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.
Do Voters Have a Moral Duty to Be Informed About Politics?
In a recent paper excerpted by Bryan Caplan, Brown philosopher Jason Brennan argues that the answer to this question is yes, and even suggests that poorly informed citizens have a moral obligation not to exercise the franchise:
Irresponsible individual voters ought to abstain rather than vote badly. This thesis may seem anti-democratic. Yet it is really a claim about voter responsibility and how voters can fail to meet this responsibility. On my view, voters are not obligated to vote, but if they do vote, they owe it to others and themselves to be adequately rational, unbiased, just, and informed about their political beliefs. Similarly, most of us think we are not obligated to become parents, but if we are to be parents, we ought to be responsible, good parents. We are not obligated to become surgeons, but if we do become surgeons, we ought to be responsible, good surgeons. We are not obligated to drive, but if we do drive, we ought to be responsible drivers. The same goes for voting.
Concluding that voters have a moral duty to be informed about politics doesn't require one to also believe that government should deny the franchise to the poorly informed. One can believe that all adult citizens should have a right to vote, while also holding that they have a duty to either become adequately informed or refrain from using that right. The latter obligation may not be enforceable by the government; but that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. We have many moral duties that cannot or should not be enforced by law. Consider, for example, our moral obligations to our friends. If I betray a friend's trust, the government does not and should not punish me for it. But that doesn't mean that it's a morally acceptable thing to do.
If ignorant voters were choosing leaders and policies only for themselves, there might be no ethical problem with their being ill-informed. They would bear the full cost of their ignorance. Unfortunately, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, to vote is to wield "power over others." The politicians elected by ignorant voters will rule over all of us, knowledgeable and ignorant alike. The ethical voter therefore has a responsibility to his fellow citizens as well as to himself.
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that the vast majority of citizens are both poorly informed about politics and often highly biased in their evaluation of the information they do know. If citizens do indeed have a duty to either become informed about politics or refrain from casting a ballot, most of them aren't living up to it. I have argued that this is perfectly rational and not a sign of voters' "stupidity." But rational conduct isn't always morally defensible conduct.
I'm not yet completely convinced that citizens have a moral duty to become informed about politics or not vote. Even if they do, it might be overriden by other moral imperatives in some cases (e.g. - if you can't become informed about this year's election because your time is taken up by other pressing moral duties, such as the need to care for a sick relative who requires round-the-clock attention). It's also difficult to determine exactly how much knowledge should be considered sufficient to meet the average voter's moral obligations to fellow citizens. However, I am sympathetic to the general outline of Brennan's argument as I understand it so far. I look forward to reading his paper in detail once I get my hands on the full version.
International Variation in Political Ignorance about the Perpetrators of the 9/11 Attacks:
Last year, I blogged about a series of Pew surveys that showed that 28% of American Muslims, and large majorities in many Muslim populations around the world deny that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by Arab terrorists. World Public Opinion.org has an interesting new survey documenting opinion about the identity of the perpetrators of 9/11 in 17 countries around the world. On average, 46% of the WPO respondents correctly identify al Qaeda as the perpetrators, while 15% blame the United States government, 7% Israel, 7% cite other possible perpetrators, and 25% say they don't know who did it. The WPO results are not directly comparable to the earlier Pew surveys because the former are based on "open-ended" questions where respondents volunteer their own answers, while the Pew surveys forced respondents to pick from a list of predetermined options in a multiple choice format.
The WPO survey shows wide variation between countries. Predictably, respondents in the Arab world are much more likely to blame either the US government or Israel than those in other countries. This is true of 55% of Egyptians, 48% of Jordanians, and 46% of Palestinians. But even in Western Europe, 23% of Germans claimed that the US government perpetrated the attack.
