When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy

ignoranceIlya Somen writes: An informed electorate is a prerequisite for democracy. If voters do not know what is going on in politics, they cannot rationally exercise control over government policy. Large-scale voter ignorance poses a serious danger to American democracy in the 2004 election and beyond. It is particularly troubling at a time when we face a close wartime election with major policy decisions at stake.

Inadequate voter knowledge has two major negative implications for democracy. First, it prevents democratic government from reflecting the will of the people in any meaningful sense, undercutting the “intrinsicist” defense of democracy as a government that reflects the voluntary decisions of the populace. Likewise, voter ignorance imperils the instrumental case for democracy as a regime that serves the interests of the majority, since ignorance potentially opens the door for both elite manipulation of the public and gross policy errors caused by politicians’ need to appeal to an ignorant electorate in order to win office.

In this paper I review the overwhelming evidence that the American electorate fails to meet even minimal criteria for adequate voter knowledge. I then examine the implications for American politics. Part I lays out minimal knowledge prerequisites for voter control of public policy, summarizes the massive evidence of voter ignorance that students of the subject have accumulated over the years, and highlights some of the most disturbing implications of those studies. Part II examines more recent evidence of widespread political ignorance. It shows that extensive voter ignorance plagued the 2000 presidential election and apparently continues during the current election cycle. These data are significant because the extremely close and controversial nature of those two elections might have been expected to cause an increase in voter knowledge. In Part III, I review and criticize theories that claim that “information shortcuts” enable voters to control government in spite of pervasive ignorance. Those mechanisms for dealing with voter ignorance are unable to overcome it and sometimes even exacerbate the problem. Part IV restates the argument that ignorance is largely “rational,” rooted in the very low likelihood of a single vote being able to influence electoral outcomes.

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