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Richard Shenkman on Stupidity and Political Ignorance:

My George Mason University colleague Richard Shenkman has a good Washington Post op ed rebutting several widespread myths about voters and their knowledge of politics. As Shenkman shows, most voters know very little about politics, liberal voters are not more knowledgeable than conservative ones, and - despite claims that the young are paying more attention to politics - they continue to be even more ignorant than older voters. Shenkman also points out that political knowledge levels have been stable (and low) for decades, despite greatly increasing education levels. Most of these points aren't entirely new; all have been documented by numerous earlier studies (see, e.g., my own summary of the evidence here). Still, Shenkman has performed a valuable service by summarizing them and bringing these issues to the attention of lay readers. He is right to emphasize that widespread voter ignorance is a major shortcoming of our democracy.

I do, however, have one bone to pick with his argument. Shenkman seems to equate political ignorance with stupidity, repeatedly claiming that poorly informed voters are "stupid" and that the relatively well-informed minority are "smart." His recent book on political ignorance is even called Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter.

However, as I explain in this post, ignorance isn't necessarily a sign of stupidity. It is perfectly rational for even highly intelligent people to be ignorant about politics. Because an individual vote has almost no chance of actually determining the outcome of an election, a person whose only reason to acquire political information is to make sure that the "best" candidate wins is quite rational to invest very little time in learning about it. We are all inevitably ignorant about a vast range of matters because they don't interest us much, and because we have little or no incentive to learn about them. For most people, politics falls into that category. I discuss the logic of rational ignorance in greater detail in this article.

The rationality of political ignorance helps explain what Shenkman calls the "almost incomprehensible" finding that political knowledge has not increased much over the last 50 years despite the fact that "[e]ducation levels are far higher today than they were half a century ago, when social scientists first began surveying voter knowledge about politics." Education makes it easier for people to acquire political knowledge but doesn't necessarily give them any incentive to use that ability. Similarly, my college education makes it a lot easier for me to learn about art criticism than it would be for a high school dropout to do so. In fact, however, I know almost nothing about art criticism because I have chosen to devote my time to other pursuits.

Various other trends of the last 50 years might actually have reduced people's willingness to use their education to follow politics. As I explain here, the absence of any incentive to acquire political information in order to be a better voter suggests that most people who learn about politics do so for other reasons. One important reason is entertainment value; some people enjoy following politics for much the same reasons as others follow sports or pop culture. Over the last 50 years however, a wide range of new entertainment options has emerged, including cable TV, video games, the internet, and so on. Politics is no longer as competitive with other entertainment media as it used to be. Some people who in previous generations might have gotten their jollies by following politics are pursuing other entertainment options instead. Back in the 19th century, spending a couple hours listening to political oratory may have been one of the best entertainment choices available to many people. Today, their descendants can watch reality TV and American Idol instead.

Calderon:
Ilya -- to your knowledge has there been any state-by-state study to determine the knowledge of voters about politics? If voters in say Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other swing states were more knowledgeable than the voters at large, that would seem to support your thesis, or to undermine it if they aren't (assuming it's possible to get statistically significant data, which it may not be).
9.10.2008 3:40pm
FWB (mail):
You are correct. It is not stupidity. As a professor of more than 2 decades, I find students today much more ignorant of everything. They are not stupid, just ignorant, lacking in knowledge. Why? Education, desire, understanding of what education is and how one obtains it. Education is not something a professor gives. Education is what one achieves through one's own actions.

Note that this increased level of ignorance comes from an education system that is corrupted in order to have a "desired" influence (social engineering) rather than a system that provides knowledge and leaves the development of society to society. Our educational systems do not much reflect society. The Ivy Towers are OUR place of respite and allow US to get away from THEM, even if it's just across a busy street.

What percentage of the citizenry know the basics of our constitution? (And I mean the basics of what the words expound, not the warped and twisted emanations of the courts.)
9.10.2008 3:41pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Personally, when I have watched the inane coverage of the current presidential race, more than once I have thought that the folks who don't give a damn about politics are much, much smarter than I am.
9.10.2008 3:45pm
Ilya Somin:
Ilya -- to your knowledge has there been any state-by-state study to determine the knowledge of voters about politics? If voters in say Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other swing states were more knowledgeable than the voters at large, that would seem to support your thesis, or to undermine it if they aren't (assuming it's possible to get statistically significant data, which it may not be).

I don't think this would support or undermine my thesis, since even in a swing state the chances of any one vote changing the outcome of an election is extremely small. So at most, being in a swing state might increase political knowledge very slightly. There is, in fact, some evidence that voters pay a bit more attention to closer elections than ones that are expected to be blowouts.
9.10.2008 3:46pm
The Ace (mail):
What about the ignorance of the people we elect?