Ignorance about the origins of 9/11 is partly caused by general "rational ignorance," arising from the fact that most ordinary citizens have little incentive to become informed about politics. But as I argued in last year's post on Muslim opinion, it is also partly the result of "rational irrationality," biased evaluation of the information you do have. Many studies show that people tend to reject political information that goes against their preexisting biases, while overvaluing data that supports them. Thus, people who tend to be hostile to the US and/or Israel or sympathetic to radical Islamism are more likely to deny that Al Qaeda perpetrated the attacks and instead point the finger at the US or its allies. That helps explain why Arab respondents are so much more likely to deny Al Qaeda's guilt than those elsewhere in the world. I discuss the logic of rational ignorance and irrationality in this article, among others.
The "rational irrationality" explanation of 9/11 ignorance is buttressed by the WPO study's striking finding that "those with greater education are only slightly more likely to attribute 9/11 to al Qaeda." As a general rule, political knowledge is highly correlated with education because educated people are more likely to be interested in politics and follow current events. In this case, however, the normal correlation between education and knowledge may be undermined by the fact that the educated are also more likely to have been exposed to various conspiracy theories blaming the US and Israel which (for some respondents) fit in with their preexisting biases. As I explained in January, widespread belief in crackpot conspiracy theories is yet another cost of political ignorance and irrationality.
Interestingly, the countries with the highest percentages of respondents who accurately identified al Qaeda as the perpetrators of 9/11 are two poor African nations with very low average education levels: Kenya (77%) and Nigeria (71%). The Kenyans and Nigerians did significantly better than respondents from many higher-income nations, including Germany (64%), Britain (57%), and Italy (56%). Even Nigerian Muslims (64%) outperformed all the high-income countries in the study other than Germany; presumably, Nigerian Muslims are on average less anti-American than those in the Middle East and Western Europe, and therefore less likely to reject evidence of Al Qaeda's responsibility due to anti-American bias. Similarly, they may also be less anti-American than many left-wing and radical right-wing nationalist Europeans (groups who are disproportionately represented among 9/11 deniers in Western Europe). This result further reinforces the view that ignorance about the perpetrators of 9/11 is more the result of irrationality than lack of exposure to information.
Finally, it should be emphasized that simple rational ignorance should not be entirely discounted as a contributing factor driving the WPO survey results. Anti-American and anti-Israeli bias surely explain a lot. But even among respondents who have a generally positive view of the US role in the world, only 59% correctly identified al Qaeda as the perpetrators of 9/11 (compared to 40% among those with a negative view).
NOTE: The way the WPO survey results are reported in the link above slightly overstates ignorance about the perpetrators of 9/11 by classifying respondents who identified the perpetrators as "Arabs" or "Saudis" as having given an answer of "other." All of the 9/11 hijackers were Arabs and 15 of 19 were Saudis. The PDF version of results (available by clicking "Questionnaire/Methodology (PDF)" on the WPO website) shows that, in most countries, no more than 3-5% of respondents gave these types of responses which, although they didn't mention the term "Al Qaeda" should probably be considered accurate.
UPDATE: I just realized that I accidentally failed to include a link to the WPO website reporting the results in the first paragraph of this post. That mistake has now been corrected. Sorry for the annoying error.
UPDATE #2: As several commenters point out, the high correct response rate in Kenya may be due in part to the fact that Kenya was the victim of a 1998 Al Qaeda attack targeting the US embassy in that country. The terrorists ended up killing many more Kenyans than Americans. No doubt, many Kenyans remember this and are therefore disinclined to ignore evidence showing that Al Qaeda was responsible for atrocities elsewhere.
Palestine and Mexico - Two Interesting Anomalies in the World Public Opinion Survey Data on Knowledge of the Perpetrators of the 9/11 Attacks:
Yesterday, I blogged about the recent World Public Opinion survey that gauged knowledge of the identity of the perpetrators of 9/11 attacks across 17 countries. For the most part, the distribution of responses in the 17 nations was about what I had expected. However, there were two interesting anomalies, one positive and one negative.
