« previous post | Main | next post »

December 15, 2004

an incurably ignorant public?

Don Herzog: December 15, 2004

Americans seem clueless about basic political facts.  It's easy to document this in one arena after another, but I'll choose just a couple.  For some thirty years, foreign aid has been under 0.5% of the federal budget (see Table Figure 8 here; LATER THAT DAY: yikes! I really did screw this up, sorry; they are quoting it as %age of GDP, not %age of federal budget; but that won't change anything that matters, given how much of GNP the feds chew up and how small the foreign aid percentage has been for many years; I'll try to take more care next time, promise).  But asked what the facts are, Americans consistently wildly overestimate.  In one December 2001 poll (subscription required), only 2% of respondents correctly said it was under 1%.  22% of respondents figured it was 11-25%; 29% thought it was 26% or more.  More such results are reported here, including this dubious gem:  64% of respondents in one poll thought foreign aid the "largest area of spending by the federal government."  And including this salutary reminder:  people with graduate degrees were way off the mark, too.

Similarly, in 2000 (go here, register, and enjoy poking around) fewer than 11% of respondents could identify what William Rehnquist does for a living (variable 1449a, though I needed help from the local experts to be sure I was deciphering the data set correctly).  They were questioned from September to December, and endless media coverage of the Florida debacle must have driven up the number from a more feeble baseline.

In a 1920s exchange that would be repeated endlessly, Walter Lippmann argued that "The world we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind."  People have to rely on what they're told.  Politics is far away, not of everyday concern, threatening too, and so individuals fall back on stereotypes, codes, comforting blind spots, and the like.  In The Public and Its Problems, which alas seems not to be online, John Dewey made his usual wonderful move, and argued that instead of seeing brute facts of human psychology, we should see contingent social practices.  What kinds of changes, he asked, would make people better informed, more politically intelligent?  Alas, Dewey made the argument in his usual curious dialect, noticed with hilarious derision by Mencken before he turned to his take-no-prisoners attack on Thorstein Veblen.  But it's still a good argument.  Better, surely, than throwing in the towel.

So how could we be smarter?  Here are some baldly peremptory assertions, to kick off discussion.  One:  the news media could and should do much better.  Instead of the more or less constant intensive focus on the day's breaking news, whatever has just changed, they could and should more often set events in context, remind the reader of basic facts, and so on.  And the media is often confused about objectivity.  They should firmly embrace a Weberian conception and dig up facts embarrassing any and all partisan points of view, instead of presenting us with putative experts who disagree and then saying nothing in their own voice.

Two:  political campaigns play to the world according to Lippmann, and the game has become contemptibly  Pavlovian.  Check those focus groups:  which catchphrases will trigger the desired response?  ("It's hard work," "I have a plan," yadayada.)  This helps make us stupider by giving us every reason to tune out.  Little-d democratic politics deserves better.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference an incurably ignorant public?:

» What Kind of Political Ignorance Really Matters? from Loyal Opposition
Link: Left2Right: an incurably ignorant public?. [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 15, 2004 3:02:50 PM

» Ignorance and Democracy from Parableman
Two posts at Left2Right have been considering the fact that most voters don't have a clue what they're voting about. The amount of ignorance about basic matters really is staggering. Don Herzog points out the data and seeks to figure... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 16, 2004 12:31:25 PM

» Incurable ignorance? from Signifying Nothing
Greg Goelzhauser has returned from haïtus at Crescat Sententia with some thoughts in response to Dan Herzog on whether or not the public is “incurably ignorant” about politics. My general thought on such matters, oft-repeated here, is that any dem... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 17, 2004 7:41:45 PM


Posted by: Ted

As long as we are talking about opening up political campaigns and news media to greater objectivity, etc., what about opening up the universities to greater diversity of different political views? Or is this a taboo topic amongst self-proclaimed leftist professors?

Posted by: Ted | Dec 15, 2004 12:40:46 PM

Posted by: david

Your first solution is unlikely, for an obvious reason: Most people would rather be entertained than be informed, so infotainment is going to dominate the news until/unless government controls make it otherwise.

Your second solution addresses an effect, not a cause, of people's ignorance. That is, political campaigns rely heavily upon catchphrases because people are ignorant enough to be susceptible to them. You won't get smarter campaigns (nor will you get smarter candidates) until you get a voting public which can respond appropriately.

As I assume everyone agrees, there is no easy way to make people "smarter." But there might not be a feasible hard way, either. More to the point, it might be that, all things considered, we shouldn't really mind that so many people aren't smart. "Smart," in this context, means "knowledgeable about issues of political and/or social importance." Understanding these issues takes a lot of energy which many people would prefer to expend on other things -- usually, things which concern them more directly, like their own problems, jobs, families, interests and etc. It is hard to think of a way to make such people "smarter" without using force.

I take it that the main reason we want people to get "smarter" is because their "stupidity" has disastrous consequences in the voting booth. One way to avoid these consequences is to do what you suggest, and try to do what may be impossible: make people smarter. But there's a much simpler solution. Why not just keep the stupid people out of the voting booth?

Posted by: david | Dec 15, 2004 12:44:18 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

Ted: your question has already been addressed in two posts, here and here.

Posted by: David Velleman | Dec 15, 2004 12:55:03 PM

Posted by: Ted

David: Thank you for the links.

Posted by: Ted | Dec 15, 2004 12:55:42 PM

Posted by: a-train

I think it is tough to argue that any form of media has more impact than TV. To me the problem seems to be that TV is commercially driven - that is, the goal is to get and keep eyeballs on the screen so advertisers will pay a lot of money to air commercials. And to get and keep eyeballs TV (unconsciously?) emphasizes stories that target the limbic brain (emotional seat) ... things like fear, violence, sex, etc.

