One Last Political Ignorance Post (For Now):

This will probably be the last political ignorance post for at least a few days, as I must return to other work. However, I do want to give readers some links that may help address questions some of you have posed.

In this 2004 paper I compile some of the extensive evidence showing that the majority of citizens lack even very basic knowledge about the parties, the structure of the political system, and major issues. The findings are consistent with a lot of previous research on the subject. In that paper and in this article, I try to explain why standard "information shortcuts" such as relying on political parties and opinion leaders are not enough to offset such deep and pervasive ignorance. I also relate actual levels of voter knowledge to the demands of different normative theories of democracy and explain why the actual levels fall short. They even fall short of the demands of relatively forgiving theories such as "retrospective voting" and Joseph Schumpeter's approach. People can disagree about how much knowledge voters should have. But it's very hard to show that the persistently abysmal knowledge levels that exist in the real world are anywhere close to adequate, even under a fairly weak undemanding conception of democratic participation.

Scholars such as Scott Althaus and Bryan Caplan (both cited in my last post) show that political ignorance has a major impact on people's views on major public policy issues. In turn, the public's views have an important impact on the policy choices made by elected officials. While we cannot foresee all the difference that a better-informed electorate would make, it would likely be quite substantial. In my recent paper on post-Kelo eminent domain reform, I show how political ignorance can have a profound impact on policy even with respect to an issue where the vast majority of citizens come down on one side and have fairly strong opinions. The impact on other, more complicated, issues may well be even greater.

I don't believe that political ignorance is the only flaw in modern democratic government. But it's a quite important one that has profound effects.

NOTE: I may not have time to look at the comments to this post, and may therefore not respond to as many of the points and questions raised there as I might have otherwise.