The positive anomaly is Palestine. 42% of Palestinian respondents correctly indicated that al Qaeda were the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. If you add in the 7% of Palestinians who named "Saudis," "Egyptians," or other Arabs as having also given correct answers, it turns out that almost half of Palestinians know who carried out the 9/11 attacks. This may not seem like an impressive figure; after all, 46% of Palestinians still claim that either the US government (blamed by 27% of respondents) or Israel (19%) were responsible. However, it is far better than comparable results elsewhere in the Arab world. For example, the WPO survey found that only 16% of Egyptians and only 11% of Jordanians realize that al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks. 54% of Egyptians and 48% of Jordanians say that it was either Israel or the US. These results are also consistent with previous surveys showing that the vast majority of respondents in several Arab countries as well as many European Muslim populations deny that the 9/11 atrocities were perpetrated by Arabs. The WPO results show that recognition of the true identity of the 9/11 perpetrators is far more widespread among Palestinians than any other Arab Muslim population ever surveyed on this issue. Interestingly, only 19% of Palestinians claim that Israel was responsible, compared to 43% of Egyptians and 31% of Jordanians; this despite the fact that Palestinians have far more grievances against Israel than do Arabs residing in these two other countries. What accounts for the difference between the Palestinians and other Arabs? It's hard for me to say; perhaps experts on the region can shed light on the answer. Whatever the cause, it is a mildly encouraging sign (emphasis on "mildly") that Palestinian public opinion is at least somewhat rational and therefore potentially amenable to one day living in peace with Israel and the US.
The negative anomaly is Mexico. Only 33% of Mexican respondents in the WPO poll identified al Qaeda as the perpetrators of 9/11; this number is statistically indistinguishable from the 30% who blamed the US government (1% of Mexicans laid the blame on Israel). Strikingly, a higher percentage of Mexicans claimed that the US government carried out an attack on its own citizens than did respondents in any other country except Turkey (36%). Ironically, there is far more recognition of al Qaeda's responsibility for 9/11 among Palestinians than among Mexicans, even though the former have far more reason to be unhappy with American foreign policy.
Obviously, I know that there is anti-Americanism in Mexico and that Mexicans have various historical grievances against the US government, some of them legitimate. At the same time, Mexico derives many benefits from its relationship with the US, including extensive trade, and remittances from the large Mexican immigrant population in this country. Certainly, I didn't expect this level of anti-American prejudice in Mexican public opinion on 9/11.
I strongly support free trade with Mexico and continued Mexican immigration and decry the recent nativist attacks on Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants. A positive relationship between the US and Mexico is, I think, very much in the interests of both countries. Before writing this post, I even wondered whether I should avoid highlighting the Mexican data, so as not to give more fodder to opponents of NAFTA and advocates of draconian restrictions on immigration.
However, the WPO poll results are a troubling indication that there is more irrational anti-Americanism in Mexico than I, at least, would have expected. That does not bode well for the future of US-Mexican relations. Perhaps specialists in Mexican politics and public opinion can shed more light than I can on the causes of this disturbing trend.
UPDATE: Various commenters on this and my previous post suggest that the Palestinians may simply be "proud" or supportive of al Qaeda's role in the 9/11 attacks and thus unwilling to deny it. This is theoretically possible, but unlikely. In virtually every survey, including the WPO survey, anti-Americanism and support for radical Islamism are positively correlated with 9/11 denial. In other similar cases, people who deny the reality of major atrocities or blame the victims for them overwhelmingly tend to sympathize with the perpetrators and/or hate the victims. For example, most Holocaust deniers are anti-Semitic. Most of those who deny the realities of communist mass murder are either communist sympathizers or at least people who think that communism may not have been as bad as the "capitalist" alternative.
In principle, anti-Semites could take the view that the Holocaust did happen, but that Hitler had good reason for doing it. In practice, that response is far less common than denial. The same seems to be true of the anti-American and radical Islamist reactions to 9/11.