Also seems that on TV emotional arguments will always be more persuasive than fact based ones. (Think of how bad it looks to see someone pause and gather their thoughts on TV, when was the last time you saw someone actively thinking on TV?)

Fear is more potent than intellectual analysis. There is an important evolutionary reason for this, it helped us survive the kinds of dangers we used face daily. But what used to be an evolutionary advantage has turned into a huge disadvantage in the modern world.

Posted by: a-train | Dec 15, 2004 1:10:23 PM

Posted by: Terrier

Ted: AFAIK there is no litmus test for university professors - maybe you should apply! Also, and what to me is far more threatening - are you aware that military officers are more likely to identiy themselves as right-wing? We should immediately take steps redress this problem by instituting a rigorous quota to determine who is allowed promotion.

Posted by: Terrier | Dec 15, 2004 1:11:54 PM

Posted by: Matt

Ted: As well as here, here, here and here.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 15, 2004 1:19:08 PM

Posted by: Steve

A couple of quick comments:
1) Why are these considered 'basic' political facts? For instance, foreign aid eats up just 0.5% of the federal budget. So why is a line item that is just 0.5% of the budget considered a basic fact? If it is, then wouldn't EVERY line item that is 0.5% or larger be a 'basic' political fact? And if so, do you know all of them? Can you dictate the percentage of the federal budget represented by highways, the federal deficit, the military, social security, etc etc-down to every line item represented by 0.5% or more? And more importantly for your argument, should everyone be able to do so, to be qualified as 'smart'? Similar argument with Reinquist. I happen to know this stuff, and I happen to value it, but as I grow older, I question whether its 'basic', or if its just my own personal hobby (that many of us in blogs happen to share).
I'll give you another example. We are in a war right now-presumably facts about our military qualify as 'basic' more so than at any other time. Do you know the difference between an M1A1 tank and a Bradley fighting vehicle? What a Stryker Brigade is? How many divisions are in the army/marines, and how many are deployed overseas? If you do, you have very specialized knowledge of the military. I happen to know this stuff, because its my 'thing.' Percentage expenditures of the federal budget happen to be your 'thing.' Naming supreme court justices happens to be other people's 'thing.' I'm not sure which of them qualifies as 'basic.'
2) Your solution regarding what news media should do. The news media is institutionally incapable of being an informative organization. Though I do think they are grossly biased and basically agree with the Right in their perceptions of the MSM, this problem is not what I am referring to. Rather, I am referring to the structure of a news program :cover the whole world in 22 minutes, in 30-90 second sound bites. Ask yourself: would you ever go to a lecture, listen to a speech, pay for training, engage in any learning, if you knew it was going to be for 30-90 seconds? Of course not. It is an absurd proposition. Television news has always been this way, and it will always be this way. Walter Croncite was replaced with three or more old guys which was replaced with two or more (FOX, CNN, MSNBC, etc) streaming videos of 30-90 second stories. It is structurally impossible to 'teach' anything. You are a professor: how much would you expect to 'teach' in a daily 1 minute lecture?
3) "They should firmly embrace a Weberian conception and dig up facts embarrassing any and all partisan points of view". The Daily Show already does this. Is this the path to wisdom? Of course not. Its ironic cynicism-a teenager's point of view. And by 'teenager', I mean, 'someone with no vested interest and thus no responsibility for the outcome.' We would not be served by a news media with even more of these tendencies than they display today.
4) Your second 'solution' to your question ('How could we be smarter') is, of course, not a solution at all. Written in haste, I assume.
5) What's the solution? People need to read more. They will gain knowledge by reading (rather than by watching television). They will read more if they want to read. How do we get people to want to read (i.e How do we raise curious people)? THAT's the question.


Posted by: Steve | Dec 15, 2004 1:19:48 PM

Posted by: Matt

One problem with the media is that many, many of the reporters have very little knowledge of the subjects they report on. This is true all over the place- w/ reporters writing on economics (an on-going obsession over at Brad DeLong's place) to science, to foreign countries. This is true even of higher-quality media, such at the Economist. their Russian correspondent has written some interesting notes on having to learn about the country from scratch, and not having any idea what he was talking about at first. Of course, these items were not in the Economist, so you'd not know that he was making things up there. It's hard to know exactly what to do about this- it seems unlikely that all newspapers are going to start hiring economics PhD's or experts on Romania or the like- but it makes it very hard to fulfill a mission of educating people, even if you honestly want to- if those supposedly educating know almost nothing about the subject. It does explain how reporters can so often repeat lies that are obvious to anyone who knows something about the subject, though.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 15, 2004 1:20:02 PM

Posted by: Ted

Terrier: Who says I won't? But please don't ignore there isn't a bias at most university departments and how this might lead to misinformation among the public (about all issues).

And what do you mean as far as "right-wing"? Of course military officesrs will be pro-military. Are you saying that conservative or liberatarin professors will NOT be pro-university or pro-education?

Posted by: Ted | Dec 15, 2004 1:21:18 PM

Posted by: Ted

It appears to me the biggest solution is encouraging increased use of the Internet. Clearly the good professors feel that way as well, hence this fine blog.

Posted by: Ted | Dec 15, 2004 1:23:30 PM

Posted by: farmgirl

European citizens, on the whole, seem to be much better politically informed than Americans. What are the factors contributing to that, in people's opinions?

From my experience, our television news media is certainly inferior. The one time I checked out Fox, there were all these on-screen bells and whistles and the anchor looked like a retired porn star and talked like she was soliciting phone sex. The anchors on CNNHN are completely unwatchable? because they read the headlines? like ditzy high school girls? I feel better informed from BBC, which I get on cable, or even CNNi, which gets a lot of early morning and weekend play on CNNFN.