Dem. Rep. Steve Cohen (TN) - I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that the parties have differences. But if you want change, you want the Democratic Party. Barack Obama was a community organizer like Jesus, who our minister prayed about. Pontius Pilate was a governor. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.


Jesus was not in fact a "community organizer" but a Congressman of the "progressive" and "enlightened" party sees fit to say he was on the floor of the House.

That is ignorance squared.
9.10.2008 3:49pm
Nunzio:
If the people most knowledgeable about politics don't agree, then it's hard to convince folks to spend a lot of their discretionary time following this.

Also, if ignorant people are values voters anyway, it doesn't take long to see where candidates stand on values issues.
9.10.2008 3:49pm
Malvolio:
I do, however, have one bone to pick with his argument.
Just one?

How about his fundamental conclusion, that voters are ignorant? Compared to what?

So a quarter of the population knows who Karl Marx was. Why is that low? How many people know who Gifford Pinchot was? Or Hannibal Hamlin or Fulgencio Batista or Fra Dolcino or Ada Byron? How many should know?

And Shenkman manages to strike his own blow for ignorance:
Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, after months of unsubtle hinting from Bush administration officials
Yeah, that "hinting" never happened. It's an article of faith among the Bush-haters, but it didn't happen. Apparently ignorance is spreading!
9.10.2008 3:51pm
eddie (mail):
Perhaps Shenkman is rationally ignorant of the literature on rational ignorance.
9.10.2008 3:55pm
iambatman:
Ilya, I think you make good points,but why do these rationally ignorant people bother to vote at all? After all, that time in the voting booth could be better used playing fantasy football under your theory, right?
9.10.2008 4:01pm
one of many:
Personally, when I have watched the inane coverage of the current presidential race, more than once I have thought that the folks who don't give a damn about politics are much, much smarter than I am.


Bravo, and just to let you know I'm currently filing off the serial numbers and plan on using this thought as my own.
9.10.2008 4:03pm
TomH (mail):
It seems appropriate that a good measure of ignorance would be the substance and depth of discussions and arguments on teh subject. Most people I speak with can speak to the bare surface on issues, and of course cast personal aspersions on the candidates (presidential, down to dog catcher) with little consideration of whether there is enough information to evaluate the effect of a given policy much less how a particular policy might affect the nation or even themselves.

To fall into my own criticism of generalization (for brevity's sake) most Democrats will not acknowlege the effect on the economy that unfettered taxation will have, and most Republicans can not explain the effect of reduced government would have.
9.10.2008 4:05pm
TomH (mail):
To make the conclusion, they are voting more on instinct than rational argument - and from here go to the "Wisdom of Crowds" arguments.
9.10.2008 4:07pm
ejo:
isn't he just an associate professor? as he is not a full professor, isn't he too stupid to listen to. if I want to be condescended to, I don't want someone who hasn't reached the pinnacle of his profession doing it.
9.10.2008 4:10pm
Hoosier:
How about his fundamental conclusion, that voters are ignorant? Compared to what?

I think it was Kant.

Which doesn't actually tell us all that much, when you get right down to it.

Your point is one that I hadn't thought of, but of course you're right about the matter of comparison. "American voters are moist." Good headline, sure. Is it accurate? Without some basis of comparison--say to the average moistness of voters in the 1950s--it doesn't tell us anything other than a number.
9.10.2008 4:11pm
Crunchy Frog:
Campaign promises are the most mutable substance on earth, so why listen to politicians blather on about "issues" when they are going to change their minds five minutes after getting in office?

The American public is (or at least fancies itself to be) quite adept at sizing someone up and telling if they're being fed a line of BS. For them, it's much more important to ask, "What kind of person is X?" than, "Where does X stand on issue Y?"
9.10.2008 4:15pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
What, exactly, is "politics"? Strictly speaking, it would probably be the struggles of individuals and parties to get elected, to get influence, and to keep both. IOW, the horse race portion.
Next broadly would be what politicians do: Vote to build a dam, reduce military spending.
Beyond that is what the government does outside of legislation; regulation, fed rate changes, court cases.
And then there are issues of public interest which do not primarily concern politicians.
At some point, this stops being politics and becomes what we used to call "current events".
And here's the interesting point. Somebody is involved in all current events. Somebody is in the military--and knows what's going on. Somebody is in power generating and knows what the dam means. Somebody owns property which was just rendered worthless by a wetland judgment.
But this isn't "politics" and, presto, the unwashed are ignorant and stupid. How conveeeeenient.
9.10.2008 4:15pm
Adam J:
FWB- nice rhetoric... of course I'm confused how you reach your conclusion since you're one of the ones in the ivory tower. How do you know if students are better educated now then they were two decades ago? You're only evaluating them as students, not as the finished product... the graduates.
9.10.2008 4:27pm
Calderon:

I don't think this would support or undermine my thesis, since even in a swing state the chances of any one vote changing the outcome of an election is extremely small. So at most, being in a swing state might increase political knowledge very slightly. There is, in fact, some evidence that voters pay a bit more attention to closer elections than ones that are expected to be blowouts.