Why Candidates and the Media Exploit Political Ignorance:
Widely respected columnist Stuart Taylor writes:
[O]ne reason that candidates get away with dishonest campaign ads and speeches may be that it is so hard for undecided voters like me to discern which charges are true, which are exaggerated, and which are false. Most people can't spend hours every day cross-checking diverse sources of information to verify the accuracy of slanted stories and broadcasts.
In other words, political candidates and media outlets often get away with deceptive campaign tactics and inaccurate charges because voters don't know the truth and don't have sufficient incentive to rectify that ignorance through investigation. Taylor goes on to blame the media for this state of affairs, suggesting that more accurate reporting would increase our knowledge. Here, I partly disagree with Taylor. The media is indeed flawed in many ways. But its failures are not the only, or even the principal, cause of widespread political ignorance. Surveys show that most citizens are ignorant of many very basic facts about politics - such as the very existence of major programs (e.g. - Bush's massive prescription drug benefit, the largest new government program since the 1960s, which 70% of the public was not aware of). These basic facts are widely and accurately reported in the media, yet most people still don't know them.
Moreover, the media are not completely autonomous; if they want to stay in business, they have to give viewers and readers what they want. If the public wanted unbiased and accurate coverage and was willing to reject outlets that turned out to be biased and inaccurate, the media would have strong incentives to comply. Newspapers and TV news stations that continued to be biased or inaccurate would lose market share.
In reality, of course, most people either don't follow political news at all, or prefer outlets that are biased in favor of their own preferred party or ideology. Thus, the demand for Fox News, the New York Times, and many other media outlets that are strongly biased towards one party or the other. Social science research going back to the 1940s shows that Republicans tend to prefer Republican-leaning media and Democrats the opposite.
Ultimately, the root of the problem is the insignificance of the individual vote to electoral outcomes. For people whose only motive for acquiring political information is to be a better voter, it turns out that there is little incentive to acquire political knowledge at all. They are "rationally ignorant." Some people, of course, seek out political knowledge for reasons unrelated to voting. For example, they find politics entertaining or they enjoy rooting for their preferred party or ideology - much as sports fans enjoy rooting for their favorite team, even though they know they have little chance of affecting the outcome of games. For this latter group, however, there is little incentive to analyze the information they acquire in an unbiased way or even to check up on its accuracy. To the contrary, listening to pundits and reporters who have the same biases as you do while heaping abuse on the opposition, is part of the fun of being a fan. Political fans often avoid opposing points of view for much the same reasons that most of my fellow Red Sox fans prefer to listen to pro-Red Sox sports radio rather than pro-Yankees shows. That's the main reason why left and right-leaning blogs usually have similarly inclined readers. People also tend to discount political information that goes against their prior views and overvalue anything that seems to reinforce them. Economist Bryan Caplan calls this phenomenon "rational irrationality."
I discuss both rational ignorance and rational irrationality in more detail in this article, as well as provide citations to some of the social science literature documenting the finding that most people evaluate political information in a highly biased way and prefer media outlets that favor their preexisting views.
Knowing that most of the public is rationally ignorant, highly biased in its evaluation of political information or both, candidates take these realities into account. They can see that lies, deception, and unfair charges will often increase their chances of winning, and act accordingly. Indeed, even an altruistic, public-spirited candidate might adopt such tactics, so long as he genuinely believes that his victory will benefit the nation. After all, abjuring them would likely ensure the victory of his more unscrupulous opponents whose policies - the principled candidate believes - would be worse for the country than his own. Media outlets face similar incentives. Those who don't cater to the prejudices of one or another side of the political spectrum are at a competitive disadvantage relative to their rivals. The same goes for those who emphasize in-depth news analysis at the expense of entertainment value.
It's easy to blame unscrupulous politicians and reporters for the flaws in our political discourse. But the root of the problem lies elsewhere - in the structural weaknesses of democracy itself.