However, what are the cultural factors that contribute to there not being a greater demand in this country for higher-quality news? Why is CNN's international outlet noticibly superior to their domestic ones?

Posted by: farmgirl | Dec 15, 2004 1:35:55 PM

Posted by: bakho

What do you mean. We can name all the Super Bowl champions from the last ten years and the all Survivor winners. Politicians take care of government for us so we don't have to worry about it.

Posted by: bakho | Dec 15, 2004 1:39:32 PM

Posted by: farmgirl

Steve --

"...Naming supreme court justices happens to be other people's 'thing.' I'm not sure which of them qualifies as 'basic.' "

You may not be aware, but part of the citizenship test for this country requires you to name 5 justices, and also name the chief justice. It's pretty pathetic when immigrants have better knowledge of the basic institutions of this country than many or most born citizens.

Posted by: farmgirl | Dec 15, 2004 1:42:20 PM

Posted by: Craig Duncan

A full answer to Don's question would have to look deep into the roots of the anti-intellectualist streak in American culture. Someone else besides me is going to have to do that, though...

Instead, a few miscellaneous thoughts on the media:

Like Don, I think that what is *new* is not always what is *important*. Scott Peterson's death sentence is new; the fact that 45M Americans lack health insurance is important; but the former gets more coverage.

Perhaps the 24 hour news cycle is partly to blame for this. There is so much air time to fill and who will watch policy analyis 24/7?

Also, the media IMHO far too often let misleading statements by politicians pass without much investigation or challenge. They seem content to
play the role of stenographors and write "he-said-she-said" stories without trying too hard to ascertain who is right. I suspect partly this is because they do not wish to be accused of liberal bias.

The worst example of this I know of is an Oct. 27 front-page article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Block the Vote: As a Final Gambit, Parties Are Trying to Damp Turnout." After reporting on Republican efforts to challenge voters at the polls, which Democrats saw as voter suppression, the article says: "Republicans see suppression efforts in Democrats' attempts to sow doubts about Mr. Bush's character and his fealty to social conservatives." Only the most twisted logic can portray criticism of Bush as "voter suppression." But the way the media write today, for every time an article describes side A as charging side B with some flaw, reporters must report some charge of a flaw that B has made against A, in order to produce "balance." Reporting that one side's charges are not born out by the evidence, or are less serious than the other side's charges, is typically out of bounds. Maybe we can call this "the fallacy of false parity." A bit more spine, a bit more confidence that there is a truth of the matter to be ferreted out, and less relativism of the "A-says-this-B-says-that-who-knows-who's-right" variety. That would help.

Help, but not solve. Even if the news media improves its act, viewers can always switch channels to "Fear Factor" or whatever. So I'm under no illusions that the problem would disappear. It's depressing.

Posted by: Craig Duncan | Dec 15, 2004 1:42:25 PM

Posted by: Bret

I'm not convinced that providing wrong answers to poll questions indicates either stupidity or "simple" ignorance. Most of us are not, nor is there any reason to be, walking encyclopedias. For example, I don't think it particularly important that people know the name of the Chief Justice of SCOTUS.

One's worldview is constructed as one absorbs many millions of factoids, some true, some false, over one's lifetime. Each new factoid causes an extremely small shift in the worldview. One can't possibly recall all of the factoids, indeed one can only recall a tiny, tiny fraction of one-percent of those factoids. Nonetheless, the factoids have been absorbed and incorporated into the worldview. And that worldview represents a sort of intelligence. However, it's a sort of intelligence that tends to do poorly on answering arbitrary questions, making "Americans seem clueless about basic political facts." But that's different than Americans being clueless about things that are important (to them).

I agree that the news media could and should do much better. But I doubt they will. What would be their motivation? They are for-profit companies that need to create something that sells. Perhaps NPR does a better job, but given that the number of people on the Right that tune into NPR is low, it won't help a majority of the country become better educated - thus perhaps their format isn't optimal either.

On the other hand, political campaigns ought to play to win, whatever it takes, and the Democrats need to learn this lesson already. So what if focus groups seem stupid? You've got to appeal to a majority of the people and find out what will trigger them to vote for you. Campaign season is not the time to try to enlighten people. You can't change worldviews accumulated over decades in a few short months. Campaign season is the time to focus on getting back in power. Once you've got power, you can more easily shift people's worldviews.

Posted by: Bret | Dec 15, 2004 1:43:02 PM

Posted by: Terrier

I recall that Nietzsche wrote about the conditions of a strong society. A society would be strong as long as the underlying philosophical foundations for it continued to be believed. What is interesting is that most people take this to mean that the 'crowd' must believe these things. He really didn't mean that; his argument was really that the leaders of the society must have faith in those guiding principles. What I would submit is that people have not become stupider than they ever were but that those who should know better no longer demonstrate faith or proper stewardship of our institutions because they have lost faith in them. Why so many tin-foiled Chomskyites convinced that business is ruining their lives? Why so many wingnuts convinced that their government is the enemy? Why so many Christians convinced that secular law is a plot to send their children to hell? Because their leaders tell them this crap and their leaders have lost faith in American democracy.

Posted by: Terrier | Dec 15, 2004 1:43:55 PM

Posted by: Pete

This whole question reeks of the notion: "If the public were smarter, they would vote my way." OR, "If they only knew what I knew, they couldn't possibly vote any other way."

Why does the public need to be smarter? People vote for candidates based on the values and issues that are important to them. When some issues become important to a large part of the population, the election reflects that. Differences in intelligence and information gathering ability get washed out in the mix and distilled into the issues that are important to majority of the population. I'm not convinced that anything can change that. And I'm not convinced that anything should.

