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Mar 25 2012

Is Voter Ignorance a Problem?

In the wake of controversy over Alexandra Pelosi’s video about ignorant voters in Mississippi, my former colleague Dave Weigel argues that voter ignorance isn’t really a problem because their political beliefs are not dependent on reason or knowledge:

Most voter ignorance, if it was cured by logic and reason and long sessions of NPR, would be replaced by the same voter preferences, justified in different ways. There are Mississippi Republicans who hate Obama because they think he’s a Muslim. Take that away, and they’ll hate him because they’re conservatives and he isn’t. Only 11 percent of Mississippi whites voted for Barack Obama, but only 14 percent voted for John Kerry. These aren’t people who’ll change their minds if they fully grokked the president’s bio.

That is why ignorant voters don’t get to swing a presidential election. The conservative who rules out all new information, who has “silo’ed” himself with talk radio news, has a party he can vote for reliably. The Bill Maher TiVo-er has a party he can vote for, too.

But I think this ignores the many ways that public ignorance does impact the country in very important ways. It distorts policy, for example, through public opinion polls. Ignorant voters push school boards to teach creationism and give politicians the ability to convince people that if we just pumped more oil ourselves, gas prices would go down. So yes, voter ignorance does matter. It matters a lot.

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  1. 1
    DaveL

    It seems to me there’s a very short distance between “public ignorance doesn’t matter” and “public opinion doesn’t matter”. And even less distance between the latter and “why do we let these troublesome commoners vote, again?”

  2. 2
    rjmx

    I think I agree with Dave. They’re not ignorant because they don’t know: they’re ignorant because they don’t want to know.

  3. 3
    Nemo

    He’s also implying that someone couldn’t be educated right out of being a conservative, and I know from experience that’s not true.

  4. 4
    exdrone

    It is important to maintain the distinction between truth claims and personal beliefs. As a society, we should work hard to establish a foundation of facts on which we should all agree and at the same time allow everyone the liberty to espouse their own beliefs. That is the strength and weakness of democracy.

  5. 5
    dgallan

    Of course voter ignorance is a problem. Democracy depends on a well – informed set of electors. Camus said something to the effect of “I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance”, and, intuitively, I think this is reasonable.

    I have often thought that when voting becomes fully electronic, there should be a multiple choice test about the structure of government with the ballot. Perhaps 10 questions, and one’s vote would count in proportion to the score. The people who would tend to score worst are likely among those who do not vote now, but those who vote should have some accurate knowledge of the way the government works and is constituted. But this idea would never go to far, I am sure.

  6. 6
    D. C. Sessions

    Although the right wing is well fortified against facts (see vast amounts of research), saying ignorance doesn’t count overlooks two factors:

    1) Not everyone to the general right is hard core wingnut. Cognitive dissonance, especially in massive quantities, can make a difference.
    2) The right wing is a coalition. Their economic policies, for instance, aren’t the core of their political identities, the social agenda is. The same people, forty years ago, were economic progressives. Currently their economic and other policy agendas are driven by their alliance with the plutocrats who (go figure) they see as “us.” As distinct from those liberal elitists and the lavish lifestyles they support with EITC.

    And, yes, I’m referring to What’s the Matter with Kansas?

  7. 7
    Chiroptera

    I agree that there are a lot of people who are willfully ignorant and who will endure great logical contortions to get their preferred conclusions to agree with the actual facts.

    But it’s got to be true that education can make a difference in getting an informed electorate that will make reasonable policy decisions. Otherwise, what would be the point of a truely balanced and information based news media that we all keep hoping for? What is the point of general education? We may as well just give up on the whole notion of democracy.

    I used to be a conservative in my youth. It was through research of actual controversies and general education that I shifted to the left.

    Now, it may be that I was always more liberal than conservative and only checked the “conservative answers” on the “yes/no” policy questions because the conservatives claimed that their answers were consistent with with my beliefs, and then I learned that was only because they had their facts wrong and used poor logic in their reasoning.

    Or it could be that I had a definite idea of what kind of world I wanted to live in and that the conservative ideology was very unlikely to ever lead to that world.

    I like to think the latter is true. And I suspect that the contemporary conservatives really do desire a world that the rest of us would find horrible. And their illogic and inconsistencies are due to trying to force the square distopia of their desires into the round hole of the more or less enlightened liberal ideals they were taught that they were supposed to support.

    If education and good information were to succeed in truly changing their self awareness, I suspect that an awful lot of them would not be come liberal (or even the more traditional conservative). I bet a lot of them would realize that, at heart, they really are fascists and they would embrace that.

  8. 8
    Lycanthrope

    Yeah, there do seem to be shades of “people don’t change their minds, so why bother talking?” here. And I will never accept that premise. Sure, not everyone will change their minds, and it may take a long time for some people to change their minds, and it may take even longer for enough people to change their minds to effect a significant shift in the public consciousness. But it does happen, so it’s worth talking about it. (Where “it” is defined as politics, atheism, gay rights, environmentalism…any contentious issue, really.)

