Do Voters Know Enough to Make Good Decisions on Important Issues? Reply to Sean Trende

I would like to thank Sean Trende for his kind words and thoughtful analysis. Sean offers three important criticisms of the argument advanced in Democracy and Political Ignorance: that voters know enough to make good decisions on really important issues, that they can make good choices between the two options on offer in major elections, and that the historical success of American democracy suggests that political ignorance may not be such a serious problem. Each of these points has some merit. But each is overstated. Political ignorance does not prevent voters from making good decisions in some important situations. But it does make the performance of democracy a lot worse than it would be otherwise.

Voter Knowledge on the Big Issues

Sean emphasizes that even if voters are often ignorant, they usually at least understand the big issues in an election. This is sometimes true, but far less often than he supposes. For example, Sean cites the 2010 midterm election as one where the voters were well-informed about big issues. According to the majority of Americans at the time, the most important issue was the state of the economy. Yet preelection polls showed that 67% of voters did not even realize that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year. The majority also did not know the basics of the 2009 stimulus bill, the most important policy adopted by the Obama administration to try to promote economic recovery. Moreover, a plurality believed that the 2008 bailout of major banks enacted to try to contain the financial crisis and recession that occurred that year – had been enacted under Obama rather than under President George W. Bush (only 34% knew the correct answer).1

As Sean notes, over 70% of the public in 2010 did know that Congress had recently passed a health care reform law. But polls throughout 2009 and 2010 repeatedly showed that most of the public had little understanding of what was actually included in that law. As I noted in my lead essay, extensive public ignorance about Obamacare persists to this day, even though it has been a high-profile political issue for years. Knowing that Congress has passed a health care reform law is only of very limited utility if you don’t know what the law does. This kind of ignorance about major issues was far from unique to 2010. There was comparable ignorance in numerous other elections, some of which I discuss in detail in the book. 

In addition, ignorance sometimes dictates what voters consider to be important issues in the first place. For example, as I noted in the lead essay, most of the public greatly underestimates the percentage of federal spending that goes to entitlement programs, while overestimating that which goes to foreign aid. A public better-informed on these issues would likely put a higher priority on entitlement reform.

Voters don’t always get every issue wrong. To the contrary, they do get some important things right, especially if the issue is relatively simple and if the incumbents have committed some major error whose effects are obvious even to relatively ignorant voters. One such case, noted by Sean, was the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, when the voters justifiably punished Herbert Hoover and the Republican Party for their poor performance. But even in that instance, voter ignorance then led the public to support a number of severely misguided policies over the next few years, including the cartelization of much of the economy in ways that raised prices for the poor and increased unemployment relative to what they would have been otherwise. And in most cases, the relative success or failure of the incumbent party is much less glaring than it was in 1932.

Sean is right that some issues are complicated enough that even highly knowledgeable voters are likely to make mistakes. But knowing basic facts about the issues is likely to at least reduce the error rate substantially, even if it cannot eliminate all errors. Moreover, on many issues the public persists in serious errors that the vast majority of knowledgeable experts on both sides of the political spectrum condemn. For example, economists overwhelmingly agree that free trade is good for the economy, yet the majority of the public consistently believes otherwise. Similarly, both liberal and conservative economists oppose our massive system of farm subsidies, which mostly reward large agribusinesses. Yet these subsidies persist and grow, in part because much of the public is unaware of what they do, and in part because majority opinion believes that we might experience food shortages without them.

The Binary Choice Fallacy

Sean also argues that voters only need sufficient knowledge to make good choices between the options put before them by the major parties. In the book, I call this commonly advanced argument the “binary choice fallacy,” because it relies on the false assumption that all voters do is choose between two preset alternatives. As I spelled out more fully in my response to Heather Gerken, the argument is a fallacy because the candidates and platforms put forward by the major parties are themselves heavily influenced by voter ignorance. If the public were more knowledgeable, the parties would have strong incentives to put forward better candidates and policies.

Even in their choices between the candidates and parties actually on offer in particular elections, I am less confident than Sean that the electorate usually makes the right decision. I don’t have the time and space get into the relative merits of specific elections and candidates. But, at the very least, the wisdom of many of the public’s binary decisions in recent elections is far from clear.

Like some other scholars, Sean suggests that, even if many voters are ignorant, the mistakes of the ignorant will cancel each other out, thereby allowing more knowledgeable voters to determine electoral outcomes. This is a theoretically possible result. But, it rarely happens in practice. In reality, the effects of ignorance are usually not random, but systematic. On a host of issues – including major economic and social policy questions – the views of relatively more informed voters are hugely different from those of relatively ignorant ones, even after controlling for other relevant variables, such as age, race, sex, and partisan identification.2

Political Ignorance in American History 

Sean’s most far-reaching claim is that the relative historic success of the United States suggests that voter ignorance is not such a big problem. This raises so many major issues that I can’t even begin to do justice to them in a brief post. But here are a few relevant points.

In calling the United States successful, we have to ask, “relative to what?” The answer, of course, is relative to other nations, nearly all of which are either democracies that also suffer form problems caused by political ignorance, or dictatorships. I do not deny that dictatorships are, on average, much worse than democracies.3 But the relative superiority of the United States compared to dictatorships and most other democracies is not relevant to the issue I raise in the book: whether democracies would suffer less damage from political ignorance if they limited and decentralized their governments more than they do at present.

During most of its history, the U.S. government was both more limited and more decentralized than most other democracies. The large size, limited central government, and numerous diverse jurisdictions of the United States gave Americans numerous opportunities to vote with their feet. And the informational superiority of foot voting over ballot box voting is, of course, a central thesis of my book. Extensive opportunities for foot voting, rather than ballot box voting, historically made the United States unusual.

Despite America’s relative success, there are numerous historical cases where American voters committed terrible mistakes in large part because of political ignorance. For many decades, the majority of white Americans supported first slavery and later segregation in part because they were badly misguided in their views of the likely consequences of giving blacks equal rights. More recently, public ignorance about the nature of homosexuality was a major factor in promoting widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians. Ignorance of basic economics contributed to public support for numerous protectionist laws, including the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which significantly exacerbated the Great Depression. These and other well-known examples merely scratch the surface. Scholars have only begun to document the historical impact of voter ignorance on public policy.

Sean could point out, correctly, that many of these ignorance-induced policies enjoyed substantial support among knowledgeable elites as well. However, in nearly all of the cases where we have relevant survey data, more knowledgeable people were significantly less likely to support harmful policies. Survey data going back to the 1930s and 40s shows that more knowledgeable whites were more likely to be racially tolerant. In recent decades, more knowledgeable heterosexuals have been more tolerant of gays and lesbians. Knowledgeable voters are also more likely to oppose protectionism, and they have been for decades. If we had better data on 19th century public opinion, I strongly suspect that more knowledgeable voters would have been more likely to, for example, support abolitionism and equal rights for women. In these and many other cases, a more knowledgeable electorate would likely have made fewer egregious errors and corrected those it did make faster. 

In sum, it is certainly true that an ignorant electorate can still sometimes make good decisions. But all too often, widespread voter ignorance is not good enough for government work.



1 For data on these three instances of political ignorance in 2010, see Ilya Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 22

2 I criticize this and other “miracle of aggregation” arguments in much greater detail in the book. See ibid., pp. 109-17.

3 Ibid., 8-9, 103-04.   

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.