Posted by: Pete | Dec 15, 2004 1:53:50 PM

Posted by: Tony

I've come to the conclusion that an informed public is not actually necessary for a democracy; the chief function of the voting public is to step on the brakes when things get too outrageously bad. So rather than providing the best government, voters simply prevent it from becoming intolerably awful.

The mechanism for this is simple: when things get bad enough, they throw out the incumbent (or the ruling party) and try someone new. So no matter how stupid voters are on specific issues, politicians still have at least some motivation to make things work.

As has been noted before, democracy is the worst possible political system, with the exception of all the others.

Posted by: Tony | Dec 15, 2004 1:59:32 PM

Posted by: Bret

farmgirl wrote: "European citizens, on the whole, seem to be much better politically informed than Americans. What are the factors contributing to that, in people's opinions?"

Maybe, but I'm not convinced. I have numerous Europeans in my life and what I've found is that they know a lot more about the United States than Americans know about their countries or Europe. However, during a discussion with one of my German brother-in-laws friends, where he was lamenting that nobody in the United States could name the German Prime Minister, while everybody in Germany could name the United States President, I asked him to name the Prime Minister of Japan. He could not.

So everybody in the world knows about the United States and speaks English, including Americans. Non-Americans happen to speak another language and know something about their native country, but perhaps not much more than that.

Posted by: Bret | Dec 15, 2004 1:59:39 PM

Posted by: DNL

I agree with Steve that some of the ignorance is of things more trivia than knowledge. The Rehnquist fact, for example, is entirely trivial. The only thing about the Court that voters should care about is that GWB may have the ability to appoint up to three justices; that the appointments could have significant ramifications regarding a lot of issues (abortion being the most hot-button); etc. It does not follow that someone who does not know who the name of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is ignorant to the above.

Take this example: A woman I know who was a (very) reluctant Kerry voter could probably not name her own Senators. Yet as the daughter of a Parkinson's and Alzheimer's victim, she knew about each candidate's stance on stem-cell research. As a left-leaning blue-state woman, she knew about each candidate's stance on abortion. As a practicing Jew and Israeli by birth, she knew about each candidates stance on Israel, Palestine, and what the right calls "islamofascism." As a northeasterner with children in New York, she knew about what each candidate thought/believed about terrorism prevention (to the best that they could articulate).

Does not knowing who William H. Rehnquist is makes her incurably ignorant? Or rationally informed?

Posted by: DNL | Dec 15, 2004 1:59:50 PM

Posted by: JennyD

I have several different thoughts on how to consider this question.

First, it is possible that Americans can be ignorant because we are rich. I mean, as a nation we are quite wealthy. And so we can be stupid about things because we are basically pretty comfortable and would prefer to be left alone to watch, say, Survivor or Will and Grace.

Interestingly, people became much less ignorant about 9/11, but that was a pretty intense attack on American comfort. I think that if people's individual comfort levels were under attack, whether through an economic downturn or a war in our own country, people would wise up rather quickly.

But....I also think the mainstream media (the MSM) has done a dreadful job in the past few years. Newpapers and broadcast TV got fat and happy and stupid. They've lectured and spoonfed their audience the daily drivel, and now they're surprised that some of their audience is disappearing. Going to the internet, to cable, or just off to play XBox.

As a former journalist (and now an academic wannabe) I can say with certainty that newspapers are frozen in this lockstep, bizarre tradition of taking every topic and dragging out both sides--via expert quotes--to make everything look objective. But it is boring. And it's stupid. And after awhile it doesn't say anything. TV news, meanwhile, is so short, and so slickly packaged that it doesn't seem nutritious.

I don't know what the answer is. One suggestion, though, is to check out Jay Rosen's Pressthink. He's an NYU prof in journalism with some interesting ideas on how to improve the press.


Posted by: JennyD | Dec 15, 2004 2:02:11 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

No, sorry, the question does not reek of the view that if only people were better informed, they'd vote the way I do. I think ignorance crosscuts party divisions. And I assume that if I became better informed, my views would change too, just because that has repeatedly happened to me in the past.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Dec 15, 2004 2:02:31 PM

Posted by: Bret

david wrote: "Why not just keep the stupid people out of the voting booth?"

I think you're kidding, but in case you're not, that's a very, very bad idea in my opinion. Because you and I and everybody else not in power will be judged "stupid" by those in power and then our democracy will be history.

Posted by: Bret | Dec 15, 2004 2:04:13 PM

Posted by: gabriel

i think the point of the example dealing with foreign aid is not to point out how ignorant people are, regardless of whether or not its "their thing", but rather to point out how mislead they are. It's not that people need to know that foreign aid is a certain amount, but rather that they know that it is extremely small when compared to other expenditures such as, say the military budget. What it shows is that people seem to believe that foreign aid (generally accepted as a good thing) compromises a large part of our national expenditure. To me, this illustrates that many people have a very unrealistic view of their own country, not that they are ignorant or stupid. The point here is that they have this view because it is the one that is constantly portrayed to them through every major media outlet, even though it is far removed from the facts. Meanwhile, similar statistics are used to paint other countries in less than favorable light. This double speak is one of the many things wrong with commercial media today. But, i agree with Ted, that the solution lies in the internet, as already independent media is popping up to challenge the dominant institutions (like, narconews.com, for one example).
It's not that people need to be smarter, but that people need access to fair and unbiased information in order to make enlightened decisions. This is one of the hallmarks of true democracy. Couple that with some avenues for actual participation and i think you have a start.

