How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy

By Somin, Ilya | USA TODAY, November 2004 | Go to article overview

How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy


Somin, Ilya, USA TODAY


AN INFORM ELECTORATE is a prerequisite for democracy. If voters do not know what is going on in politics, they cannot rationally exercise control over government policy. Inadequate voter knowledge has two major negative implications. First, it prevents democratic government from reflecting the will of the people in any meaningful sense, undercutting the "intrinsicist" defense of democracy as a government that is representative of the voluntary decisions of the populace. Likewise, voter ignorance imperils the instrumental case for democracy as a regime that serves the interests of the majority, since ignorance potentially opens the door for elite manipulation of the public and gross policy errors caused by politicians' need to appeal to an ignorant electorate in order to win office.

In "The American Voter," a University of Michigan Survey Research Center team defined three minimal knowledge requirements for voters to be able to exert meaningful influence over a given issue: They must be aware of its existence, have a position on it, and know the positions of the opposing candidates.

However those three conditions alone are insufficient for meaningful control over public policy. In addition, informed voters must have substantial understanding about which of the available policy are most likely to advance their goals. Unless the value voters attach to policy in a given area is purely a matter of symbolic "position taking," they cannot use the ballot to force elected officials to solve their interests without knowing the likely effects of alternative policy options.

Minimally informed voters should at least be aware of basic tradeoffs between alternative policies in cases in which those tradeoffs immediately would be obvious to political elites informed about the issue at hand. Moreover, these voters should not draw linkages between policies and outcomes that informed observers would consider obviously absurd. For instance, the fact that a majority of American voters with an opinion on the issue believe that the Federal government is too large and powerful while simultaneously favoring increased spending in almost every major area of Federal involvement is a clear case of ignorance of tradeoffs that falls below the threshold of minimally necessary knowledge.

Currently, almost 70% of Americans do not know that Congress recently adopted a law adding a massive prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program, the largest new Federal entitlement in decades, and arguably the most important piece of domestic legislation adopted during the Administration of George W. Bush. Equally striking is rite fact that more than 60% do not realize that a massive increase in domestic spending has made a substantial contribution to the recent explosion in the Federal deficit.

Such widespread ignorance is not of recent origin. As of December, 1994, a month after the takeover of Congress by House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republicans, 57% of Americans never even had heard of Gingrich, whose campaign strategy and policy stances had received massive publicity in the immediately preceding weeks. Most of the time, only bare majorities know which party has control of the Senate; 70% cannot name either of their state's senators; and the vast majority are unable to list any congressional candidate in their district at the height of a campaign.

Three aspects of voter ignorance deserve particular attention. First, voters are ignorant not just about specific policy issues, but about the basic structure of government and how it operates. Majorities are ignorant of such basic aspects of the U.S. political system as who has the power to declare war, the respective functions of the three branches of government, and who controls monetary policy. That suggests not only that voters cannot choose among specific competing policy programs, but that they cannot easily assign credit or blame for highly visible policy outcomes to the right officeholders. …

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