Don’t Voters Get Things Right?

It’s tempting to begin by listing the many things that I liked about Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. But that could easily take up all of my allotted space and wouldn’t make for a particularly interesting back-and-forth. Nevertheless, I do wish to state up front that Ilya’s book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the problem of how a democracy can cope with an electorate that isn’t particularly interested in politics. It’s lucid, original, and in many ways compelling.

Ilya’s basic argument, at least as I interpret it, runs like this: The American public is deeply ignorant about politics; this is problematic for a functioning democracy; this is unlikely to change in the future; the best and fairest way to address this is to decrease the number of functions that government performs and to encourage people to “vote with their feet.”

I’m going to focus my questions and/or critiques on the beginning of Ilya’s argument: Are American voters really ignorant, at least in ways that matter? I should acknowledge up front that a lot of what I’m about to write is addressed to varying degrees at other points in Ilya’s book, but for purposes of our discussion, it seemed best to start with the argument laid out in Ilya’s précis here.

How much knowledge does the voting public really need to have?

It appears the electorate would fare poorly in a political trivia contest. To take some examples from the 2000 American National Election Study, only about a third of voters knew the crime rate had decreased in the 1990s, only 19 percent could identify Dick Cheney’s home state (although there was some reasonable debate regarding whether it was Texas or Wyoming), only nine percent knew who Trent Lott was, and only four percent could name a second candidate for House of Representatives in their district.

As I pondered this, I realized that I couldn’t name the (admittedly obscure) candidate who ran against my own Representative in the previous cycle, despite the fact that I follow congressional elections for a living. If professional elections analysts are part of the problem, then we might be beyond any solution.

But then, why do we really care if voters don’t know where Dick Cheney is from, or who leads Great Britain? Over 70 percent of voters did know that Al Gore favored a higher level of spending than George W. Bush. In 2008, 76 percent of voters knew that Barack Obama supported a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, while 62 percent knew that John McCain had opposed such a timetable. In 2010, 77 percent of voters knew that the deficit was larger than it had been in the 1990s, and 73 percent knew that Congress had passed a health care law.

These were the key issues for most voters in these elections. Since voters only have a binary choice, it might be perfectly rational to learn only about the most salient issues, while ignoring issues like abortion or the direction of the crime rate. As for those who truly know nothing, theoretically their votes should behave randomly, cancel each other out, and leave us with an election decided by informed voters.

How confident are we in judging voters’ knowledge of policy?

One of the implicit (at times, explicit) assumptions in the book is that there’s a clear “truth” on important policy questions that we might expect informed voters to arrive at, and that uninformed voters fall short of attaining. If this were clearly true, we might well be justified in limiting the polity’s ability to engage in certain forms of legislating.

Of course, there are differences of opinion, even among elites, on many if not most important policy questions. Beyond this, we should consider the possibility that the universe of “knowable” facts on any particular policy questions dwarfs our current knowledge base.

I call this the “Theodoric of York” problem, taken from an SNL sketch from the 1970s where Steve Martin plays a medieval barber. Asked to diagnose a villager’s daughter, he replies: “Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter’s was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.” 

This is actually profound. I’m not sure there is a major academic discipline that hasn’t been revolutionized at least once in the past 100 years. You can’t read an old history textbook without chuckling, or groaning, at the depictions of Native Americans and our founding fathers’ virtues. Early climatologists wondered whether farming begat rainfall. Phrenology and theosophy were hot areas of “scientific” inquiry at one time or another.

More pertinently, Ilya cites the early 1930s as an instance of the public perhaps behaving rationally in its voting. But contemporaries wouldn’t have seen it that way: Raising tariffs was seen as the correct response to a recession, while following the “real bills doctrine” was seen as a no-brainer. Thirty years ago, there would have been something approaching a consensus among economists that the minimum wage hurts employment, but subsequent research has whittled away at this consensus.

Of course, we can’t forget that negative eugenics was once endorsed almost unanimously by our Supreme Court; Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous “three generations of imbeciles are enough” quote is a chilling reminder of this.

Had public opinion polling been available in the 1920s and revealed an electorate opposed to these policies, a contemporary academic would probably have shaken his head in despair. Yet today, we would judge the average American correct in most of these instances. We like to think we’ve learned since then, but have we really?

