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.
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.
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.