The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Time to start taking political ignorance seriously

Even more than most others, the awful 2016 election cycle has highlighted the dangers of political ignorance. Data has long shown that voter ignorance is widespread on both sides of the political spectrum . A high percentage of the public is often ignorant of even very basic information, such as which party controls Congress, which officials are responsible for which issues, and how the federal government spends our tax money.

This year, public ignorance has likely played a major role in giving us an unusually painful set of choices on election day, especially (but not exclusively) by contributing to the rise of Donald Trump. Most of the ignorance out there is not the result of stupidity or venality on the part of voters. It is, to a great extent, entirely rational behavior driven by the fact that there is so little chance that any one vote will change the outcome of an election.

If your only reason to become informed about politics is to make better choices at the ballot box, that turns out not to be much of an incentive at all. The odds that your vote will decide the outcome are infinitesimally small. From the standpoint of the ordinary voter, it makes sense to pay little attention to political issues, and instead devote most of your time and effort to other matters.

As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair puts it, “[t]he single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh…., before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll…. For most normal people, politics is a distant, occasionally irritating fog.” This year, the fog is even more irritating – and much scarier – than usual. But it does not seem to have caused voters to become better-informed. Such behavior is perfectly rational. The ignorance of any one voter makes almost no difference. But individually rational ignorance can cause great harm when many millions of voters behave the same way.

In addition to making little effort to seek out information, most voters also do a poor job of evaluating what information they do know. Instead of acting as truth seekers, they instead function as “political fans” cheering on Team Red or Team Blue, overvaluing any information that confirms their preexisting views while ignoring or downplaying anything that cuts the other way.

This kind of bias is exacerbated by the intense partisanship and polarization that has descended upon American politics in recent years. Partisans like to claim that the other side’s voters are influenced by ignorance, and they are often right to think so. But rarely consider the possibility that the same may be true of their own party’s supporters.

By some measures, partisan hatred is now more widespread than racial and ethnic prejudice, and certainly more socially acceptable. Even if voters somehow become significantly better informed than they are, they may not get much value out of their knowledge unless we can figure out how to curb the “tribal” partisan hatred that has engulfed our politics.

Political ignorance is not unique to the United States, but is also a serious problem in many other democracies. In recent years, dangerous demagogic movements of both the right and the left have grown in influence in many European democracies, and elsewhere. Public ignorance is a major contributor to the racism, xenophobia, and zero-sum thinking that facilitate their rise. Sadly, such exploitation of ignorance is often more effective in periods of slow economic growth, like the one we are experiencing now.

Several important works warning about the dangers of political ignorance have been authored by libertarian scholars like Bryan Caplan and Jason Brennan (I critiqued Brennan’s insghtful recent book on the subject here). But left of center experts have also sounded the alarm, including Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ excellent recent book Democracy for Realists (which I reviewed here).

You don’t have to be a libertarian skeptic about government to worry about political ignorance. Indeed, the greater the role you want democratic government to play in society, the more you have reason to worry about the quality of voter decision-making. The more powerful the state is, the greater the harm it can cause if ignorant voters entrust that power to the wrong hands. Here too, the rise of Trump is a warning we should take seriously. He is not the first or (most likely) the last demagogue of his kind.

I have long argued that we can best alleviate the dangers of political ignorance by limiting and decentralizing the power of government, and enabling people to make more decisions by “voting with their feet” rather than at the ballot box. Foot voters deciding where they want to live or making choices in the private sector have much stronger incentives to become well-informed than ballot box voters do. There is much we can do to enhance opportunities for foot voting, particularly among the poor and disadvantaged. Limiting and decentralizing government power could also reduce the enormous scope and complexity of the modern state, which make it virtually impossible for voters to keep track of more than a small fraction of its activities.

But I am open to considering a variety of other possible strategies for addressing the problem, including voter education initiatives, and “sortition,” directly incentivizing citizens to increase their knowledge, among others. Perhaps the best approach to is a combination of different measures, not relying on some one silver bullet.

Large-scale reform efforts aside, there are a number of things individual voters can do to become better-informed and less biased. I am not optimistic that very many will actually do so. But even modest, incremental progress might help somewhat.

In this post, my purpose is not to prove that my preferred solution is the best, but to urge you to take the problem of public ignorance more seriously – and to recognize that it goes deeper than just the shortcomings of your political adversaries of the moment. Voter ignorance one of the most important weaknesses of modern democratic government. If we do not erect better safeguards against it, the situation could easily get even worse than it has already become.