Free Minds & Free Markets


Mostly law professors, blogging on whatever we please since 2002 · Hosted by The Washington Post, 2014-2017 · Hosted by Reason 2017 · Sometimes contrarian · Often libertarian · Always independent

Political Ignorance and the Midterm Elections

It is not yet clear who will win. But widespread political ignorance already ensures many of us will be losers.

Tomorrow, the United States will have an important election. The results may well turn out to be unusual in various ways. But one unfortunate element of continuity is that, whoever wins, the outcome is likely to be heavily influenced by widespread political ignorance. Public ignorance is a longstanding problem, as polls have long found that most of the public has very little understanding of government and public policy. The available data suggests that things have not changed much this time around. For example, recent surveys find bipartisan voter ignorance about numerous basic facts about government policy, evidence that only 36 percent of Americans could pass the relatively simple civics test administered to immigrants who want to become citizens, and that 52% of Americans cannot name even one Supreme Court justice (despite extensive recent public controversy about the Court's decisions, and the political battle over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh). The public also continues to be ignorant about the distribution of federal spending.

Not all the information tested on these surveys (and others like them) is truly necessary to be a well-informed voter. But, collectively, the data paints a picture of an electorate with very low levels of political knowledge. Such ignorance reduces the quality of government policy, and creates opportunities for politicians and interest groups to exploit public ignorance for their own benefit. Those voters with relatively higher levels of political knowledge, are often highly biased in their evaluation of information, acting more like "political fans" cheering on Team Red or Team Blue than truth-seekers.

Most of this ignorance is not the result of stupidity on the part of voters, or lack of available information. It is, to a great extent, entirely rational behavior driven by the fact that there is so little chance that any one vote will change the outcome of an election. If your only reason to become informed about politics is to be a better voter, that's barely any incentive at all. As a result, most voters tend to be "rationally ignorant" about politics, and the minority who follow it relatively closely tend to be highly biased in their evaluation of information, because getting at the truth is not the main reason why they seek it out in the first place. This kind of bias has been exacerbated by the growing polarization and partisan hatred that afflicts American politics.

While political ignorance is far from a new problem, it is particularly noteworthy in an election that is - like most midterms - in significant part a referendum on the performance of the incumbent president. While Trump is not formally on the ballot, the GOP has (with few exceptions) endorsed his tactics and agenda. A Republican victory would, first and foremost, be a triumph for the president. And that president rose to power in large part by exploiting ignorance about issues like immigration and trade. This year, he has doubled down on the same strategy, by such tactics as making numerous bogus claims about the supposed threat posed by the Central American refugee "caravan."

But, while Trump is a particularly egregious exploiter of political ignorance, many of his tactics are just more extreme versions of those used by more conventional politicians. For example, it is likely that none of Trump's deceptions - so far - has been as successful as that which President Obama used to promote his signature legislation: "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it" - a deserving winner of the Politifact lie of the year award (which Trump went on to win himself last year). Like Trump's deceptions, Obama's line succeeded in large part because most voters did not take the time to learn the truth, even though it was readily available online and elsewhere.

Similarly, like Trump himself, many of his Democratic opponents exploit public ignorance about government spending by claiming that we can maintain or even massively expand current levels of entitlement and defense spending without raising taxes on anyone but the wealthy. The growing "democratic socialist" wing of the party has taken this canard to even more egregious heights.

Especially when it comes to this year's election, some may dismiss concerns about political ignorance on the ground that all voters really need to know is which of the two major parties is less bad than the alternative. Democrats may contend (with some justice) that the Trump-era GOP is so obviously awful that there is no need for any more detailed examination of its policies or those of the opposition.

There is some truth to this position. But it ultimately underrates the dangers of ignorance.