Right, I agree with you that any difference between swing and blowout states likely would be small (which is why I put in the statistically significant qualifier in my first post), but I do think one would expect to see some small difference with large enough sample sizes if the rational voter hypothesis were correct.

On that note, is the evidence you talk about in your last sentence described in the articles you linked in your post? If not, would you mind pointing to the studies that contain it?
9.10.2008 4:28pm
Hoosier:
The Sage-- in governing --constantly tries to keep [the people] without knowledge and without
desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them
from presuming to act upon it. When there is this abstinence from
action, good order is universal.

Lao Tzu
9.10.2008 4:33pm
Sk (mail):
"He is right to emphasize that widespread voter ignorance is a major shortcoming of our democracy."

Why? Your entire post refutes this statement. If it is people's rational interest to not be interested in politics (because their vote doesn't count for much, because they are value voters and 'values' can be determined quickly, because other things entertain more, or whatever reason), then isn't it entirely reasonable that ignorance of what the 2nd Amendment is (or whatever your favorite issue is) is 'rational' as well?

That is a pretty common attitude amongst the cognitive elite (average americans can't recite the Supreme Court justices! Oh, the humanity!?!), but really.

My hobbies aren't the same as yours (can you tell the Boston Redsox starting lineup? The Chronology of the Civil War? The latest model train technology? And so on).

I would think anyone who is getting older (say, 40 or so), can look around, honestly say that the country is a pretty good one, and has heard this exact presumption (political ignorance is a crisis) every 4 years like clockwork.

Eventually, when reality doesn't match theory, its time to change the theory, isn't it?

sk
9.10.2008 4:38pm
Anderson (mail):
Because an individual vote has almost no chance of actually determining the outcome of an election, a person whose only reason to acquire political information is to make sure that the "best" candidate wins is quite rational to invest very little time in learning about it.

This seems to assume that voting is the only way to influence who wins, and that donations of money, time, and effort -- did I mention money? -- play no role.

Am I mistaken?
9.10.2008 5:09pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
This reminds me a bit of something I read decades ago in Sherlock Holmes. Watson had just told him something about astronomy, such as how far the moon was from the earth or the like. Holmes indicated that he would immediately forget it, as it had no relevance to his life. Rather, it seems, he would continue to concentrate on different types of tobacco, mud, etc.

Life is increasingly complex, and as a result, I suspect that we need more and more of our concentration on just getting by, and have less and less for other things, in this case politics, esp. national politics. After all, the votes of very few of us will have any effect whatsoever this Nov. on who the next president will be. Most live in fairly solidly blue or red states, and even if they got active and converted a bunch of their friends, the result would be the same. So, why spend the energy and brain cells keeping up?

To me, and I suspect many here, it is a hobby, little different from most others that Americans have. Whenever I go into a hobby store like Michael's, I marvel that so many people can spend so much time and effort creating what I can buy mass-produced. But that is what turns them on. At least, when you build something with your hands, you have it for posterity. When you get involved in politics, esp. at the national level, what do you have, if you are like most Americans, living in a non-swing state?
9.10.2008 5:11pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
It shouldn't have to be said, but we as voters are concerned with the candidates' character for two reasons;
One is that he or she will do with the office's power what we would want them to do.
The other is that we don't know, nor does the candidate, what new thing is going to face them. Hurricanes, wars, depressions, bad winter and the plowing budget is busted, and so we want to know how they look in terms of handling the unexpected in a way we would wish.
Knowing character is an effective shortcut for knowing either "politics" or "current events".
9.10.2008 5:12pm
Anderson (mail):
When you get involved in politics, esp. at the national level, what do you have, if you are like most Americans, living in a non-swing state?

