The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Political ignorance and bombing Agrabah

Placeholder while article actions load

A recent Public Policy Polling survey found that 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats say they support “bombing Agrabah” – the fictional nation portrayed in the Disney movie Aladdin. This is not a surprising result. Pollsters have long known that it is easy to get survey respondents to express opinions about nonexistent legislation, such as the “Metallic Metals Act.” It is also easy to elicit survey responses that reveal widespread scientific ignorance. For example, one recent poll found that 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.”

All of this is just part of the broader phenomenon of widespread political ignorance. For most people, ignorance about science and public policy is perfectly rational behavior, because there is so little chance that their vote will decisively affect electoral outcomes.

In responding to surveys, many people don’t want to admit they are ignorant about the issues the pollster is asking about. Just as we guess on standardized tests, so many people cover up their ignorance by guessing on polls. In the process, they often rely on crude “information shortcuts.” For example, “Agrabah” sounds vaguely Arabic, and survey respondents could assume that the pollster is asking about bombing it because there are radical Islamist terrorists there. That train of thought might lead hawks to support bombing it and doves to oppose it (13% of Republicans and 36% of Democrats said they opposed bombing, rather than challenge the premise of the question, or express no opinion). Similarly, the “Metallic Metals Act” sounds like legislation intended to promote metal production, which most survey respondents apparently viewed as a good thing. As for DNA, if you don’t know what it is, it can easily sound like some sinister chemical that greedy corporations might insert into our food for their own nefarious purposes. Why else would the pollster ask us about it?

People who realize that there is no such nation as Agrabah, know that the Metallic Metals Act does not exist, and understand what DNA is, are unlikely to rely on such flimsy conjectures. But most Americans don’t have that level of knowledge.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much whether voters support bombing fictional countries or passing fictional legislation. But their attitudes towards real public policy issues are often based on similar ignorance and illogic. That’s a problem that even Aladdin’s genie can’t easily solve.

UPDATE: It’s worth noting that some of those who said they oppose bombing Agrabah may have done so because they realize it is a fictional nation and thought that response was more defensible than “not sure” (the only other option given, other than support and opposition).

UPDATE #2: UPDATE: It is perhaps worth noting that a whopping 41% of Donald Trump supporters favor bombing Agrabah. This adds to the other evidence indicating that his support is disproportionately drawn from the least knowledgeable parts of the electorate.