I'm a believer in the logic of voting for the lesser evil. And in this election, I tend to agree that a Democratic victory would indeed be preferable on that basis, in large part for the reasons outlined by Reason's Shikha Dalmia (though I don't necessarily agree this is election is the most important of our lives). In addition, historical evidence suggests that divided government leads to relatively lower levels of federal spending and budget deficits, a point well made by no less a figure than Kevin Hassett, now chair of Trump's Council of Economic Advisers. At the very least, I think there's a strong case that a Democratic victory is preferable when it comes to control of the House of Representatives; the Senate and various state and local races are more complicated, because the significance of judicial nominations when it comes to the former, and the presence of many issues distinct from national ones with respect to the latter. As that last qualification implies, using simple heuristics to identify the lesser evil is often a more difficult task than it seems, especially when there are numerous different offices and referendum initiatives on the ballot, which address widely divergent issues.

But even if voters are able to successfully identify the lesser evil on election day, most of the harm caused by political ignorance has already been done by that point. I summarized the key reason why here:

[Many focus] on the ways in which ignorance and bias might lead voters to make poor choices between the available alternatives. But public ignorance also has a big effect in determining what those choices will be in the first place. Candidates and parties know they face a largely ignorant electorate, and they structure their platforms accordingly. For example, [Marcus] Gee alludes to the fact that all three... parties [in the recent Ontario election] are largely acting as if the province's very serious fiscal problems can be finessed through a combination of smoke and mirrors and pretending they don't exist. If the voters were better-informed about fiscal issues, the parties could not get away with that, and quite likely would not even try to do so. Similarly, voter ignorance played a major role in ensuring that American voters faced such terrible options in the 2016 general election.... By the time we we get to the polls on election day, much of the harm caused by voter ignorance has already been inflicted, by ensuring that we really do face a choice of evils.

Whoever wins tomorrow's elections, widespead political ignorance has already ensured that most Americans will be losers, at least relative to a world where that problem was less severe.

In principle, there is much that voters can do to improve their performance - both by learning more about the issues and by trying to curb their biases. I discussed several such steps here, and see also this useful article in Scientific American and Georgetown Prof. Jason Brennan's recommendations in his excellent The Ethics of Voting. If you are unable or unwilling to become a reasonably competent voter, there is nothing wrong with simply abstaining from ignorant voting. Given our limited time and energy, it isn't wrong to be ignorant about various candidates and issues. But, with some exceptions, it is generally wrong to inflict that ignorance on the rest of society. And, despite oft-heard claims to the contrary, staying home on election day does not mean you have no right to complain. You still have every right to condemn harmful and unjust government policies. For what it is worth, I practice what I preach, and abstain from voting myself, when it comes to races and referendum initiatives that I know little or nothing about.

Sadly, however, I am not optimistic that more than a small fraction of voters will indeed improve their performance, or seriously consider their own ignorance as a reason for abstention in cases where they would otherwise be inclined to vote. Ironically, the kinds of people who carefully consider these questions are probably already much more knowledgeable and less biased than most of the electorate.

In the long run, the best ways to mitigate the dangers of political ignorance require structural change. I believe we can best alleviate the danger limiting and decentralizing the power of government, and enabling people to make more decisions by "voting with their feet" rather than at the ballot box. Foot voters deciding where they want to live or making choices in the private sector have much stronger incentives to become well-informed than ballot box voters do. But I recognize that there is a range of other possible ways to reduce the harm caused by public ignorance, and am open to considering them. It may be that no one strategy will be sufficient by itself.

In the meantime, we should at least recognize the seriousness of the problem, and that it cannot be fixed merely by defeating any one particularly egregious candidate or party.

NOTE: A few parts of this post have been adapted from previous posts on related issues, here and here.

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  • NToJ||

    I'm very sympathetic to your argument, but the poll has a lot of dumb questions that don't have much to do with basic government policy.

  • TwelveInchPianist||

    This is a quibble, but it might be misleading to claim that "52% of Americans cannot name even one Supreme Court justice (despite...the political battle over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh)." from a source prior to the confirmation.

  • NToJ||

    Also, if the primary virtue of democracy is that it leads to the most just results (because the results are the most responsive to the will of the people), ignorant voters abstaining will actually result in an unjust election because the voters will get better government than they deserve.

  • Bob from Ohio||

    Does Somin means "tedious" in Russian?

  • damikesc||

    For example, it is likely that none of Trump's deceptions - so far - has been as successful as that which President Obama used to promote his signature legislation: "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it" - a deserving winner of the Politifact lie of the year award (which Trump went on to win himself last year).