Compared to the average American, I suspect my understanding of economics is considerably greater. Yet compare me to Paul Krugman, and my knowledge base looks a lot like that of the average American. I suspect that if we were all compared to that elusive whole body of knowledge regarding how to fix health care policy or economics, our differences would resemble those among different varieties of atoms being compared to the sun.

We like to think that we know a lot about policy and that our compatriots’ knowledge base is depressingly small. But we should have some humility about this. In the big picture our differences aren’t that great, and probably they aren’t enough to justify limiting what the electorate can opt to do.

Doesn’t The Public Get It Mostly Right?

Let’s be instrumentalists for a second. Hasn’t the public done a reasonably good job of electing leaders over our country’s lifetime? There are certainly failures, but I think those failures are the exception and not the rule.

For example, can we clearly say that Bob Dole should have been elected over Bill Clinton? Did Jimmy Carter really deserve a second term, or Michael Dukakis a first? If you have strong ideological priors, you might say “absolutely,” but from a more detached perspective, I think most people would say we’ve done pretty well in our elections.

We once had a narrow electorate comprised largely of educated landholders. Yet our ability to choose wisely doesn’t seem to have declined as we’ve moved away from that. There’s no statistically significant relationship between the passage of time and the ratings of the presidents – and the early electors had the advantage of selecting from the Founding Generation! A recent electorate might have given us Richard Nixon, but the early electors very nearly gave us President Aaron Burr.

Nor does the electorate seem to be behaving irrationally today. Instead, it seems to be employing shortcuts reasonably well. Exit polling from 2012 reveals that overwhelming numbers of liberals voted for the more liberal candidate, while conservatives, especially white conservatives, voted for the conservative candidate; moderates split their vote. People who wanted the health care law repealed backed Romney, while those who wanted to keep it backed Obama. The list goes on, but whatever process voters are employing, they seem to be at the very least selecting candidates who line up with their worldviews.

In the end, a relatively low-information electorate has helped produce one of the most prosperous, most free societies in world history. This country has adopted many policies that economists seem to deem beneficial: tax rates have fallen, deductions have been reduced, and global trade has grown. We’ve become more tolerant with regard to racial, gender, ethnic, and sexual minorities. Sometimes this has come with a push from the courts (but see Gerald Rosenberg’s The Hollow Hope), but there’s no doubt that the will of the people has played a key role as well. I might hope for a more educated populace, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure American electorate is so broken that it demands the sort of fix that Ilya suggests.


Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Ilya Somin argues that political ignorance is pervasive and extends to an alarming number of elementary topics. Voters simply don’t have the information that they need to make informed decisions. Increasing education seemingly hasn’t alleviated the problem, and voters tend to choose based not on facts or values, but on the basis of team-like partisan allegiances. This behavior is to some extent rational, because the payoffs are essentially zero for any one voter becoming more informed. It may thus be unreasonable to expect voters to become highly educated on matters of public policy. What we need, he argues, is instead a structural change: Make government a smaller and less consequential part of our everyday lives.

Response Essays

  • Heather Gerken finds much of interest in Ilya Somin’s work on political ignorance, a topic that has only gradually come into its own among law professors despite considerable social scientific research demonstrating political ignorance among real-world voters. She characterizes Somin’s view of political ignorance as “fox-like,” in the sense used by Isaiah Berlin: A fox knows a little about a lot of different things. Like Berlin’s fox, Somin’s voters will be apt to move from one environment to another. But she wonders whether this is a proper description of American voters. She contrasts Somin’s thesis with the work of David Schleicher, who suggests that most voters rely on party affiliation as an information shortcut. Gerken argues that the debate between Somin and Schleicher raises fundamental questions about the future of our democracy.

  • Sean Trende argues that while political elites may find voters startlingly ignorant, the system doesn’t really seem to be broken. It has often functioned quite well despite voters’ ignorance. He suggests that this is so for two reasons: First, much of what passes for expert knowledge is really nothing of the kind, so adding it to voters’ heads does not therefore constitute an improvement. Second, public opinion on many normative matters is ultimately more or less decent, and from it, relatively good policies flow.

  • Jeffrey Friedman argues that rational ignorance theory is false. Voters vote because they mistakenly believe that their votes are likely to matter. They remain ignorant not because they think their votes are irrelevant, but because they mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place. In such a world, it would take very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in; in reality, political decisions are complex and difficult. Friedman argues that both genuinely ignorant voters and blinkered ideologues fit this model, and that it conforms better to the available data on voter motivations than does the theory of rational ignorance.