How Political Fans are Like Sports Fans - Why Voters are Highly Biased in their Evaluation of Political Information:
Both Slate and the Washington Post have interesting new article summarizing recent social science research showing that voters tend to be highly biased in their evaluation of political information. Voters tend to overvalue the importance of new information that supports their preexisting views or makes their preferred party look good; and they tend to discount any information that cuts the other way. As the Slate article puts it:
This has nothing to do with ideology. Politics isn't about ideology. It's about joining a team, and we judge fairness as partisans. In 1951, Princeton and Dartmouth students watched a film of a football game and were asked to take note of foul play. Princeton stalwarts saw all the penalties that should have been called on the Dartmouth players. Dartmouth students were convinced the refs missed clips and offsides committed by the Princeton players.
We judge politics the same way—as team members, not truth-seekers. Last week the Washington Post reported on a slew of experiments showing that political misinformation feeds people's pre-existing beliefs.
These findings - and the sports analogy that goes with them - are not new. I summarized earlier findings of this type in a 2006 article in which I similarly compared political partisans to sports fans.
The interesting question is why voters behave like biased sports fans instead of trying to evaluate new political information in an unbiased way. After all, isn't politics far more important than sports, deserving of a more serious effort to get at the truth?
The answer I gave in the article is that political fans are similar to sports fans in so far as both have little or no incentive to be truth-seekers. Because there is little or no chance that your vote will be decisive in an election, voters whose only reason to acquire political information is to do a better job of choosing the "right" candidate tend to be "rationally ignorant." Those who do acquire political information are likely to do so for other reasons - reasons that have little to do with truth-seeking. Here's a brief relevant excerpt from the article (pp. 260-61):
[T]he theory of rational ignorance does not predict that voters will choose
not to acquire any information at all. Rather it predicts that they will
acquire very little or no information for purposes of voting However, some voters will acquire information for other reasons....
A useful analogy is to sports fans. Fans who acquire extensive knowledge
of their favorite teams and players do not do so because they can
thereby influence the outcome of games. They do it because it increases
the enjoyment they get from rooting for their favorite teams.
But if many of the citizens who acquire significant amounts of political
knowledge do so primarily for reasons other than becoming a better
voter, it is possible that they will acquire the knowledge that is of little
use for voting, or will fail to use the knowledge they do have in the
Here again, a sports analogy may be helpful. Committed Red Sox
fans who passionately root against the Yankees are unlikely to evaluate
the evidence about these teams objectively. The authors of one recent
history of the Red Sox and Yankees note that they chose not to write
“a fair and balanced look at the Red Sox-Yankees ‘rivalry,’” because
“neither author of this book wanted to represent the Yankees [sic]
point of view. . . . Neither of us could bring ourselves to say enough
complimentary things about [the Yankees] to fill the back of a matchbox,
let alone half a book” (Nowlin and Prime 2004, 4). . . Similarly,
Democratic partisans who hate George W. Bush, and Republicans who
reflexively support him against all criticism, might well want to acquire
information in order to augment the experience of cheering on their
preferred political “team.” If this is indeed their goal, neither group is
likely to evaluate Bush’s performance in office objectively or accurately.
This intuition is confirmed by studies showing that people tend to
use new information to reinforce their preexisting views on political issues,
while discounting evidence that runs counter to them . . . Although some scholars view such bias as potentially irrational behavior . . . , it is perfectly
rational if the goal is not to get at the “truth” of a given issue in
order to be a better voter, but to enjoy the psychic benefits of being a
Candidates and the media understand the biases of "political fans" and often exploit them for their own benefit.
How do we get out of the dangerous box in which public policy is determined in elections where most voters are either rationally ignorant about even basic political information or highly biased in their evaluation of what they do know? There is no easy answer to that question. In the article linked above and in some of my other scholarship (e.g. - here), I suggest that we consider making fewer decisions through the political system and more through free markets and civil society - where people have much stronger incentives to both seek out information and evaluate it at least somewhat rationally.
