Two important new books on political ignorance

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In the last few months, two important new books about political ignorance have come out—just in time for a presidential election where ignorance has played an even bigger role than in most others. If you are interested in this sad, but important subject, you may want to check these books out.

One is Democracy for Realists: Why Elections do not Produce Responsive Government, by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, which I recently reviewed at the History News Network website:

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels are two of the leading political scientists studying voter ignorance and its effects. In Democracy for Realists, they offer a powerful challenge to popular assumptions about democracy. The authors take aim at what they call the "folk theory of democracy," which posits that there is a coherent, reasonably well thought out will of the people that the voters express when they go to the polls. As they put it, "the ideal of popular sovereignty plays the same role in contemporary democratic ideology that the divine right of kings played in the monarchical era" (19).

Just as the rule of kings turned out to be badly flawed, the same—Achen and Bartels contend—is often true of the will of the people. They also challenge the theory of "retrospective voting," which holds that even if voters don't have a coherent ideological vision of politics, they can at least do a good job of evaluating incumbents' performance and punishing them for failure. They assemble an impressively wide array of analysis and evidence against the folk theory and other relatively optimistic assessments of the electorate…..

Perhaps the most powerful part of Democracy for Realists is its critique of retrospective voting, a theory embraced by scholars who minimize the dangers of political ignorance. Advocates argue that even if voters know relatively little about politics, they can at least "throw the bastards out" when incumbents perform poorly, thereby incentivizing good performance. Voters do indeed often engage in retrospective voting. But, as Achen and Bartels demonstrate, their performance is far from impressive.

The book is so complex and makes so many interesting points that I fear I didn't come close to doing it full justice in the review. For example, I did not really address the authors' argument that voter ignorance and identity politics often prevent the public from exercising meaningful influence over government policy. In some ways, this might actually mitigate the negative effects of ignorance: if the voters have little influence over policy outcomes, perhaps it doesn't matter whether they exercise good judgment or not. However, as Achen and Bartels show, voters do determine which party holds power at any given time, and those decisions do have important effects on policy—and are heavily influenced by ignorance. Moreover, in some cases, I think the authors underrate the extent to which policy outcomes are influenced by politicians' efforts to cater to voter preferences—including those driven by igonrance and illogic.

Interested readers should also check out Achen and Bartels' recent New York Times article on whether Bernie Sanders' supporters actually understand and support his policies.

The other important new book is Yale political scientist Samuel DeCanio's Democracy and the Origins of the American Regulatory State. Its analysis of voter ignorance in the late nineteenth century reshapes our understanding of key aspects of American history.

The expansion of federal regulation of railroads and other industries in the late nineteenth century is often seen as the product of popular pressure, or as an ideological shift. DeCanio assembles extensive evidence indicating that it was instead in large part a product of elite manipulation of political ignorance, and that policymakers often managed to exploit ignorance to pass regulatory measures that benefited narrow special interests, sometimes at the expense of the general public. As the author emphasizes, this is a striking finding because the late 19th century was a period of active political engagement by the population (over 80 percent voter turnout) and extensive mobilization of voters by the political parties. Yet voters were still often oblivious about policymakers' decisions on important economic issues. DeCanio argues that this exemplifies the ways in which ignorance often allows political elites to make with little accountability to the public they are supposed to serve.

The book also casts new light on the history of the regulatory state. It doesn't necessarily prove that the trend towards greater regulation was a bad idea. But it does suggest that ignorance played a bigger role in the process than many think. In analying this period, DeCanio deserves great credit for his innovative efforts to assess the impact of public ignorance in the era before widespread public opinion polling, a very difficult undertaking from a methodological point of view.

I don't fully agree with either book. But both are highly recommended to anyone interested in the subject of political ignorance and its implications for democracy.