Posted by: gabriel | Dec 15, 2004 2:08:05 PM

Posted by: Henry Woodbury

I think part of the solution lies in elementary and secondary education. I know that when I moved to Rhode Island a few years ago I had almost no knowledge of the state's history and culture. Looking back I realized that where I grew up, state history was part of the elementary school curriculum.

The media is what the media is. Hardly anyone watches the news, so changing it one way or another barely scratches the surface of the problem. The question is not how to throw information at people so hard it knocks some sense into their heads, but how to make people want to seek out good information on their own.

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Dec 15, 2004 2:22:02 PM

Posted by: Allan Yackey

My grandmother was a source of much good advice in my life. One of the things she told me was never point out problems with others. When you do you have at least three fingers pointing back at you.

“For some thirty years, foreign aid has been under 0.5% of the federal budget (see Table 8 here).”

There actually is no Table 8. The table numbering stops at 5. However, if what is meant is Figure 8, it actually is a pie chart showing GDP, not the federal budget.

Figure 9 shows the federal budget but shows that the amount is actually .9%. Table 5 shows it what has been defined in the report as “aid” running at 2.5% of the discretionary federal budget.

Further the report specifically excludes Iraqi reconstruction from the reported figures.

In addition, defining foreign aid itself is a problem. Would a logical American Citizen consider most of the money we spent on our military forces in the last decade a form of foreign aid? Consider Central Europe, Africa and other places we have sent troops to maintain the peace.

Would it also be reasonable to include everything we send to and through the UN and various UN agencies to be foreign aid?

Are the estimates of others perhaps not as far off the mark as you might think?

Posted by: Allan Yackey | Dec 15, 2004 2:23:40 PM

Posted by: Patrick

Here’s a problem with the democratic system noted by observers from Lippman to contemporary public choice scholars—voters are rationally ignorant, and we should expect them to be only marginally more knowledgeable. The idea behind rational ignorance is that while voters may have real expertise in their profession and perhaps in raising children or in a hobby, the average citizen lacks essential knowledge of politics. As soon as the average citizen enters the political field, he is likely to make the kinds of decisions that he might regard as elementary or overly simplistic in his own area of expertise. Ignorance is rational because outside the average citizen’s area of interest there is little incentive for people to do the hard work of gaining real knowledge. Most people will not pursue deep knowledge of religion, philosophy, taxidermy, or growing orchids because they lack the time and interest. Similarly, there is very little reason for the average person to know more about politics than they do about calculus or ancient Greece.

Many citizens will participate in the political process, of course, but most people bear very little cost for their participation, which affects how seriously they take political tasks. Think of it this way: there is a high cost to the belief that you can do your job well while intoxicated, so most people make the right decision and refrain from drinking on the job. There is little cost to believing in the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, however. And there is a minimal cost to an individual who votes based on uninformed political views since that individual alone will not decide the election.

The case for voter ignorance is not merely theoretical. A wealth of empirical evidence shows that Americans lack basic political knowledge. About half of adult Americans do not know that each state has two senators and just less than half can name their congressional representative. In some cases, voters are actively misinformed. Despite widely reported job gains, the majority of the public believed that there had been a net job loss in 2004. On one of the most important issues in the national election, the war on terror, a majority believed that the Bush administration saw a link between Saddam Hussein and the September 11 attacks despite the administration’s denials of a connection.

It is overly optimistic to think that a grand civic education project could raise voter competence. The public has exhibited relatively stable levels of misinformation about political matters since the 1930s despite massive increases in educational attainment. Rational voter ignorance is better seen as a feature of the political landscape than a problem to be overcome through a mandated educational campaign with its inevitable unintended consequences.

If voters lack basic knowledge, it makes sense to focus on ways in which rational ignorance can be minimized. One way is to emphasize local elections in which people have a greater stake and may have greater knowledge of the candidates and of the policies they enact than in national contests. Voters might not know what state supreme court judges do, but they probably know something about the activities of the mayor in a small city. Preserving a federal system is also another way to deal with ignorance; people who “vote with their feet” by moving from one state to another or from the city to the county and vice versa reasonably put more effort in their decision to move than they do in a decision to vote. Maintaining separate powers and distinctive identities for state and local units of government helps “foot voting” remain a viable source of democratic input.

There is no reason to think that democracy will
produce the best elected officials in the way that a corporation’s board might elect the best CEO or a baseball team might find the best manager. Rational ignorance is a factor in democratic voting to a greater degree than it is in the private market. That doesn’t mean we should lose faith in democracy, though.

Democracies, however grubby, chaotic, and compromising, provide a way for all segments of society to participate in the political system. And elections provide a way for losers in one round of decision-making to regroup for the next round without resorting to despair or violence. If your favorite candidate lost in this election, take heart that voters are rationally ignorant, and then do your best to convince others of your point of view for the next election. Or spend the time learning more about politics, if it’s worth your time.

Posted by: Patrick | Dec 15, 2004 2:30:32 PM

Posted by: Andy

an incurably ignorant public?

What a stupid question. I'm sorry, it had to be said. ;)

Seriously, I've developed an intense curiousity in this subject. And ironically enough, I'm largely ignorant about it. Can anyone suggest a beginner's bibliography, in addition to Lippmann/Dewey?

Posted by: Andy | Dec 15, 2004 2:38:14 PM

Posted by: Andy

Your post reminded of a woman I attended college with who insisted that "Americans were the most generous people in the world" and could not be dissuaded from this argument. I'm sure if Americans were asked this question, the majority or at least a large percentage would agree.

