The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Political ignorance and the election

Georgetown University scholar Jason Brennan has an important new article summarizing the ways in which political ignorance contributed to Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the presidential election. As he explains, this election – far more than any other recent presidential campaign – pitted relatively more knowledgeable voters against ones with less knowledge. Moreover, Trump’s two signature issues – immigration restrictions and opposition to free trade – are ones where the gap between informed opinion and people with low levels of political knowledge has always been unusually great.

Brennan correctly emphasizes that political ignorance is not a problem unique to this election, to Trump voters, or to Republicans. It is, unfortunately, a phenomenon common across the political spectrum – a problem I have tried to highlight for years. Liberal Democratic politicians – including President Obama – have sometimes exploited public ignorance, as well. The difference between Trump’s exploitation of ignorance and similar actions by conventional politicians is as much one of degree as kind.

Obviously, ignorance was far from the only factor in Trump’s success. Exit polls showed that many voters who disapproved of his character and nasty rhetoric, and may not have supported his specific politics, still voted for him because they hoped he would bring “change.” But voting for “change” without carefully consider whether the change in question is likely to be for the better is itself a problematic information shortcut that voters often use to offset their relative ignorance. The wrong kind of change can easily make things worse, even if the status quo is already seriously flawed.

Many analysts point to the role of racial and ethnic prejudice and xenophobia in Trump’s victory. It is hard to deny that this was a significant factor. At the same time, Trump could not have won without the support of millions of people who are not racists, including even some who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. And, as with voting for “change,” ethnic prejudice and hostility towards immigrants is often in substantial part the result of political ignorance. Intergroup hostility is often exacerbated by the misguided sense that there is a zero-sum game between different racial and ethnic groups, that the misfortunes of one must be caused by the gains of another. Historically, such fears are particularly prevalent in periods of relatively slow economic growth, like the one we are in now.

Some argue that opposition to trade and immigration is actually driven by job competition. Even if – as economists across the political spectrum conclude – society as a whole is better off with free trade, some subsets of workers are left worse off. However, studies consistently show that there is little or no correlation between protectionist sentiment and exposure to job competition. The same is true for immigration. Rather, hostility to trade is correlated with suspicion of foreigners generally, and a sense that it is bad for the economy as a whole, not just your own personal job prospects.

Brennan correctly stresses that the harm caused by political ignorance goes well beyond the fact that it might lead voters to choose the worse of the two major-party candidates in an election. It also has a major impact on the choices put before us in the first place. Candidates and parties know that there is widespread political ignorance out there, and choose their strategies accordingly. With a better-informed electorate, we might well have ended up with a substantially better set of options in 2016 than we actually did.

Political ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity, and being a relatively ignorant voter does not mean you are a bad person generally. Most political ignorance is not a result of stupidity or bad character, but a rational response to the flawed incentives of the political process. Brennan puts the point well:

Just why voters know so little is well-understood. It’s not that people are stupid. Rather, it’s that democracy creates bad incentives.
Consider: If you go to buy a car, you do your research. After all, if you make a smart choice, you reap the rewards; if you make a bad choice, you suffer the consequences. Over time, most people learn to become better consumers.
Not so with politics. How all of us vote, collectively, matters a great deal. But how any one of us votes does not. Imagine a college professor told her class of 210 million students, “Three months from now, we’ll have a final exam. You won’t get your own personal grade. Instead, I’ll average all of your grades together, and everyone will receive the same grade.” No one would bother to study, and the average grade would be an F.

Scholars have advanced a variety of possible solutions to the problem of political ignorance. Sadly, none of them is likely to overcome it easily and quickly. But we should at least become more aware of this danger, and look for ways to mitigate the harm it causes. It is long past time that we started taking the problem of political ignorance seriously.