The Volokh Conspiracy

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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.