I have to reluctantly agree with David on the subject of making people smarter. I think it's a little too idyllic to think of the media as this great impellent force for information and public good. It's more organic than that. Even though logically it should be very efficient as far as disseminating fundamental civic facts, these just don't get through to the people. But I don't think that's the media's fault--at least not entirely.

I think the main mistake that people who work in journalism make is the assumption that the viewer/reader is just as interested in the subject as they are. Often stories are concocted by people who seem unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that their audience is not only pretty ignorant of the subject at hand, but also completely uninterested in it (probably why they're ignorant of it in the first place).

It's a big responsibility. We're asking of these people to keep the public informed and to make sure they're interested in the matters of governemnt--which is more of a personal civic duty, I would say.

Posted by: Andy | Dec 15, 2004 2:52:37 PM

Posted by: david

In response to my question, "Why not just keep the stupid people out of the voting booth?" Bret said:

"I think you're kidding, but in case you're not, that's a very, very bad idea in my opinion. Because you and I and everybody else not in power will be judged "stupid" by those in power and then our democracy will be history."

I wasn't kidding. Requiring ill-informed people to either become informed, or refrain from polluting the process with their ignorance, would (if done right) strengthen our democracy, not "destroy" it, since it would improve the quality of the process and its results. I see no reason why we should have to allow people to go on doing harm to our political process by choosing candidates out of ignorance.

Posted by: david | Dec 15, 2004 3:02:51 PM

Posted by: slarrow

4 questions/problems:

(1) Is the American public ignorant, or is it dumb? By framing it in terms of ignorance, Don suggests that Americans just don't know enough (or the "right" facts.) But then he talks later about how we should be smarter and how media make us "stupider". That's why Don was vulnerable to the charge that if people knew the "right" facts, they'd be "smarter" and presumably vote the right way. Ignorance has to do with the set of facts one has, intelligence to do with one's capacity and ability to think/reason. Don stumbled here.

(2) What ought to constitute a "basic fact" one should know about the world, and how ought we to get it? Don gives a couple of examples drawn from current events, which suggests to me that he thinks people may be watching the wrong things on TV. But I've also seen this problem framed as the set of facts one ought to know about our country and its heritage, scientific theories, practical math, and the like. That's the kind of thing that's addressed through curriculum choices in school. So do we define "basic facts" as current events and try to improve the news mediums, or ought we focus on a more general purvey and concentrate on schools (for the purpose of this discussion, anyway)?

(3) Is it that we are ignorant, or is it that we have much more information streaming at us than ever before? I'm a political junkie of sorts, but I'm always chipping away at the tip of the iceberg. Is there a sort of chauvinism inherent in my downplaying the other icebergs people are scaling?

(4) When exactly was the golden age of the informed public? Was there ever a time when Americans were not clueless about basic facts and, if so, what has changed from then to now (considering the population and the percentage we're looking at.)

...some more food for thought...

Posted by: slarrow | Dec 15, 2004 3:04:07 PM

Posted by: Steve

"It's easy to document this in one arena after another, but I'll choose just a couple. For some thirty years, foreign aid has been under 0.5% of the federal budget (see Table Figure 8 here). But asked what the facts are, Americans consistently wildly overestimate. In one December 2001 poll (subscription required), only 2% of respondents correctly said it was under 1%. 22% of respondents figured it was 11-25%; 29% thought it was 26% or more."

This is pretty interesting. As Allan Yackey pointed out, the pie chart doesn't say foreign aide is about 0.5% of the federal budget: it says that foreign aid is about 0.5% of the GDP. A quick search on the internet suggests that the federal budget is 20-25% of the GDP, which would mean foreign aid represents 2-2.5% of the federal budget, Which further means the December poll quoted above is itself wrong ("...only 2% of the respondents 'correctly' said it was under 1%."). Furthermore, the poll numbers themselves suggest 48% of the respondents thought the correct response is 1-10% (1% thought less than 1, 22% thought 11-25, and 29% thought 26 or more), which really doesn't sound that incurably ignorant after all.


Posted by: Steve | Dec 15, 2004 3:05:17 PM

Posted by: Klug

I gotta agree with Bret there about European citizens; in the not-so-small chemistry department I'm in, I know quite a few EU citizens. I am consistently surprised at how little they know about their own system. One of the questions that I like to ask (because I'm curious, not because I'm testing) is "How are criminals processed through the justice system?" That's just not something that they're really familiar with. I would argue that they are no more familiar with the workings of their government than the average American citizen is of the US government.

I also agree with the point about trivia that you think is important. Can anyone tell me what two chemical elements make up the vast majority of the pharmaceuticals that we constantly argue about? What? You can't? Philistines...

Posted by: Klug | Dec 15, 2004 3:06:10 PM

Posted by: JennyD

On another note, Americans tend to think their children are doing well in school, while Asian parents think their children are not doing well in school and need to work harder. Given that mediocre and poor students are told by Mom and Dad that they're doing great, why would we expect them to be informed adults?

For a source on this, check out The Learning Gap by Stevenson and Stigler.

Posted by: JennyD | Dec 15, 2004 3:07:29 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Would that be the same John Dewey who has had such a profound influence on the educational excellence we currently enjoy in our public schools?

More seriously, but more depressingly, the information has never been more readily available in more different formats, so that isn't the issue. People don't, as a rule, care to acquire knowledge except as fairly immediate means to fairly immediate ends. (E.g., what people really care about in the evening news are the weather and sports segments.) I believe the economists' explanation for this is rational ignorance. People belive, more or less correctly, that very little they hear on the news or read in the newspapers, etc. is likely to directly affect their lives and, conversely, that they are even less likely to be able to affect that news.