Russian Government Airs "Documentary" Promoting 9/11 Denialism:
Cathy Young has an interesting post describing a recent "documentary" aired on Russian state television promoting claims that the US government itself orchestrated the 9/11 attack against the World Trade Center. Obviously, under Vladimir Putin's authoritarian rule, state television would not air such a program if it didn't suit the government's purposes for them to do so. That the Russian government now seeks to promote such extreme anti-Americanism among its people is disturbing to say the least.
At the same time, a measure of perspective is in order. A recent World Public Opinion survey shows that 57% of Russians know that Al Qaeda perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, while 15% believe that it was the US government and 2% cite Israel (a lower figure than I would have expected in light of Russia's history of anti-Semitism). These numbers are similar to results from Western European nations such as France (63% blaming Al Qaeda, 8% the US), Germany (64% and 23%), Italy (56% and 15%), and Britain (57% and 5%). Thus, 9/11 denialism is not (yet) significantly more common in Russia than in Western Europe. For my earlier analysis of this survey and its implications, see here.
If I had to guess, I would say that the Russian government's decision to air the denialist film has more to do with shoring up public support for the regime by directing public ire at an external enemy than with an active desire to provoke a confrontation with the US. With oil prices falling, the Russian economy is likely to suffer and the regime's grip on power become less firm. Putin and his henchmen may believe they need to ramp up their propaganda efforts by appealing to Russian nationalism even more than before. It is notable that, in a segment appearing right after the film, at the end of the movie, state network commentators claimed Russia was the world's only hope to resist America's "predatory" power, a message calculated to warm the hearts of Russian nationalists.
Unfortunately, history shows that such cynical stoking of the fires of extreme nationalism and anti-Americanism can easily get out of control. Most likely, Putin's objective in spreading this disinformation is merely to strengthen domestic support for his regime. But some of the millions of viewers will actually believe the claptrap on the show and possibly act on it when and if extreme nationalists get their hands on power in the future.
[Insert Name] Derangement Syndrome:
You've probably noticed that with the election around the corner, a lot of people are saying some very extreme things about politicians. Politicians they don't support are not just weak, or poor choices for office. Instead, those politicians are dangerous, illegitimate, and maybe even criminal. Anyone who supports them must be disingenuous or in denial. We've seen a lot of that kind of talk all around the blogosphere, in more modest forms even at this blog.
Why? It's a complicated question, I think, but I wanted to offer some preliminary thoughts.
I think the psychological need for moral clarity is the primary reason we see this kind of language. In a democracy, the citizenry chooses which leaders we will have. Because we have diverse opinions, we will always have disagreement about which candidates and which ideas they embrace are the best ones.
The unfortunate reality is that we really don't know much about political candidates and how they will govern. No matter which way we vote, we're gambling. This is true not only of candidates as individuals but also of their policy proposals: While we may each have instincts as to which ideas will work and which won't, our instincts are normally just that, instincts.
That sort of uncertainty is really uncomfortable for a lot of people. We want to see our side as right and the other side as wrong: We want certainty that we are correct. And the higher the stakes, the more anxious we are that we may be wrong, and the more we want to be — we must
be — right.
I think this leads to a human tendency to demonize political candidates we oppose and deify candidates we endorse whenever the stakes are high. If the politicians you don't like can be portrayed as corrupt or dangerous, then you never need to get to the difficult questions of what they are actually doing or the merits of their policy proposals. You can satisfy yourself that you are 100% correct at the outset very easily, because at least you're not supporting the candidate that is illegitimate. As a result, politicians we don't support aren't just good people who have bad ideas that we think on balance won't work out for the best. Rather, they are treated like they are illegitimate and maybe even criminal.
I realize I'm painting with a very broad brush here, and as a result I'm lacking a lot of nuance. But a number of people have remarked to me about the tone of the election both in the blogosphere generally and at the VC in particular, and I wanted to offer a few thoughts as to why that may be. If you disagree, please let me know in the comment thread (in a civil way, of course).
