The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


My Forbes op ed on the problem of political ignorance


Yesterday, I published an op ed on the problem of political ignorance at the Forbes website. Here's an excerpt:

On Tuesday, we will have an important election that determines which party controls the House and Senate. Yet most Americans have very little understanding of the issues they will soon decide at the polls. A recent Annenberg Public Policy Center poll finds that only 38% of Americans know that the Republican Party currently controls the House of Representatives, and a similar number know that the Democrats control the Senate….

Political ignorance is not caused by lack of information. Thanks to the internet, information is easier to find than ever. Yet studies show that today's voters are about as ignorant as those of the pre-internet era. Most such ignorance is actually rational. When your only incentive to acquire political knowledge is to make better voting decisions, remaining ignorant makes good sense. No matter how well-informed you are, the probability that your vote will change the outcome of an election is tiny-only one in 60 million in a presidential election, for example. Though few know the exact odds, people have an intuitive sense that there is little payoff to studying political issues, and act accordingly….

The dangers of political ignorance can be mitigated by making more of our decisions by "voting with our feet," and fewer at the ballot box. People vote with their feet when they choose which local government to live under, or make decisions in the private sector. "Foot voters" have powerful incentives to seek out relevant information and use it wisely, because they know that their decisions matter. Most of us spend more time seeking out information when we decide what new television to buy than on deciding who should be our next president…. [W]e devote more effort to the former choice because we know it will actually make a difference, whereas the latter almost certainly will not.

I should note that the title of the op ed "What No One Talks About During the Election Season: Voter Ignorance," is a bit exaggerated. As is usually the case with op ed titles, I did not write it myself. Obviously, I am not literally the only commentator focusing on the problem of political ignorance at election time. Others did so long before me. But it is true that the problem gets far less attention than it deserves.

Most politicians and activists are very careful not to give any hint that the voters they are trying to woo might be ignorant. Many of the rest of us find it to blame the flaws of democracy on politicians, the media, or nefarious interest groups, rather than on the limitations of voters. These usual suspects do indeed deserve a share of blame. But their flaws would not be nearly as great in a world where voters were well-informed. In that event, lying politicians would be detected and punished at the polls, as would those who work to benefit narrow interest groups at the expense of the majority. The media would also face different and better incentives. While political ignorance is far from the only cause of political dysfunction, it greatly exacerbates the negative effects of many of the others, as well as causing harm directly.