My "USA Today" op ed on Donald Trump and political ignorance

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In this recent USA Today op ed, I explain how the unexpected success of Donald Trump's presidential campaign is in large part the result of widespread political ignorance:

Despite some recent stumbles in his campaign, the most dramatic development of the 2016 presidential race has been the meteoric ascent of Donald Trump to the status of front-runner for the Republican nomination. Trump's rise is a particularly blatant example of a much deeper problem at the heart of modern democracy: widespread voter ignorance.

Trump's success so far is in large part the result of an almost perfect storm of political ignorance. As a longtime celebrity, he had a built-in advantage with voters who don't know much about politics…

Polls also consistently show that Trump's support comes disproportionately from those with relatively low levels of education. For instance, a recent ABC/Washington Post survey found that 40% of Republican-leaning voters without college degrees support Trump, compared with only 19% of college graduates. Low education correlates with support for Trump far more than political ideology, or any other demographic variable. Education and political knowledge are not the same thing… Nonetheless, the two are highly correlated.

Political ignorance could also help explain why Trump has won the support of a large share of the generally conservative Republican primary electorate, despite his long history of liberal stances on issues such as health care, taxes, government spending and property rights. Relatively ignorant voters rarely pay close attention to issue positions and are likely unaware of the details of Trump's record….

In both the United States and Europe, support for tighter restrictions on immigration [Trump's signature issue] is highly correlated with ignorance about the true number of immigrants (restrictionists tend to greatly overestimate it) and with xenophobic hostility toward foreigners….

Despite his current lead in the polls, Trump probably won't win the GOP nomination, much less the presidency. But even when his star fades, the political ignorance that fueled his rise will remain, ripe for exploitation by other candidates and interest groups. That, far more than his crude rhetoric, is the truly frightening reality revealed by The Donald.

I have explored the problem of political ignorance in greater detail in various previous works, including my book Democracy and Political Ignorance.