Which Side Has the Worse Case of [Insert Name] Derangement Syndrome?:
My post below on [Insert Name] Derangement Syndrome
raised the question of which side had a worse case of the disease: The right or the left?
My sense is that on the blogosphere as a whole, as well as in the overall political discourse, it's actually pretty evenly matched. Think of it as Newton's law of political derangement: For every overreaction, there is an equal and opposite overreaction (somewhere). On this blog's comment threads, however, I think the right clearly has a worse case: There are a handful of conservative VC commenters who reliably make the most absurd, over-the-top, derangement-syndrome comments possible.
Being right-of-center myself, I cringe when reading these comments: No doubt many who are not committed conservatives see them as confirmation that many conservatives are truly deranged. At the same time, I tend to think the reason the right wins the [IN]DS award here at the VC is that we're a right-leaning leaning blog. While good posts will attract readers from across the spectrum, my sense is that the Deranged tend to hang out at blogs that are sympathetic to their views. I think that explains why although we occasionally have liberal members of the Deranged pay a visit and post a few comments, they usually don't hang out in the comment forest for very long.
Political "Derangement" and Political Ignorance:
Co-blogger Orin Kerr is right to point out that many partisans are engaging in overheated rhetoric and unfair charges against their opponents. This problem is not unique to recent American politics. If you look at our very first contested presidential elections (Jefferson vs. Adams, 1796 and 1800), you will find ridiculous "deranged" charges every bit as ludicrous as those we hear today (e.g. - claims that Jefferson was a close atheist who would destroy all religion; accusations that he would betray the country to France; claims that Adams and the Federalist Party were secretly plotting to establish a monarchy, and so on).
I. The Role of Rational Political Ignorance.
Why this longstanding pattern of overheated and ridiculous political rhetoric? Regular readers of this blog won't be surprised to learn that I think it has a lot to do with widespread political ignorance. Overwhelming evidence shows that much of the public knows very little about politics and public policy. For individual voters, such ignorance is perfectly rational because there is very little chance that your vote will actually influence the outcome of an election. But the less you know, the more you are susceptible to inaccurate and extreme charges. People who are familiar with the details of Barack Obama's biography are unlikely to believe that he is a secret Muslim who sympathizes with terrorists; not so those who know little or nothing about him. The same goes for similarly ridiculous charges against the Republicans. As a result, candidates and activists have incentives to make ridiculous charges because they know that many ignorant voters will believe them.
II. The Role of Biased Evaluation of Political Information.
Even some of those voters who do know more than the average citizen are still susceptible to overheated charges. Rational ignorance implies not only that people have little incentive to acquire political information, it also means that they have little incentive to make rational judgments about the information they do acquire. As a result, most of use evaluate political information in a highly biased way, overvaluing anything that confirms our preconceived views and resisting new information that seems to undercut them. This helps explain why many otherwise intelligent people come to endorse ridiculous political conspiracy theories. For similar reasons, it helps explain why otherwise intelligent political partisans embrace "deranged" accusations against their political adversaries.
Can any of this be changed? Maybe. But two centuries of political history suggests that it will be extremely difficult to do so. "Derangement syndrome" may be an inevitable aspect of democratic politics, especially when elections are closely contested and involve divisive issues.
Going Easy on "Deranged" Charges that Seem like Mere Exaggerations of a Deeper Truth:
One reason why "deranged" rhetorical excesses proliferate in our political discourse is that most partisans are far less willing to condemn their own side's excesses than those of the opposition. Some of this is caused by simple bias and ignorance.
But some of it is also partly caused by a belief that your own side's rhetorical excesses are merely exaggerations of an underlying truth rather than completely wrong. Consider for example conservative charges that Barack Obama is a "socialist." I think that such claims are absurd. At the same time, I do fear that Obama is likely to vastly expand the scope of government and that some of the policies advocated by him and other liberals have flaws that are similar to those of full-blown socialism. From my perspective, there is a very important difference of degree between the two. But there isn't always a difference in kind. I think that "Obama is a socialist" accusations are seriously misguided and would never say such a thing myself. At the same time, it's hard for me to be as tough on those who make them as I would be on people whose rhetoric is in my view completely divorced from reality.