  9. 9
    Modusoperandi

    dgallan “I have often thought that when voting becomes fully electronic, there should be a multiple choice test about the structure of government with the ballot.”
    As intellectually limbic-stroking as a voting exam sounds, are you really sure you want to go there? And does the flavor change if I call it a literacy test?

  10. 10
    pinkboi

    One big misunderstanding I think people have about political ignorance is that it’s just a symptom of general ignorance. Smart nerds, don’t pat yourselves on the back just because you have non-crazy, orthodox views on science. People are ignorant of politics because there is a lot to know and there’s no real personal cost to being politically ignorant.

  11. 11
    Midnight Rambler

    The main flaw with this argument is that an awful lot of elections – even in Mississippi – are determined by a margin of 10% or less. And many of those who go back and forth are genuinely ignorant, of the type who would be influenced by better information. Many of them already support policies when they’re explained to them in polls, but don’t follow the news so they don’t know what’s actually going on and end up voting based on inflammatory ads. You don’t have to convert every conservative to sway an election, only a few so-called independents.

  12. 12
    Bronze Dog

    I do think voter ignorance is a problem, and it’s been around long enough that it’s become a founding principle in how politicians act. So it’s not going to be easy to overcome. Yes, if we do make voters more informed, there are going to be hardliners who stick to their party and change rationalizations, but there will be some who manage to break out of the echo chambers.

    At the very least, an informed voter base might make it harder for politicians to stay popular by spouting well-known lies, which would spare us some frustration.

  13. 13
    fifthdentist

    Weigel is right in that if voters who think Obama is a Muslim became convinced he is in fact a Christian, they still think he’s a Muslim/commie/fascist/Kenyan/Alinsky-accolyte (even though they have no idea who Saul Alinsky is).
    However, there are some who are reachable. During the last round of nuclear negotiations, a conservative who occasionally sends me the emails that make the rounds sent one claiming that passing the treaty would mean doom and gloom.
    I sent him some information showing that all living former secretaries of state and joint chief chairmen supported the treaty and their comments on the issue.
    He wrote back and said he had changed his mind and requested permission to send along that information to his friends.
    That information I sent him was readily available, but apparently not on Fox “news.”

  14. 14
    llewelly

    The primary reason for massive shift in public attitudes toward gay rights over the last few decades is that nearly everyone now knows that someone they know and love is gay.

    That is a change in knowledge, and it has dramatically affected the political behavior of millions.

    When it comes to the really important issues of our time, Weigel could not be more wrong.

  15. 15
    dgallan

    modusoperandi – I wouldn’t expect the test I suggest to ever be used but, it wouldn’t be a test of current events or issues, rather a test of the structure of government which hardly changes (thus avoiding any need to have some political bias to do well on it) and the test could be in any language as far as I am concerned or pictorial perhaps for the illiterate. The goal would simply be to see that voters had some minimal knowledge of how the government works and how the congress etc functions. The government could (and should if this were ever done) supply the set of questions (say 20 out of which 10 could be randomly used) and all the answers with explanations. I have no doubt it would be fraught with problems, and perhaps they could never be overcome, but it would be nice to think that voters have some minimal knowledge of the system their nation uses, if they indeed are going to vote.

  16. 16
    naturalcynic

    People are ignorant of politics because there is a lot to know and there’s no real personal cost to being politically ignorant.

    Yes, there is a lot that needs to be processed to be informed, but the personal costs are often readily apparent, yet people frequently vote against their interests. In a contest between emotional interests [appeals to christianity, sanctity of marriage, icky sex, hooray for our tribe etc.] and economic interests [decreasing wealth disparity, ways to greater prosperity], the emotional will usually win. Rationality is only used after the emotions have found the answer. Logic is used as a backup to spin.

  17. 17
    Chiroptera

    dgallan, #15: …it wouldn’t be a test of current events or issues, rather a test of the structure of government which hardly changes (thus avoiding any need to have some political bias to do well on it) and the test could be in any language as far as I am concerned or pictorial perhaps for the illiterate.

    Until your side loses the next election, and the other side wins and takes control of the agency that writes and administers the test.

    That seems to me to be the problem least likely to be overcome.

  18. 18
    sanford

    I am not sure if Pelosi’s video really proved anything. Just that there are dolts on both sides. As far as education goes I am not sure that most conservatives are any less educated than most liberal people. My 89 year old is pretty liberal and she plays bridge with people that are mostly in their 70′s and some 80′s. The majority are very right wing, fox news watchers. They are not stupid people. For what ever you think of people like George Bush, or Cheney, or most conservatives that appear on tv and I think they are all wrong, they are certainly not under educated. So one wonders where they come by some of their views.