Then again, less seriously, the problem could be statistical. As a friend of mine likes to note, 49% of the population is below average.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 15, 2004 3:11:15 PM

Posted by: rtr

The document is full of statistical and graphical representations of a program measuring it as a percentage of a GDP “pot”. This is the social-ISM-contract technique that has allowed the U.S. government to become the monster it is as every other program’s proponents similarly literally argue how under funded they are. Imagine if business were run the way the government was run. Poverty would consume to a tremendously greater degree. Businesses provide better for cheaper. If they don’t, consumers don’t willingly buy their products and they go out of business. Government coerces worse for a higher cost. And they don’t go out of business.

It’s unconscionable to measure these programs as a percentage of GDP. Thus, the State argues for ever more money from the taxpayers, never curing anything to the point of program elimination, never advocating tax reduction, unless it is disguised as redistribution for those paying the least in taxes, or some such special interest group. And in that case it’s egregiously and dishonestly argued it is *giving*/*paying for* in the most unfathomable arrogant abuse of reason that political intervention annihilates. Not to mention the government regularly counterfeits the money supply. But don’t dare you skim the Skim. I wonder how the plethora of never ending laws and regulations benefiting the Aristocratic class compares historically and where the crucial points were crossed in bureaucratic inefficiency.

The corruption of both political parties is astounding. The way other people’s (specific individuals, not “society’s” GDP pot, not artificially separately regarded “rich” and “poor”) money is regarded and funneled to politically connected interest groups gets ever more criminal and sinful. The only way to end it is to repeal the income tax. The Aristocratic class needs to go. The medieval Guild system of government protectionism for business needs to go.

When many of these State programs are eliminated the knowledge of the electorate regarding their funding levels at zero point zero percent will increase dramatically. People are intelligent in their local areas of existence. They should be free from unintelligent orders barked at a distance.

It’s time for some real experimentation by getting the federal government out of forcing it upon all. Let California become a Socialist Commonwealth and Texas a Libertarian Paradise. Then people can vote with their feet and a lesson can be learned for the sake of all humanity about which is the better “model”. Beware the tyrants being produced by the Aristocracy.

Hence, I disagree vehemently with the contention that knowledge of what the percentage foreign aid is of the budget denotes ignorance (of the first order), even if it is widely off the mark. All such referenced statistics are almost always used as justifications for increasing spending upon astounding the public with “how *little* “it really is”. The figures are beyond reason across the board in all categories. Thus, it may be a better sign of non-ignorance by merely polling does the federal government spend too much money and given the broad concerns underlying above recklessly irresponsible to focus on a relatively unimportant speck that is foreign aid. Let’s get a similarly laughable poll from the “non-ignorant” members of congress on how much money is in the “social security trust fund”. The exact dollar amounts and percentages of the budget as a whole are meaningless in the bigger context of the highest order of corruption. Hopefully, the right will be on guard to these sorts of tactics.

“I’m rtr and I approved this message.”

Posted by: rtr | Dec 15, 2004 3:12:45 PM

Posted by: Andy

For the record, I think David's proposition to keep the uninformed out of the voting booth is of a ridiculousness beyond belief.

The sheer mechanics of it render it nonsensical. Where would you draw the line, David? I'm sure based on that statement (which I now realize was not a joke) people would think it proper to keep you from posting on this medium, should they have that right? Remember, ignorance and voting are two rights which are not exclusive. I feel damn proud to live in a country where I can simply CHOOSE not to learn were that my desire.

Posted by: Andy | Dec 15, 2004 3:12:49 PM

Posted by: Stubbs

NPR and PBS seem to be the tv and radio sources and the NY Times the paper of the educated. I use them, although coming from the right, I find their prejudices odious. Educated people gravitate to these sources. These sources don't precede their audience; they serve a pre-existing one. And I doubt that they "convert" any of the poorly educated into their audience. That there are other sources that cater to the relatively uneducated population just doesn't explain the public's ignorance.

My point has already been touched on, but it is ironic that this group of bloggers and posters seem to come from education and that education has by and large not been seen as the problem with having an educated public. The failure of our educational system, its failure to demand higher achievement, explains to me the simple fact that so many cannot name the Chief Justice.

Posted by: Stubbs | Dec 15, 2004 3:28:42 PM

Posted by: david k. (not david v.!)

There are perfectly objective ways to measure voters' political knowledge-level. Obviously, "the line" should not be drawn in an arbitrary way, but it doesn't have to be. Testing has been elevated to a science; we have tests for just about everything nowadays, so why not have tests for voters?

I'm not proposing to take away your right to choose not to learn; I'm only proposing to take away your right to vote once you've made that decision. I don't think this is at all unreasonable. Don't people have an obligation to the other members of their society to make informed decisions in the voting booth? Should people be allowed simply to choose to ignore that obligation?

Posted by: david k. (not david v.!) | Dec 15, 2004 3:38:14 PM

Posted by: Terrier

I say again: people are no more or less intelligent now than they ever were (relatively speaking) and the fact that they are ill informed is not news. What is important is that the leaders of this society (on just about every level) no longer believe in the principles of our democracy. When I was growing up it was actually no shock to read a newspaper article where the reporter researched the facts and pointed out that someone was lying and never mentioned the other side. I remember, for example, Dick Cavett on TV who talked to people about intellectual issues without screaming "Shut up! Shut up!" I suspect that some of you are too young to have ever experienced that. Were people smarter? No, they probably weren't. But the people running the media would have been embarrassed to put the crap on the tube and in the papers that they shovel in heaps now because they believed in principles and not just in political gain. After Nixon and Vietnam, the end does justify the means.

Posted by: Terrier | Dec 15, 2004 3:42:39 PM

Posted by: Achillea

"The Aristocratic class needs to go."

