pageok
pageok
pageok
Larry Bartels on Political Ignorance:

Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels is one of the nation's leading scholars of political knowledge and ignorance. In this LA Times op ed, he summarizes some of the reasons why widespread political ignorance is a serious problem. He also ably summarizes the flaws of "retrospective voting," an information shortcut that many argue helps poorly informed voters make good decisions simply by rewarding or punishing incumbents for events that happened during their term in office:

Voters' strong tendency to reward incumbents for peace and prosperity and punish them for bad times looks at first glance like a promising mechanism of political accountability, because it does not require detailed knowledge of issues and policy platforms. As political scientist Morris Fiorina has noted, even uninformed citizens "typically have one comparatively hard bit of data: They know what life has been like during the incumbent's administration."

Unfortunately, "rational" rewarding and punishing of incumbents turns out to be much harder than it seems, as my Princeton colleague, Christopher Achen, and I have found. Voters often misperceive what life has been like during the incumbent's administration. They are inordinately focused on the here and now, mostly ignoring how things have gone earlier in the incumbent's term. And they have great difficulty judging which aspects of their own and the country's well-being are the responsibility of elected leaders and which are not.

This election year, an economic downturn turned into an economic crisis with the dramatic meltdown of major financial institutions. John McCain will be punished at the polls as a result. Whether the current economic distress is really President Bush's fault, much less McCain's, is largely beside the point.

I provide a more detailed critique of retrospective voting in this 2004 paper. Bartels' excellent article with Christopher Achen (referenced in his op ed) is available here. And here is a somewhat expanded version of Bartels' LA Times op ed, published in the Wilson Quarterly.

Bartels and I are quite far apart ideologically (he is a liberal Democrat). But it is interesting that we have very similar views about the danger posed by widespread political ignorance and irrationality.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Sarah Palin, Ignorance, and Stupidity:
  2. Larry Bartels on Political Ignorance:
Asher (mail):
And they have great difficulty judging which aspects of their own and the country's well-being are the responsibility of elected leaders and which are not.

Bingo. On a somewhat unrelated note, though, if only the commentariat grasped just how much of the electorate votes on a purely retrospective basis, we might be spared all the nonsense we're about to be deluged with about how Obama won this race and how McCain lost it. This election was decided by exogenous factors a long time ago.
11.3.2008 9:11pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
For openers, there is a 12-18 month lag time on a president's (or congressman's) effect on the economy. Just in time for the next election, so we start out by reading the tea leaves wrongly even when we're voting retrospectively. Thus, even the oversimplification we work from is skewed.

This would suggest that ideologues might do better than other voters. If you have thought through first principles and matched them to a party or set of policies, you can ride that for a few elections. You will be slow to adapt, but at least have some solid reason for voting.
11.3.2008 9:19pm
J. Aldridge:
When 2012 rolls around Barry is gonna wish it was McCain in the WH.
11.3.2008 9:29pm
Ben Franklin (mail):
It has always struck me as odd that voter registration drives and GOTV efforts are always portrayed as unalloyed goods. It seems to me that those who are least informed and least motivated are exactly the type of people you want to discourage from voting. Just because someone has a pulse doesn't mean that they have anything to add to the process.

Sure it is everyone's right to vote, but it isn't right to do so unless an effort is made to actually learn something about the issues at hand. For instance, we all have free speech rights (hold hate speech laws, PC codes, Human Rights Councils, Fairness Doctrines and other leftist idiocies in abeyance for a moment) but if we are wise we do not always exercise those rights when we have nothing to add.

If we had less of a prejudice against people sensibly choosing not to exercise their franchise we would almost surely have less of the irrational behavior of the sort described in Ilya's post.
11.3.2008 9:44pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I think it might be more accurate to say people are ignorant of economics, since that seems to be the driving force in recent elecions. Few understand how capitalism works, so they are unable to attribute cause to effect. This has nothing to do with general education level; the economc ignorance is everywhere.
11.3.2008 9:47pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"... the economc ignorance is everywhere."

That's for sure. For example how many people know exactly how the government "prints money," in the sense of increasing the money supply. Can it run the presses backwards and un-print money? Is it actually the government that does the printing? There is almost universal ignorance of this important economic policy making apparatus.

Could either of the candidates answer this question off the top of his head? I doubt it.
11.3.2008 9:59pm
geokstr:
Howard Stern has done an interesting proof of political ignorance:
Howard Stern

For example, an Obama supporter was asked if he was comfortable with Obama's pledge to stay in Iraq until we win, and if he thought that Obama's choice of Sarah Palin as his Veep was a good one. Yes on both counts.

It's difficult not to resent having my vote cancelled by someone like that.

Man on the street interviews regularly done by a number of comedy and political shows indicate that this is a very widespread problem.
11.3.2008 10:29pm
Joshua:
Ben Franklin: It has always struck me as odd that voter registration drives and GOTV efforts are always portrayed as unalloyed goods.

They are unalloyed goods... for the politicians and activist groups driving them, that is. After all, a vote cast for Candidate A out of ignorance counts exactly as much as an informed and well-considered vote cast for Candidate B.
11.3.2008 10:38pm
geokstr:
Elliot123:
"...economc ignorance is everywhere."

As a CPA, I was involved in Junior Achievement for a couple years way back in the late 1970s. The objective was to get high school students involved in exercises in starting their own small business, but the level of their understanding of economics was simply woeful. Much of the time was spent in trying to get them to understand what capitalism was to begin with, and why it wasn't this evil system of unbridled greed that they had been told it was by pretty much every teacher they had ever had. And it has gotten MUCH worse since then.

This is what the Ayers and Dohrns of the ME-ME-ME generation have been hard at work instilling in the younger generations for a long, long time.
11.3.2008 10:47pm
pireader (mail):
Professor Somin --

I feel a lot better about retrospective voting than you do. It gives politicians strong incentives to look after their voters' welfare.

In that respect, I analogize it to compensatinging CEOs with stock options. They get paid well when the shareholders do well, and otherwise not. Which gives a new CEO strong incentives to clean up whatever messes he/she inherited and then build the company ... not to whine that things are bad but "it isn't my fault".

The share price doesn't listen to blame-shifting whiners ... and neither do retrospective voters.
11.4.2008 12:30am
Dan Weber (www):
It gives politicians strong incentives to look after their voters' welfare.
Even over things they cannot control, like weather?

Politicians are like witch doctors. They campaign based on being able to control things they cannot control. Would you vote for the guy who admits he can't control the weather? If you do, you can't point the finger and blame the witch doctor.
In that respect, I analogize it to compensatinging CEOs with stock options. They get paid well when the shareholders do well, and otherwise not. Which gives a new CEO strong incentives to clean up whatever messes he/she inherited and then build the company
Stock options reward volatility, especially short-term volatility. They are a poor compensation choice.

Much better would be to, say, pay the CEO 100,000 times the share price in years 4, 5, and 6 out from the start of his run as CEO.
11.4.2008 10:14am