    I wonder for instance if a lot of conservative people watch Sunday Morning. There was a segment contrasting what people like Santorum and Rommeny saying how Obama wants to socialize the U.S. to be more like Europe and then they talked to some Europeans plus one or two Americans and you really get a different view which most conservatives don’t want to hear or talk about. I thought the segment was fair in that they showed a scene of rioting because of cuts. I think it might be up late on the Sunday morning site or maybe on you tube.

  19. 19
    jesse

    The issue may not be ignorance, per se, but different ways of ordering the world.

    That is, a few relatively conservative people I know aren’t convinced of things unless it appeals to a sort of individual, emotion-based kind of reasoning.

    That is, saying “what you said is racist” never works as an opener, but “you hurt my feelings and since we are friends, I know you aren’t happy with that, let’s talk” often has better results. Why? Many conservatives don’t see the world in terms of groups at all, at least not in the sense that they see themselves as part of one. (These are the folks that talk about individual rights a lot). They can’t relate when I talk about institutionalized racism, but they understand hurting the feelings of someone they know. Assuming they aren’t sociopaths, they respond to that. I hope I am making sense.

    Lakoff wrote a whole thing about the difference between people who see authority as a sort of strict father model and people who see it as a negotiated commitment. I think that’s useful in talking about ignorance, which has to be defined first anyway. Do you mean lack of knowledge? Or lack of experience? The two aren’t by any means the same thing. And that’s just two aspects of it.

    I think voters aren’t any more or less ignorant than in years past, but I do think that there is something to the idea that fragmentation of media from which people get information has had an effect. When there’s no “national conversation” it’s harder to come to common ground. On top of that, the formerly privileged are feeling really, really threatened. It used to be if you were white you could get away with all kinds of stuff. Now you can’t, and all the social interactions that go with that have to be renegotiated. Some folks don’t like that.

    I also think there was always a really crazy right-wing core component to the conservative Dems and GOP that figured out how to roll back the gains made in the 50s and 60s. (It involved taking over the GOP). That’s come into sharp relief in the last 40 years. And a constant media drumbeat that has attacked things like labor, which provided a unifying force for working people that while imperfect, went a long way to crossing ethnic lines in many cases (think of the population that makes up a good chunk of the SEIU, for instance).

    But I digress.

  20. 20
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    but those who vote should have some accurate knowledge of the way the government works and is constituted.

    This type of restriction (i.e. any in which ignorance or lack of ability on a test is a barrier to voting) targets the poor, ethnic minorities, immigrants, and the disabled to a greater degree, thus disenfranchising them. And they certainly need fewer not more barriers.

  21. 21
    Daniel Schealler

    Is voter ignorance a problem?

    For whom is it a problem?

    To those that benefit from it, it is not a problem but a boon.

    To those that are harmed by it, it is a problem.

    To those that are neither benefited nor harmed, it is neither a problem nor a boon.

    The better question to ask is:

    Who is harmed by voter ignorance, and who is benefiting from it?

  22. 22
    Olav

    Ibis3 says:

    Dgallan says:
    but those who vote should have some accurate knowledge of the way the government works and is constituted.

    This type of restriction (i.e. any in which ignorance or lack of ability on a test is a barrier to voting) targets the poor, ethnic minorities, immigrants, and the disabled to a greater degree, thus disenfranchising them. And they certainly need fewer not more barriers.

    I am in complete agreement with Dgallan about the need for voters to know what it is that they are doing when they are casting a vote. I think a very simple civics test prior to voting is certainly reasonable.

    Your concern is realistic, as well. But it can be addressed with education. The knowledge required should not be more than can fit on a single leaf flyer. It should be possible to explain it in a ten minute, light hearted documentary / public service announcement. People should be given a chance to do the test for themselves on a website, where they can also read more on the subject.

    Schools, libraries and such can step up to help people who need more intensive preparation. This should be free of charge of course.

    If such efforts are not made to educate voters, then I agree it is unfair to require them to do a test.

  23. 23
    Olav

    Daniel says:

    [...] The better question to ask is:

    Who is harmed by voter ignorance,

    The voters are. Mostly because their expectations of the electoral system may be wrong, which in turn may discourage further participation.

  24. 24
    pinkboi

    Yes, there is a lot that needs to be processed to be informed, but the personal costs are often readily apparent, yet people frequently vote against their interests.

    There is no personal cost to voting poorly because you only control one vote, which almost always doesn’t decide the election. You can spend a day researching the propositions or you can spend a day researching ways to save money on insurance. The former won’t pay out if you do it well and you won’t suffer if you do it poorly or even skip it. But the researching on insurance will save you money or not. So people are rationally ignorant about politics.

  25. 25
    democommie

    “but it would be nice to think that voters have some minimal knowledge of the system their nation uses, if they indeed are going to vote.”

    “Minimal knowledge” is exactly what the oligarchs prefer.

  26. 26
    Olav

    Democommie, minimal knowledge is still better than no knowledge, isn’t it?

  1. 27
    free riot points

    free riot points…

    [...]Is Voter Ignorance a Problem? | Dispatches from the Culture Wars[...]…

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