The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
A survey conducted last week found that some 30 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats support bombing the fictional nation of Agrabah. This result did not paint Republican voters in a flattering light. In response, the Republican polling firm WPA Research included a question in one of its surveys which asked respondents whether they "support or oppose allowing refugees from Agrabah to be re-settled in the United States." Predictably, 44% of Democratic respondents said they were in favor, while 27% were opposed (28% said they were "indifferent").
Like many of the respondents to the original Agrabah question, many of the participants in the WPA survey are expressing opinions about an issue on which they are likely ignorant. Just as many in the former survey want to bomb Agrabah despite knowing nothing about the country but the name, many in the second would like to either accept or reject refugees from there without knowing anything about the country the refugees come from. While both surveys have some methodological issues, and both were likely designed for the purpose of making one party's voters look bad, neither the methodological problems nor the intentions of the pollsters would have led to such results in the absence of actual ignorance and bias by the survey respondents. For example, respondents who did not know what Agrabah was could have simply refused to answer these questions, or chosen the relatively less potentially embarrassing intermediate option. In that latter regard, the WPA survey is worse than the PPP one, because "indifferent" could be interpreted as denoting callous disregard for the welfare of refugees rather than lack of information about Agrabah.
But while the WPA survey succeeds in making Democratic voters look ignorant, it certainly does not let the Republicans off the hook. Instead, it reinforces what we already know from many previous surveys: that political ignorance and irrationality is a serious problem across the political spectrum. Neither Team Red nor Team Blue has anything like a monopoly on ignorance. Partisans' attempts to claim otherwise are yet another indication of the growing problem of partisan bias, which has made much of public opinion even more illogical than it would be otherwise.
The WPA survey does not even succeed in making Democrats look as bad or worse than Republicans on this specific issue. WPA's website does not report the results for the Republican part of their sample [but see Update #2 below]. But if they had done so, it seems likely that many Republicans—perhaps even a majority or plurality—would have joined the 27% of Democrats who say they oppose admitting refugees from Agrabah. It is, at the very least, far from clear that reflexively opposing the admission of refugees from a nation you know nothing about is any more defensible than reflexively advocating acceptance of them. Indeed, on many defensible views of political morality, there is a strong case for a presumption in favor of admitting refugees, and possibly also all peaceful migrants.
By contrast, it is hard to argue that there should ever be a presumption in favor of bombing a nation you know nothing about. Even if, as I have previously suggested, the pro-bombing respondents to the original Agrabah question were influenced by the fact that the name "Agrabah" sounds like it must be Arab or Muslim, a presumption in favor of bombing Arab and Muslim countries is also a far from admirable heuristic. While Arab Muslim nations have plenty of flaws, most are not bases for ISIS, or enemies of the United States more generally; several are actually longtime US allies.
This is not to suggest that Republicans are generally more ignorant or biased in their thinking than Democrats. It is easy to find survey questions on which Democratic voters look worse than their GOP counterparts. For example, in my book on political ignorance, I describe a 2007 survey found that some 35% of Democrats (compared to only 12% of Republicans) endorse the "truther" claim that the Bush administration knew about the 9/11 attack in advance, but deliberately let it happen anyway (see also this survey). The popularity of "trutherism" among many Democrats is an interesting parallel to the popularity of "birtherism" among many Republicans. A 2009 study by political scientists Neil Malhotra and Yotam Margalit found that 32% of Democrats then believed that "the Jews" deserve at least some substantial blame for the 2008 financial crisis, compared to 18% of Republicans who held that view.
The painful truth is that large numbers of both Democrats and Republicans are ignorant and illogical in their thinking about many political issues. Independent swing voters are generally even more ignorant (though probably less susceptible to ideological bias) than committed partisans. Perhaps even worse, many partisans of both sides will buy into ridiculous claims that reinforce their preexisting world views. That's why many Democrats are susceptible to trutherism, while many Republicans are attracted to birtherism.
Such ignorance and bias create a target-rich environment for pollsters, and give partisans many opportunities to put down the rival party's supporters. Few stop to consider that their own party's voters are little better. To paraphrase a famous passage in the Bible, it is much easier for partisans to see even a speck of ignorance in their opponents' eyes, than a plank in their own. This holiday season might be a good time to consider that political ignorance is not just a convenient stick with which to beat our political opponents, but a serious problem for all of us.
UPDATE: Some readers might think that the respondents to these two questions were trolling or otherwise giving insincere opinions. But if that were so for any significant number, it is very unlikely that both sets of survey results would break down along such predictable partisan lines, with Republicans significantly more supportive of bombing and Democrats far more likely to support accepting refugees. Moreover, it is difficult to see what the point of trolling on an anonymous survey would be. This is especially true for Republican respondents to the first question, who—presumably—would not have wanted to troll in a way that makes their side of the political spectrum look extremely bad.
UPDATE #2: While WPA did not report the results for Republican respondents on their own website, they did reveal them to the Independent Journal: It turns out that 16 percent of Republicans favor accepting refugees from Agrabah, while 54 percent are opposed. As noted above, reflexively opposing the admission of refugees from a country you know nothing about is, at the very least, no better than reflexively supporting it, and quite possibly worse. This reinforces the point that, while the WPA poll reflects ignorance among Democrats, it does not show that Republicans are any better, even on this particular issue.