    Obama's lie was, in fact, a lie.

    Trump's "lie" was that the Trump and Russia collusion story was made up --- which, well, it was. There is still, after over 2 years of investigation, literally zero evidence of anything.

  • NToJ||

    The lie that won him 2017 Lie of the Year was not about collusion between his administration and Russia. It was that the Russian election interference story was made up. The President has since agreed that Russian interference occurred. So if you think that's made up, you've just called the President a liar.

  • Mr. JD||

    It is well understood by now that Trump's tactic is to draw attention to Democratic dishonesty by lying in the opposite extreme, such that attention is drawn to the issue, revealing that the truth is much closer to Trump's narrative than it is to the Democrats'.

    It is deeply unfortunate that our media are dishonest to the extent that this manipulation is necessary. It is also fortunate that someone in a position of power is doing it, because the alternative is a far more ignorant public.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Quit whining, you bigoted rube.

  • NToJ||

    Your weird theory aside, that has nothing to do with what we're talking about, since the Russian interference was not made up by Democrats. The belief in it was bipartisan. The only person telling different stories were Russia and the President (until recently). Since he confessed that the story was true, what does it have to do with narrative formation?

  • Mr. JD||

    You already know the answer.

    Democrats have been insisting since Trump was elected that he COLLUDED and should be removed from office as a consequence. They still use the words "collusion" and "interference" interchangeably to imply things that are untrue.

    By denying interference, Trump goaded them into putting their cards on the table and thinking that showing small amounts of interference was a win for them. But it was actually a loss, as a tiny amount of interference is much closer to Trump's "nothing" claim than it is to the Democrats' "collusion" narrative.

  • iowantwo||

    Or if you prefer.
    There is not a special counsel because Russian interfered with the election...because that would be a counter intelligence investigation (the basis for the FBI invesigating anything) and special counsels, by statute need a crime to investigate. (except for Mueller, because no crime is named in the charging documents, creating the Mueller Special Counsel.)

    This is another of those pesky fact the lying media refuse to inform the public on. Creating the mess Somin decries.

  • iowantwo||

    There is not a special counsel because of Russian interference in the 2016 election.There is a special counsel because the Obama administration created a lie about the Trump campaign colluding with the Russians. You cant even keep the Dems lies straight.

  • Sarcastr0||

    There's a special counsel because Trump fired Comey.

  • damikesc||

    Except Trump firing Comey has literally zero potential crime involved. You cannot have a special prosecutor if there is, literally, not even the POSSIBILITY of a crime being involved.

  • Sarcastr0||

    That's where the political pressure came from, no?

  • iowantwo||

    Upon the recommendation of the Deputy AG, Rosenstein. Even without that, the Director of the FBI, Comey serves at the pleasure of President Trump. Without the memo outlining the misconduct of Comey, President Trump is free to fire Comey. The Comey firing did nothing to infringe on the integrity or scope of the investigation. If someone claims that the Comey firing was an attempt to stop the investigation intoPresident Trump. Then you expose the lie about just Russian interference.

    The left cant keep their narrative straight without getting caught in their own lies.

  • damikesc||

    The lie that won him 2017 Lie of the Year was not about collusion between his administration and Russia. It was that the Russian election interference story was made up.

    It having any impact is absolutely fictitious.

    The amount spent was miniscule. The ads bought were hardly unanimous on any issue. It was there SIMPLY to sow discord.

    Good play playing into that.

    No, the Russians no more interfered than the UK did when their citizens wrote to voters in OH in 2004 to vote against Bush. In fact, they interfered far less than that.

  • NToJ||

    I think it would be an overstatement to say no impact. The ODNI said the Clinton email hack came from Russia, and I wouldn't say that was without consequence for Clinton (although obviously she has some ownership of the problem, too).

    More importantly you're a partisan douche bag and I don't have to argue with you anymore. Go eat shit.

  • iowantwo||

    The Clinton e-mail hack? What was that. I don't remember any of her e mails getting hacked.

