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The Politics of Ignorance:

I have an election day op ed on political ignorance in The Jurist. A brief excerpt:

Nancy Pelosi may soon become the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. But 67% of Americans admitted in a recent survey that they don't know enough about her to have an opinion. Fifty-five percent say the same thing about her political rival Dennis Hastert, the current Republican Speaker of the House. These findings are not surprising to experts; indeed, they are consistent with decades of research showing uniformly low levels of political knowledge in the American electorate. Moreover, such ignorance is not primarily the result of laziness or stupidity, but is usually caused by perfectly rational behavior. Not only does political ignorance lead to low levels of information acquisition, it also leads many voters to make poor use of the knowledge they do have. There is probably no way to eliminate political ignorance in the foreseeable future. But its harmful effects could be mitigated by reducing the size and complexity of government.

Also check out this excellent piece on political ignorance by George Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan.

Andy James (mail):
I thought you might want to check out Compete.com's blog today that features information from a survey of people who have visited popular political websites in the past few months. It compares their claims to party affiliation to what their internet behavior says about them. Yesterday and Friday's postings also look at traffic to popular political blogs and what that indicates. There are some interesting trends.

http://blog.compete.com
11.7.2006 3:38pm
Steve P. (mail):
This is freshman-level econonmics, though perhaps worthwhile to the layman. After all, wasn't this covered in "An Economic Theory of Democracy," back in 1957?
11.7.2006 3:54pm
Alex R:
Of course, the rationally ignorant voter has an important tool at his or her disposal -- party identification. You give this a paragraph in your article, but I think that you underestimate how much information even a relatively ignorant voter gains from this one fact. I don't think that a detailed knowledge of positions of the parties on various issues is necessary for a voter to determine which party is more likely to be in agreement with his or her overall views.
11.7.2006 4:02pm
josh:
is lack of knowledge (if "ignorance" were used on a liberal web site, it would be labeled "elitist") of nancy pelosi relevant? People may disagree, but it seems the potential big losses for the GOP-led House stem from disapproval of current leadership, not future leadership.

The implication of this post seems to be that if only the stupid electorate knew what it would be getting from a leader pelosi, our system would be so much better. I echo Alex R's post as to the lack of merit on that point. How is "reducing the size and complexity of government" going to combat the negative meme that the GOP has attemtped to sell about Pelosi? In terms of perfect information acquisition, it is plausible that, based on recent polling data, the electorate has plenty of information to formulate an opinion of the inadequacies of the current regime.
11.7.2006 4:26pm
Ilya Somin:
In terms of perfect information acquisition, it is plausible that, based on recent polling data, the electorate has plenty of information to formulate an opinion of the inadequacies of the current regime.

Maybe. Though as I note in the piece, there are many aspects of its policies that the electorate knows little about. However, any election is a choice between opposing candidates and parties, not just a referendum on the "current regime." If you don't know anything about the alternative, it's hard to tell whether it's better.

Of course, the rationally ignorant voter has an important tool at his or her disposal -- party identification. You give this a paragraph in your article, but I think that you underestimate how much information even a relatively ignorant voter gains from this one fact. I don't think that a detailed knowledge of positions of the parties on various issues is necessary for a voter to determine which party is more likely to be in agreement with his or her overall views.

I deal with Party ID at much greater length in some of my academic writings. To briefly summarize, Party ID does not give you much if you 1) don't know where the parties stand on various issues (as many people don't), 2) don't know what the likely effects of the 2 parties' policy proposals are going to be (as even more people don't), and 3) ignore the fact that parties in a 2 party system are "big tents" with considerable internal diversity.

Furthermore, even if you can figure out which party is closest to your "overall views," that won't help much if those views themselves are products of ignorance about the facts of key policy issues.
11.7.2006 4:36pm
Ilya Somin:
wasn't this covered in "An Economic Theory of Democracy," back in 1957?

Downs did indeed introduce the idea of "rational ignorance," but he certainly did not consider all of its important implications.
11.7.2006 4:37pm
OK Lawyer:
Or, since I can't actually vote for Pelosi or Hastert, I am not as interested in his/her particular stance on an issue.