How do you propose to accomplish this? Forced wealth redistribution (perhaps along with taking their children away to be raised in proper, Party-approved non-Aristocratic creches)? The Bolshevik method of simply lining them up and shooting them?

Posted by: Achillea | Dec 15, 2004 3:43:08 PM

Posted by: Ted

Terrier: True about the civility of the discussion back then, but you are being naive if you believe the media was less biased in the past. They gave a Pulzer Prize to Walter Duranty for cripes sakes!

Posted by: Ted | Dec 15, 2004 3:52:16 PM

Posted by: Andy


That just doesn't work.
First of all because people would only learn the requirements before the test. So let's say you tested people a month before every election; by election time, they will have already forgotten. And also, that wouldn't instill any kind of sense of civic duty in the population. People would be as uninformed as ever and they would probably resent a system that requires them to take an exam in order to participate in it.
And think about voter turn out. It's hard enough getting people to come out to vote, much less to take a civics exam. It would essentially turn the country into an oligarchy.
Also, intelligence does not automatically mean empathy. So you would have a ruling junta that's completely out of touch with their constituency. It just doesn't make sense David.

Posted by: Andy | Dec 15, 2004 3:57:45 PM

Posted by: Moonbat Patrol

Andy wrote: I feel damn proud to live in a country where I can simply CHOOSE not to learn were that my desire.

And Yogi Yorgesson wrote your song: Nincompoops Have All The Fun.

You asked for a short course in an earlier post:

Richard Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life
Henry Louis Mencken: Prejudices (First through Sixth Series)
Jose Ortega y Gasset: The Revolt of the Masses
Friedrich W. Nietzsche: The Gay Science (Die Froehliche Wissenschaft) especially, also Also Sprach Zarathustra

Posted by: Moonbat Patrol | Dec 15, 2004 3:59:39 PM

Posted by: Bret

david wrote (in response to previous posts):

"Requiring ill-informed people to either become informed, or refrain from polluting the process with their ignorance, would (if done right) strengthen our democracy, not "destroy" it"

I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, the "(if done right)" premise is exceedingly unlikely in my opinion, rendering the conclusion unsupported. The concept of testing how well informed people are is ripe for abuse from those in power by creating the testing methodology to favor those that would vote for them.

Secondly, while I agree that it would help strengthen our democracy if people were better informed, I'm not convinced it's all that important. If ones worldview is that support of christian organizations is the most important thing, what more do you need to know in order to realize that you should vote republican? If you think it highly important to preserve and extend the social safety nets, then you vote Democrat. There is little more that you need to know. I'd bet people are reasonably informed about the issues important to them.

Posted by: Bret | Dec 15, 2004 4:03:23 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

All of this talk about limiting the franchise is honestly shocking to me as a classical liberal/conservative. It used to be the right that argued for a limited franchise. Back in the day, we had a limited franchise. As I understand it, the notion behind property qualifications for voting was to ensure that the voters would be citizens who (a) had a substantial stake in society and so were concerned about its direction, and (b) would actually be the ones to pay any taxes. I take it an unstated assumption of that view was that those who had a stake would also make the effort to be informed about affairs of government so as to make sound decisions.

Throughout the 19th century, both in England and America, the franchise was gradually broadened until we had universal (white-only in some states) male citizen sufferage, and in the 20th century the franchise was extended to women citizens, and then, through the civil rights movement, the legal prohibitions on black voting were removed.

So, forgive me if I thought that battle was essential won by the forces of liberalism (both classical and modern in a fairly rare moment of agreement). In fact, the only half-way serious proposal for a limited franchise in the past 50 years or so in the US was in science fiction (Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers which posited a world where only veterans could vote), for Pete's sake!

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 15, 2004 4:11:47 PM

Posted by: rtr

""The Aristocratic class needs to go."

How do you propose to accomplish this?"

Ending all subsidies and special privileges to businesses and academia by an equality under the law standard. Big business wants its competition free status also. If this seems draconian, I point to the evidence of the corruption that has so far ensued.

Posted by: rtr | Dec 15, 2004 4:12:56 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

A note on two points that have surfaced repeatedly for decades, and also are quite nicely put above.

One: "Ignorance is rational." It's costly to dig up information, your marginal vote makes no difference anyway (some, not all, of the people in this crew insist it's irrational to vote), &c. This is often linked to...

Two: "Voters know enough to make sensible decisions." They can throw the bastards out if they disapprove of current policy. They can defer to proxies: what does Ralph Nader think? What does WFB Jr think? What does the editorial page of the WSJ think?

There's something to both these insights: they help explain why we observe the kind of ignorance we do, and why the political system works as well as it does in the face of it. But they seem to me to make democracy awfully thin. I do not think political participation is the be-all and end-all of life; I do not think that immersion in private life is inferior. But I do think that a system of government by discussion, which finally is what democracy is, would go significantly better if us ordinary citizens were better informed about the lay of the land.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Dec 15, 2004 4:14:57 PM

Posted by: Terrier

Ted: good point, I don't mean to say that all was goodness and light in days of yesteryear - liars still were legion but they were not so easily tolerated or even given pulpits to expound and compound their lies and I truly believe that is different today.

The predominant religion today is actually the cult of John Frum. Citizens are not encouraged to be responsible because their leaders refuse to accept responsibility themselves. Einstein once said (and I paraphrase) "example is not a way to teach, it is the only way to teach." When those who have some kind of power (real or imagined) constantly blame the 'other' for 'the' problem and never ask anything of their followers but parroting then should we be surprised at the valleys of incivility or the mountains of misconceptions?

Posted by: Terrier | Dec 15, 2004 4:33:24 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.

« previous post | Main | next post »