Ulcers. And about 10,000 blog comments cached on Google.
9.10.2008 5:12pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
o I'm a yellow dog Libertarian, so maybe it would be rational for me to ignore everything political. Except then I wouldn't get the humor on things like the Colbert Report, and I don't like being left out.

o Along with character, I value competence. (And experience as an executive does, in fact, go to that.) I'm maybe more concerned with governors and more local politics, because the things they can influence impact me more. Their positions are interesting, but I'm also concerned that they're going to muck it all up (by spending all the money, or by spending their term campaigning for another office.)

o To Shenkman: Of course the candidates are going to tell us we're smart. It's what we want to hear, and we like people who tell us what we want to hear.

o That is a fairly deep level of ignorance, not knowing Marx or Bunker Hill or Iraq. That's stuff people should know, as opposed to stuff like what a mortgage-backed thing is, or whether Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are private or part of the government and where they came from, or what Martha Stewart went to jail for. Those are basic facts that you should learn once and they remain equally relevant throughout your life.
9.10.2008 5:24pm
Cornellian (mail):
If you think about it, the intelligent person has even less incentive to be informed about politics than the dull witted person. Presumably, if you're intelligent then you're probably (though not certainly) also economically successful and thus less susceptible to economic cycles and changes in government policy (e.g. taxes, unemployment insurance benefits etc.). So perhaps intelligent people are well informed about politics because intelligent people also tend to be curious, and not because of some coldly rational calculation of self interest.
9.10.2008 5:25pm
Anderson (mail):
Presumably, if you're intelligent then you're probably (though not certainly) also economically successful

Hate to repeat myself, but the economically successful do seem to donate quite a bit of money to candidates.

Are they less intelligent for doing so?

My GOP friends and relations in particular seem to regard it as a sensible transaction: donate $__ in hopes of future tax discounts of $______.
9.10.2008 5:38pm
wooga:
I blame the hippies!

Bloom already won the 'people are stupid' debate in "The Closing of the American Mind"
9.10.2008 5:42pm
MartyA:
Shenkman neglects an important factor, emotion. Smart or stupid, informed or uninformed, emotion can be impotant in determining how a person votes.
Scorned women are responsible for George Bush's presidency. Claytie Williams was the Rebulican shoe in for Governor of Texas. He told a joke that offended the women of Texas and Anne Richards, a has-been party hack was elected. She ran for a second term and was clobbered by Bush.
Hussein/Biden have scorned US females. They did so and do so at their own peril. Once the sisterhood, smart, rational women as individuals, becomes an irrational movement, they'll tear the traitors to bits. Normally, I'd oppose this but as the alternative to turning the country over to Hussein and his muslim terrorists, it's fine with me.
9.10.2008 5:50pm
Archit (www):

Some people who in previous generations might have gotten their jollies by following politics are pursuing other entertainment options instead.

Or not. Look at the Pew survey cited. Only 16% of those making under $100,000 a year are in the low knowledge group. About 50% of those making under $30,000 a year are in the low knowledge group. Looking just at that number, I'm not sure I'd describe the lack of political knowledge as a choice of entertainment problem.
9.10.2008 6:28pm
Archit (www):
Oops. I meant "over $100,000."
9.10.2008 6:29pm
Fub:
David Chesler wrote at 9.10.2008 4:24pm:
o That is a fairly deep level of ignorance, not knowing Marx or Bunker Hill or Iraq. That's stuff people should know, as opposed to stuff like what a mortgage-backed thing is, or whether Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are private or part of the government and where they came from, or what Martha Stewart went to jail for. Those are basic facts that you should learn once and they remain equally relevant throughout your life.
Without considering whether one should know anything for voting purposes, I can think of some very good reasons to know some things above for purposes which likely would have more effect on one's life than who wins an election.

If you are deciding what bonds to buy for your investment portfolio, knowing "what a "mortgage-backed thing is" would be very important.

If a government agent is asking you questions, it's very important to know that Martha Stewart went to jail for speaking without consulting counsel.
9.10.2008 6:33pm
Anderson (mail):
it's very important to know that Martha Stewart went to jail for speaking without consulting counsel.

As an attorney, I heartily endorse penalizing that thought-crime!
9.10.2008 6:53pm
Andronicus (mail):
Given that our education systems have been dominated by left-wing idealouges for the last fifty years, I would have expected the level of genuine knowledge of politics to have declined in proportion to the increase in the percentage of people being "educated." Personally, I believe that by far the biggest factor in the seemingly endless capacity for ignorance and downright "stupidity" on the part of the electorate is the fact that history is neither taught nor learned in our society, having been displaced by the various feel-good pseudo-disciplines and p.c. made-up "black/feminist/gay/lesbian/blah/blah/blah studies" courses. How else, other than profound cynicism, could one possibly explain the continued existence and even thriving of the socialist (i.e. democrat) party? No person without a demonstrable working knowledge of the history of Western civilization should be permitted to vote, IMHO.
9.10.2008 7:09pm
zippypinhead:
Personally, when I have watched the inane coverage of the current presidential race, more than once I have thought that the folks who don't give a damn about politics are much, much smarter than I am.
And to think I find myself in total agreement with Dilan for once. Now I'm traumatized...

