or otherwise have political clout that goes beyond the power of the vote. And most Americans find politics far less interesting than other forms of entertainment. Polls show that many more people know the names of the judges on "The People's Court" than those on the Supreme Court. A March 2006 survey revealed that 52% of Americans can name two or more characters from the Simpsons, but only 28% can name two or more First Amendment rights.

Biased Information Use and “Rooting for Your Team”

A low level of knowledge is just one of the harmful consequences of rational ignorance. Another is the fact that many voters will make poor use of such political knowledge as they do acquire. After all, if there is little incentive to acquire political information for the purpose of becoming a better voter, that suggests that most of the political knowledge we do learn is in fact acquired for other reasons, most likely its entertainment value.

There is an analogy to sports fans. Fans who acquire extensive knowledge of their favorite teams and players do not do so because they can thereby influence the outcome of games. They do it because it increases the enjoyment they get from rooting for their favorite teams. For this very reason, however, committed fans are unlikely to evaluate information about their favorite team and its rivals objectively. Committed New York Yankees fans are likely to seize on any information that makes their team look good or the rival Boston Red Sox look bad, and vice versa. Similarly, Democratic partisans who hate George W. Bush, and Republicans who reflexively support him, might acquire information in order to augment the experience of cheering on their preferred political “team.”

If this is indeed their goal, neither group is likely to evaluate Bush’s performance in office objectively or accurately. This intuition is confirmed by numerous studies showing that people tend to use new information to reinforce their preexisting views on political issues, while discounting evidence that runs counter to them. For example, an Emory University study conducted during the 2004 election showed that Bush supporters interpreted new information in ways that reinforced their support for their preferred candidate, while Kerry voters interpreted exactly the same data in ways that strengthened their commitment to their own man.

If political ignorance and biased information use are rational, there are limits to our ability to reduce it by reforming the education system or by improving media coverage of politics. Studies show that knowledge levels have remained roughly constant for over 50 years, despite massive increases in education levels and greatly increased availability of information. With the rise of the Internet and 24-hour news channels, political knowledge is readily available to those willing to take the time to find it.

The problem is not that the truth isn't out there, but that most don't bother to seek it out.

Ignorance and the Size of Government

Even if the majority of voters paid more attention to politics than they do, that still might not be enough to cope with the complexities of the modern state. The federal government alone spends over 20 percent of our national gross domestic product and adopts thousands of regulations that touch on almost every aspect of our lives. Even highly attentive voters are unlikely to be aware of more than a small fraction of this activity.

Thus, many important aspects of government power are likely to escape public scrutiny, and thereby also escape public accountability and democratic control. To take just one notorious example, every year the federal government spends tens of billions of dollars on counterproductive porkbarrel spending such as the notorious “bridge to nowhere.” Yet pork projects persist because most voters are largely unaware of their existence, while the well-organized interest groups that benefit are not only aware, but prepared to punish politicians who refuse to satisfy their desires. If government had fewer functions, it might be easier for voters to keep track of them, and thereby combat interest group machinations. It would also be easier for voters to assess how well government is fulfilling its core functions, such as national defense.

Obviously, political ignorance is far from the only problem that must be considered when we try to determine how large a role the state should play in our society. But it is essential to understand that decisions about the size of government involve not only policy questions about specific issues, but also the overall viability of democratic control of government. The government that governs least may well be the most democratic.


Ilya Somin is Assistant Professor of Law at George Mason University. He is the author of numerous articles on political ignorance, as well as a forthcoming book, to be published by the University of Michigan Press. He regularly writes about law and public policy on the popular Volokh Conspiracy blog.

November 07, 2006


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