    If you mean the DNC e mail that got phished by an extremely obvious phishing e mail, we just don't know. The DNC refused the FBI access to their servers to do a forensic examination. The FBI relied on the conclusion of a private company. Why did the FBI not subpoena the equipment? Best guess is since almost all of the management personnel that ran the FBI have been fired, demoted, or resigned early, corruption and payoffs would be indicated.

  • Sarcastr0||

    If you mean the DNC e mail that got phished by an extremely obvious phishing e mail, we just don't know.

    Listen to the Intel folks until you decide not to because you don't believe what they have to say, eh?

  • iowantwo||

    The Intel 'folks' were refused access to the evidence. so yes I question their conclusion. Every judge in America would refuse their testimony. Why would I accept it?

  • ScottK||

    About 99.3% of lawyers reading this site will disagree with the phrase "literally zero evidence of anything."

    About 99.9% of criminal defense lawyers will pick you for the jury, though.

  • damikesc||

    Scott, all they have to do is produce ANYTHING.

    The only evidence of collusion presented to date is that Hillary and the Dems were quite guilty of it.

  • Mr. JD||

    "Libertarian" author prefers party of socialism, intense Orwellianism, and identity politics because other party's top figurehead is mean about the way he calls fake news fake.

  • NToJ||

    Do you think the President is libertarian?

  • Mr. JD||

    Of course not. Do you think he's more of a threat to libertarianism than Democrats are?

  • NToJ||

    I do.

  • Mr. JD||

    I think you're crazy.

  • damikesc||

    As compared to what the LP candidate would have done if he won? 100%. He's the most Libertarian President we've had since Coolidge.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Mr. JD prefers the party of backwardness, superstition, bigotry, and authoritarianism because it reflects his nature.

  • NormanStansfield||

    Yep, he doesn't like the Democrats.

  • ||

    No he prefers the party of socialism because they are on board with his bizarre desire to turn America into a mestizo nation.

  • phattyboombatty||

    I can understand how frustrating it may be for educated, informed voters who spend a lot of time researching the issues and candidates before casting a vote, and then realizing that their vote is going to be drowned out by 1,000 other voters who randomly check boxes, select candidates based on their names, vote based on a few political ads they saw, etc.

    But, it seems to me a fallacy that voter ignorance leads to the "wrong" result, because it is impossible to determine the "wrong" result. Nobody knows the future, and even using hindsight, it's hard to determine whether any specific choice was right or wrong, because we can't play out the alternative choices to see if they would have ended up worse. Even if you could determine the "right" result, who's to say that the majority of ignorant voters don't end up selecting the "right" result?

  • NormanStansfield||

    "1,000 other voters who randomly check boxes..."
    In addition to a valid ID, proof that you pad taxes for the last four years should be required.

  • ||

    And having a child out of wedlock should be disqualifying as well.

  • AmosArch||

    Trump-era GOP is so obviously awful that there is no need for any more detailed examination

    Lol as i keep asking, what has been so 'awful' about these past couple years politically? Trump sends tweets no less intelligent than his opponents and Rolls back Obama Era policies we've had since the good old days of 8 years ago? Other than that we're living pretty much as we always have. From illyas hysterical rant youd think there were armies of stormtroopers goosestepping under patrolling ufos.

    Democratic victory would indeed be preferable

    Speaking of ignorance


    addition, historical evidence suggests that divided government leads to relatively lower

    The lefts control of virtually every major institution in modern society far outweighs the rights relatively minor advantage of currently having a tenuous grip on a few key positions in the federal gov. That you don't even consider this does not bode well for you qualification to lecture us.

  • Rеv. Arthur I. Kirkland||

    Amen, and Amen.

  • QuantumBoxCat||

    I'm either too ignorant about politics to understand this article, or, if informed, I'm already biased about whether I support it's claim.

    Why bother writing these posts when these are the two categories of people that you think exist?

  • M.L.||

    If you're that worried about it, you could try restricting the franchise to owners of property, who are more likely to be informed and more incentivized to make prudent sustainable decisions.

