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Volokh Conspiracy

Is professionalism the antidote to populism and political ignorance?


In an important recent paper for the Brookings Institution and a guest-blogging stint right here at the Volokh Conspiracy, Benjamin Wittes and Jonathan Rauch highlight the perils of populism and political ignorance. They propose mitigating the danger by empowering political professionals to play a bigger role as "intermediaries" who constrain and channel public opinion:

"Americans-especially, but not exclusively Trump voters-believe crazy, wrong things," runs a post-election Washington Post headline. The article, by columnist Catherine Rampell, worried about polls showing that more than a third of the public (and about half of Republicans) believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that Hillary Clinton was involved with a satanic pedophilia ring ("Pizzagate")-among many other things. "To me, they're terrifying," Rampell wrote of the public's misconceptions. "They result in misused resources, violence and harassment, health risks, bad policy, and, ultimately, the deterioration of democracy."

Political scientists might be excused for emitting an exasperated yawn. The literature on voter ignorance is one of the oldest, best established, and most dismaying in all of political science. Every so often, journalists and commentators dip into it and emerged "terrified." In recent years, however, a wave of research has shown ignorance and irrationality to be even bigger problems than previously believed, and has cast new doubt on standard remedies. Neither theory nor practice supports the idea that more participation will produce better policy outcomes, or will improve the public's approbation of government, or is even attainable in an environment dominated by extreme partisans and narrow interest groups….

Unfortunately, the country and the political-reform community have come to expect far too much from increased political participation. Participation is effective only when supplemented by intermediation, the work done by institutions (such as political parties) and substantive professionals (such as career politicians and experts) to organize, interpret, and buffer popular sentiment. In this essay, we argue that restoring and strengthening political institutions and intermediation belong at the center of a modern political-reform agenda.

I. Public Ignorance and the Limits of Political Professionalism.

I am a longtime admirer of the work of both Wittes and Rauch, and agree with much of their analysis in this paper. In particular, they are right to conclude that political ignorance and irrationality are dangerous menaces that are unlikely to be cured by increasing political participation, greater access to information, or other conventional remedies. I have tried to call attention to the gravity of these issues for many years, myself.

As Wittes and Rauch emphasize, most political ignorance is not the result of stupidity, but of largely rational behavior. For most people, including most smart people, it is actually rational to be ignorant about politics. If your only reason to learn about it is to cast a better-informed vote in an election, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all, because the chance that your vote will make a difference to the outcome is infinitesimally small (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential election, for example). Most people don't know these exact odds. But they do intuitively realize that there is little payoff to devoting lots of time to studying government policy.

The same dynamic also makes it rational for most voters to do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do learn. Instead of weighing it objectively, many instead behave like "political fans," overvaluing anything that reinforces their preexisting views and ignoring or dismissing whatever cuts against them. The rationality of political ignorance makes it difficult to overcome by educating voters or increasing the availability of information. The problem is not that the information is unavailable, but that most voters don't want to make the effort to learn it.

While Wittes and Rauch do an admirable job of outlining the problem and how it may have gotten worse in recent years, I am more skeptical of their proposed solution. Some of their specific suggestions have merit. For example, I have come to agree with Rauch's argument that party elites should have greater control over nomination processes.

But, overall, I am not convinced that empowering political professionals is the best way to counter voter ignorance. Far from offsetting public ignorance, professional politicians often have strong incentives to exploit it. Populist insurgents like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders may have taken the manipulation of political ignorance to new heights. But their tactics differ more in degree than kind from those of conventional politicians. Even Trump has yet come up with a lie as effective as Obama's deceptive promise that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it."

Perhaps insulation from the democratic process can incentivize political professionals to abjure the manipulation of ignorance. But that in turn raises the difficult issue of how to keep them from serving their own interests or those of powerful pressure groups at the expense of the public. Moreover, politically insulated experts face serious knowledge limitations of their own.

II. The Foot Voting Alternative.

In many situations, the better approach to mitigating political ignorance is not to give up on empowering ordinary people, but to do so in a different way. Instead of putting our faith in political participation, we can instead give people more opportunities to "vote with their feet." When people vote with their feet in the private sector, or by choosing which jurisdiction to live in within a federal system, they have much better incentives to acquire relevant information and use it wisely. Unlike ballot box voters, foot voters have the opportunity to make individually decisive choices that are likely to make a real difference. If you are like most people, you probably spent more time and effort acquiring information the last time you decided which TV or smartphone to buy than the last time you decided who to support for president or governor. That is likely because you knew that the decision about the smartphone would make a real difference, whereas the one about the presidency had only a miniscule chance of doing so.

We can enhance opportunities for foot voting by limiting government power and devolving it to lower levels. It is cheaper and easier to vote with your feet between states than between countries, and easier still to choose between localities or between competing alternatives in the private sector. There is also much that can be done to make foot voting easier for the poor and disadvantaged. Greater decentralization of power can also help mitigate the partisan bias and polarization that both Rauch and I believe have exacerbated our political pathologies.

Wittes and Rauch cite James Madison on the importance of political elites as counterweights to populism. But Madison also noted the ways in which ignorance is exacerbated by overly large and complex government. As he put it in Federalist 62, "[i]t will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood…" The sheer size and scope of modern government exacerbate the dangers of public ignorance and create numerous opportunities to manipulate it.

I certainly do not claim that decentralization and foot voting can overcome all the dangers of political ignorance. Probably no one strategy can do that. But I think it can be be a bigger and less risky part of the solution than increasing the role of political professionals, even though there are indeed some situations where we should rely more on the latter. Be that as it may, Wittes and Rauch deserve credit for taking the problem of political ignorance seriously, and for their valuable contribution to the debate over this crucial issue.