Thursday 5 March 2009

Political ignorance - what is it?

I've recently completed a rather extensive study of political ignorance and its effects. Rather than putting up one long posting about all of my findings, I'll slice it up into several parts.

First, what is political ignorance?

Political scientists have for decades conducted surveys showing that voters know very little about their electoral systems. Dye and Zeigler show that fewer than a third of Americans know that the term of the US House of Representatives is 2 years; about the same proportion can name the Secretary of State. About two-thirds know which party holds a majority in the US House of Representatives. Less than half can name their member of Congress, and fewer than 40% can name both of their state's senators.
Ilya Somin's survey of the literature on political knowledge reveals that in 1964, only 38% of Americans knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO, the organization founded to contain the Soviet threat. This was two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis in which the Soviets almost brought the world to nuclear war by placing nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Most surveys of political knowledge show that voters know remarkably little about the political system. Of course, Anthony Downs demonstrated half a century ago that it is rational to be ignorant: if it's costly to learn something and there are no personal benefits from the information gained, then ignorance is the best strategy. That's why I don't know anything about string theory. It would be expensive for me to figure it out, nothing in my life would change based on whether or not I understood string theory, and I have other things to do with my time.

For a rather long time, political scientists and economists have argued back and forth about whether voter ignorance really matters. The typical exchange runs as follows:
"Here's my survey: voters don't even know who their current MP is. How can they possibly vote competently when they don't know who the incumbent is? If voters have no clue what's going on, the political system will be entirely beholden to the small number of interest groups that really do know what's going on."
"It may well be true that voters fail quizzes. But why should we expect this to cause bad outcomes? If you surveyed car owners and showed that most can't find the sparkplugs on their engines, that doesn't meant that they can't be good drivers, it just means that they have to find a mechanic they trust. Same thing with voters. Who cares who your current representative is? If you've had personal contact with your MP and found him good, vote for him. If you've found him bad, vote against him. Folks who've had no contact with their MPs will just vote based on party identification, so it all works out: if the overall economy's performing well, folks re-elect the incumbent party and they punish the incumbent if the economy's performing poorly. Same way that you keep or fire your mechanic depending on how well your car seems to run. It's ridiculous to say that these surveys suggest anything like democratic failure."

Those are of course just my paraphrasings of the general terms of debate. Check Ilya Somin's excellent 1998 Critical Review article surveying the literature on voter knowledge as example of the first; check Don Wittman's "Myth of Democratic Failure" and Arthur Lupia's work as examples of the second.

Political ignorance then is ignorance about how the political system works in general rather than necessarily ignorance about any specific policy issue. The literature has shown very conclusively that voters really don't know very much; what we're less certain about is whether it matters.

In my next post, I'll discuss my measure of political ignorance. Later, I'll show why it matters.

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