But seriously, it may be rational for a typical voter to not devote the effort necessary to come up with an intelligent, independent analysis for several reasons, including but not limited to:

1. In most elections, on most issues, the voter believes that the outcome won't materially change his life: he'll still get up in the morning, go to work, watch the Steelers on Monday Night Football, and spend Thanksgiving with Aunt Ginny, regardless who wins. If you think something is not going to affect you directly, it's not worth investing a lot into it.

2. The voter has found proxies he generally agrees with and believes he can trust to efficiently do the sifting to come up with a good candidate endorsement, whether it's Rush Limbaugh, the New York Times Ed Board, his pastor, the NRA, or crazy Uncle Ed who keeps forwarding those e-mails about how McCain was brainwashed by the Commies and is the real Manchurian Candidate. This is really a political awareness analogue to the economic doctrine of comparative advantage (or more pejoratively, "outsourcing").

3. To the extent the voter cares deeply about political issues, it's usually one or two discrete issues that he believes are especially important and therefore outcome-determinative, and he can therefore disregard others that don't matter to him. Thus, a given voter may be very aware of the candidates' positions on on abortion, the Second Amendment, bringing his National Guardsman nephew home from Iraq in one piece, or whatever, and pay little attention to "irrelevant" issues like global warming.

I'm pretty sure the small, self-selected minority of the population who inhabit blogs like VC would find these and most other such reasons far from rational -- but I'm also pretty sure there are a lot more people out there who would argue the Presidential election is less relevant to their day-to-day lives than the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and Tom Brady isn't.
9.10.2008 7:17pm
Obvious (mail):
Richard Shenkman has a good Washington Post op ed rebutting several widespread myths about voters and their knowledge of politics. ... Still, Shenkman has performed a valuable service by summarizing them and bringing these issues to the attention of lay readers.
----
Absolutely. Publishing an article in the Washington Post op-ed section is clearly the best way to inform lay readers of their political ignorance. The Washington Post is where America's ignorant lay readers go to be informed.
9.10.2008 8:28pm
Joshua:
Crunchy Frog: The American public is (or at least fancies itself to be) quite adept at sizing someone up and telling if they're being fed a line of BS. For them, it's much more important to ask, "What kind of person is X?" than, "Where does X stand on issue Y?"

Indeed, I would take that a step further and hazard that for most voters, the second of those questions is merely a roundabout way of getting the answer to the first one. This is one reason why "for the children" is such an irresistible battle cry for nanny-statists everywhere: Any politician who dares stand against whatever is being proposed "for the children" risks being instantly judged undesirable by any voters who happen to be using that issue as a convenient litmus test of a candidate's character.
9.10.2008 10:56pm
Hoosier:
//The Washington Post is where America's ignorant lay readers go to be informed.//

You know, I didn't know that.
9.10.2008 11:06pm
CB55 (mail):
I doubt that Americans today are more ignorant than those of yesteryear, but due to mass electronic media it gets more notice.
9.11.2008 12:33am
Obvious (mail):
I'm hopeful Hoosier DID catch the irony in my earlier post...
9.11.2008 2:24am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Fub: Investing and talking to government agents are times when you ought to do some research and hire an expert. Maybe you should know not to lie to investigators. But Martha Stewart is a bit of pop culture, not the first and not the last to go to jail over it.

Bunker Hill isn't politics, it's history. (Besides any bias caused by commuting past Breed's Hill every day, I think kids should learn some version of American history in school because it's good to have a shared culture and stuff like that.)
9.11.2008 8:48am
Happyshooter:
Why should Joe make an effort?

"My union got me $34 per hour, they said vote Obama." Good enough for Union Joe.

"I like hunting, the NRA said vote for Palin." Good enough for NRA Joe.

"I have been hired for tenure track--I was informed that if I do not support Obama I will be blackballed from tenure and publication." Good enough for University Joe.

"My son is in Iraq, and says Bush is screwing them with silly rules of engagement and criminally charging men for battlefield reactions. He says McCain is another Bush." Good enough for Military Dad Joe.

"I was at the mosque, and was told Obama is a secret muslim and I need to vote for him." Good enough for Muslim Joe.
9.11.2008 10:08am
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9.13.2008 1:42pm