For example, say my district is up for election, and its outcome could swing control to either party. I might be interested in finding out about Pelosi or Hastert in more detail. But, if one of the candidates is a known scumbag, I think that would be of more relevance to my decision.
11.7.2006 4:42pm
CJColucci:
It may be that the present size and complexity of government makes a high degree of political ignorance rational and understandable, but I'm not sure how ignorance of who runs the House fits the thesis. If it does, then presumably, when the government is small and simple enough, such ignorance ceases to be rational and becomes just plain ignorance. How small and simple would a government have to be before it ceases to be rational not to know which person would lead the House if the elections turned out a certain way? If there is such a point, I suspect it would be a REALLY small and simple government. I think a simpler explanation of rational ignortance on the question of who runs the Housae is that, within a very wide range of reasonable alternatives, the particular individual doesn't matter. The voter knows that if X party wins, X party's House leader gets to be Speaker, and that's probably good enough information. Speakers whose personal qualities matter are probably few and far between. Newt Gingrich was the most "individual" Speaker we've had in ages. He flamed out and was probably more responsible than any other person for stalling out his party's agenda, but his party stayed in control and has continued to do pretty much what one would have expected. If Newt as an individual didn't matter that much, how much can Haestert or Pelosi?
11.7.2006 4:49pm
Pete Moss (mail):
Why would most people know who Ms Pelosi is? Can you name all the house leadership in both parties? Do you know the Congressmen/Women in the neighboring districts in your state or neighboring states? Her electorate knows Ms Pelosi's name and I'll wager MS Pelosi is known to most all the voters in her district. I guarantee that if she's elected speaker she'll be known to 100% of her speaker's electorate other congresspersons. As I surveyed my 4 pages of 11x17 ballot (CA-Alameda County) this morning I still am not sure of all the arcane candidates and their positions and records (mostly state judges). Who has time in a "normal" life to do the research? Thank god for people whose political affiliations I know and whose judgment I trust that specializing in that area for information (lawyer wife)
11.7.2006 7:38pm
Ilya Somin:
Or, since I can't actually vote for Pelosi or Hastert, I am not as interested in his/her particular stance on an issue.

Given the strong party discipline in the House, the positions of the leadership have a considerable impact on 1) what bills get to the floor, and 2) how other members from their party vote on them.

For example, say my district is up for election, and its outcome could swing control to either party.

Every congressional district is up for election, and given the closeness of the party balance, every seat is potentially important (if not for control of the House per se, than for the ability of the majority party to push its agenda through without being stymied by minority obstruction or by the defection of moderate swing voters).
11.7.2006 8:21pm
Ilya Somin:
Or, since I can't actually vote for Pelosi or Hastert, I am not as interested in his/her particular stance on an issue.

Given the strong party discipline in the House, the positions of the leadership have a considerable impact on 1) what bills get to the floor, and 2) how other members from their party vote on them.

For example, say my district is up for election, and its outcome could swing control to either party.

Every congressional district is up for election, and given the closeness of the party balance, every seat is potentially important (if not for control of the House per se, than for the ability of the majority party to push its agenda through without being stymied by minority obstruction or by the defection of moderate swing voters).
11.7.2006 8:21pm
Ilya Somin:
Who has time in a "normal" life to do the research? Thank god for people whose political affiliations I know and whose judgment I trust that specializing in that area for information (lawyer wife)

I agree. Most people don't have the time. That's part of my point. I'm certainly not blaming either you or other voters for not knowing these things. I merely suggest that that lack of knowledge has some important broader implications.
11.7.2006 8:23pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
From MyDD:


In 1982, 68% of the electorate believed that Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. That year, Republicans lost 27 seats in the House of Representatives.

In 1986, 67% of the electorate believed that Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. That year, Republicans lost 5 seats in the House of Representatives.


How many voting today think Democrats are in charge of Congress?
11.7.2006 9:03pm