  • ||

    It should be limited to owners of property (farms and single family homes only, not condos or co-ops), those with IQs above 100, those who have never sired an illegitimate child, and those who do not work for the government (military excepted)

  • AmosArch||

    I think poll tests got a bad rap for past abuses. If I was constitutional king of america here's how I might reinstate them. First get a pool of questions with factual answers drawn from a complete spectrum of experts from conservative to proggy. Have groups of random people vote on questions to put together into a set. The set is then tested on other random groups of people to determine that scores on it are normally distributed and compared to other sets to determine each set's scores are correlated to each other (indicating that it is testing a skill and this skill is the same among the sets) Then these questions are added back into a random pool and potential voters are given the test passing if they score at least within or above I dunno. maybe 1.5 std deviations of the backend of the population? It'd be anonymous and you could even allow some sort of retake. Be really hard to accuse this kind of test of being racist, unless you wanted to accuse the entire population of conspiring to be racist against itself or wanted to say that the very concept of testing for mental abilities was racist. Personally I think something like this is a great idea but I'm sure a lot of people, especially on the left would make sure something like this wouldn't get off the ground.

  • iowantwo||

    Multiplication tables are racist. So good luck with using reason to accomplish anything. Even if the entire process was set up and ran by African Americans (is Obama African American? Since his dad wasn't from Africa, or America? Asking for a friend), it would be racist if it eliminated one African American.

  • Sarcastr0||

    This is rapidly becoming the conservative norm in the Trump era.

    The party of the forgotten man is full of elitists advocating for an aristocracy.

  • Smooth Like a Rhapsody||

    "forgotten cis het white men and women"
    What's wrong with the conservative notion that, once you give people the right to legislatively steal other people's money, your days as a Republic are numbered?

  • Sarcastr0||

    First, there are lots of counterexamples of republics well to our left doing just fine.

    Second, look at where your thinking has brought your fellows. Outcome-oriented procedures like that are just another way of ignoring principle in favor of party. They are arguing for a class of citizens above all the others. That's an aristocracy. You're killing the republic in order to save it.

  • ||

    Yes, republicans to the left that are nearly all white. You can't have Swedish style socialism with Brazilian demographics.

  • M.L.||

    The forgotten man usually owns property. It ain't much, but it's a place to hang your hat. He's not a welfare bum -- they weren't forgotten at all. He's the blue collar worker who sees the damage of bad trade deals and mass immigration.

    Elitism and aristocracy? That would be requiring a large stock portfolio to vote, or an elite "education."

    Or, it would just be a liberal voting franchise, not even requiring proof of citizenship, favoring mass immigration, identity politics, and a "let them eat welfare" Antoinettesque attitude, ensuring that the proles cannot band together as a nation for their own benefit and livelihood, thereby enabling further enrichment and empowerment of the allegiance-free billionaire class who profit from the globalist redistribution of wealth via the race to the lowest common economic denominator.

  • Sarcastr0||

    Letting everyone vote is the real aristocracy. Yeah, that's the ticket.

  • M.L.||

    Yes - letting everyone vote, while ensuring that the outcome makes little difference to the globalist system that benefits the nationless ruling class.

  • ||

    Damn right. 80 IQ people should not have any say over what money 120 IQ people have to pay to the government.

  • NoVaNick||

    I'm too young to remember what politicians were like before they were chosen solely for their charisma or partisan value, and too old to be fooled by it, hence I no longer bother voting. I might vote again if there is ever a serious alternative to the stupid and corrupt two-party system.

  • Sarcastr0||

    You'd have to be over 198 years old to remember that, but I'm glad you've kept yourself pure!

  • Jerry B.||

    Ah, yes. Prof Somin's usual pre-election call for an electoral meritocracy, with him deciding who has merit. One must pass a political literacy test to be allowed to vote. I believe that a Mr. Crow did something somewhat similar.

  • Dazed and Bemused||

    Seems reasonable to me that current citizens should have to establish voting eligibility by passing the same civics exam required of immigrants.

  • iowantwo||

    How are people supposed to be informed if the media does nothing but lie and spread disinformation.?
    Millions of words have been spewed by the media, about Clinton's wife 'winning' the popular vote. Like that means something. This week we get another of our intellectual betters in the media warning about the House of Representatives ending up winning the 'popular' house vote and not gaining he majority of the seats to control the House of Representatives! You can't even mock the left with hyperbole anymore because they do it to themselves with sincere belief. Cant talk about the politicized Supreme Court without leftist holding elective office Claiming SCOTUS gave HW Bush the election. Ignoring the fact that SCOTUS can only rule on lower court decisions, and it was the lower court that acted outside their jurisdiction.

    So unless we are going to lock up media types that lie, how do we get an informed citizenry?

  • ButWhatDoIKnow||

    "For the [candidate for public office] test I would require a 750 word typed essay in any language, no time limit, on subjects that would be randomly generated but on very general issues of the day, like the environment, taxation, human rights, etc. The initial grading would be automated for spelling, grammar, and some minimal assessment of coherency. As far as content, humans would have to judge whether an idea is being expressed even in the vaguest form.

    No litmus test for ideology, but only whether the presence of thought is even detectable."


  • M.L.||

    Here's something to consider.

    Google, Facebook, Youtube, and most of the mainstream media, are all partisan advocates for the far left, and they have repeatedly stated with their words and shown with their actions that they are fully committed to using their technological influence as much as they possibly can in furtherance of this advocacy. Twitter is also biased. Taken together, these entities wield an incredible amount of influence of the flow of information in our society, and have the power to directly alter the formation of opinions. This has been demonstrated by a number of recent peer-reviewed studies.

    So, if we are analyzing the causes of voter ignorance, it seems like this should be the very first place that we look.

    For example, I just googled "Stacey Abrams" and scrolled through the ten "Top Stories" featured prominently by Google. There was zero reporting on her comments of yesterday morning supporting the confiscation of firearms, and comparing banning firearms to banning radar detectors. You would think calling for infringement of one of the most fundamental Constitutional rights would be newsworthy. But no. Instead, Google's top stories are all about completely irrelevant, fringe "racists" and "far-right" internet postings they found which supposedly "threaten violence." Very Orwellian.

  • Sarcastr0||

    Google, Facebook, Youtube, and most of the mainstream media, are all partisan advocates for the far left

    Have you checked out Youtube? Lots of conservative voices there. And hey, they even let the Conspiracy on twitter!

    Right wing victimhood can get pretty impressive.

  • M.L.||

    Apparently you haven't been paying attention. The higher-ups at Facebook and Google have spoken repeatedly about their left wing politics, and their "moral obligations" and such with regard to the use of their influence as it relates to politics and elections. And they have followed this up consistently with their actions going back to Obama's campaigns. They've barely offered so much as a fig leaf to deny this.

    I'm not even saying there's a victim here. What's your theory of victimization here? I'm just saying they are political entities doing political stuff. That's not against the law per se.

  • Sarcastr0||

    For example, I just googled "Stacey Abrams" and scrolled through the ten "Top Stories" featured prominently by Google. There was zero reporting on her comments of yesterday morning

    Yeah, it's all election stuff instead. CRAZY!

    Is this like the time you complained the media was covering up the shooting of a GOP HQ and it turned out to have been covered just fine, but then you complained it didn't get the front page.

    You're going down this confirmation bias 'I'm persecuted' path that allows you to rationalize nearly anything to own the libs. It's not good for you.

  • M.L.||

    "Yeah, it's all election stuff instead. CRAZY!"

    No, it's the opposite. Instead of "election stuff" like policies on the 2nd amendment, it's reporting on irrelevant internet trolls, many of whom are false flags.

    "Is this like the time you complained the media was covering up the shooting of a GOP HQ and it turned out to have been covered just fine, but then you complained it didn't get the front page."

    I simply pointed out the obvious differences in coverage and narrative. Are you really going to be so insane as to claim that left-wing mainstream media outlets are just neutral, apolitical journalistic enterprises? They're engaged in advocacy, all of them are, to varying degrees, and with varying strategies, and varying viewpoints. Same goes for right wing media.

  • DWB||

    And in this election, I tend to agree that a Democratic victory would indeed be preferable on that basis, in large part for the reasons outlined by Reason's Shikha Dalmia...

    And with this sentence I can determine anything you say can be safely ignored

  • Rеv. Arthur I. Kirkland||

    This is really ironic coming from you, Bull Cow, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

    Your arrogance knows no bounds.


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