Consider, on the other hand, liberal charges that McCain and Palin are engaging in "racist" campaign tactics. Thoughtful liberals probably reject claims that McCain is a racist or even deliberately pandering to the racism of others. But many of them also believe that such charges are merely an exaggeration of the underlying reality that the Republicans have long sought to exploit racism for political advantage with their attacks on affirmative action, welfare, and so on. I actually think there is a measure of truth to this broader charge against the GOP, though not as much as many liberals believe there to be. Part of the reason why many liberals are reluctant to denounce the "McCain-Palin are racist" meme is that they think it reflects a deeper truth to a much greater extent than I do.
In sum, it is extremely difficult for people with strong political commitments to be as hard on their own side's "deranged" rhetoric as they are on the opposition's. Some of this is simple bias and hypocrisy that they have little incentive to correct because of rational political ignorance. Some stems from a genuine belief (albeit also influenced by bias) that their side's excesses are less blameworthy than the opposition's because they are merely exaggerations of an underlying truth, whereas the other side's are flat out wrong.
I don't have a good solution for this problem. But the beginning of wisdom is to at least be aware of it, and to try to remember that it applies to you as well as your opponents.
Political Ignorance and the 2008 Election:
The conservative "How Obama Got Elected" website has put up survey data from polls conducted by Zogby and Wilson Research that show extensive political ignorance among Obama votes (HT: my colleague Lloyd Cohen). For example, some 57% (in the Zogby poll) to 59% (Wilson poll) of Obama voters didn't known that the Democrats controlled Congress at the time of the election. By contrast, 63% of McCain supporters got this question right in the Wilson survey (Zogby did not conduct a separate survey of McCain supporters on this issue). Similarly, the Zogby results showed that the vast majority of Obama voters were unaware of various negatives about Obama and vice presidential nominee Joe Biden; McCain voters scored better on these questions. Ignorance about Democratic control of Congress is particularly important, because understanding of that fact might have led voters conclude that the Democrats shared at least some responsibility for the financial crisis and other recent policy failures. This information might not have prevented them from putting Obama in the White House; but it could well have led them to forego giving the Democrats greatly expanded congressional majorities.
The "How Obama Got Elected" authors argue that this shows that political ignorance was a major factor in Obama's victory. To an extent, it probably was. However, Democrats can easily point to comparable ignorance by Republican voters. For example, in 2004, a high proportion of Bush voters believed that large-scale WMD caches or programs had been found in Iraq, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
More generally, it is not surprising that voters on both sides are often ignorant about a wide range of issues. As I have often pointed out in my scholarship (e.g. here), it is in fact rational for most voters to be ignorant about politics because of the very low probability that any individual vote will change electoral outcomes. In addition, voters have little incentive to do an unbiased evaluation of the information they do have. As a result, "political fans" often act like sports fans, overvaluing information that supports their preferred "team" and ignoring or downplaying anything that makes the team look bad. Such bias may explain why Obama voters in the Wilson survey were less likely to know information that reflected badly on the Democrats, whereas McCain voters had the opposite bias (e.g. - a smaller percentage of McCain voters than Obama voters knew that McCain had been implicated in the Keating Five scandal). As the "How Obama Got Elected" site notes, "in general, the voters did universally worse on questions where the negative information was about their candidate."
Of course, voters were not ignorant across the board:
Ninety-four percent of Obama voters correctly identified Palin as the candidate with a pregnant teenage daughter, 86% correctly identified Palin as the candidate associated with a $150,000 wardrobe purchased by her political party, and 81% chose McCain as the candidate who was unable to identify the number of houses he owned. When asked which candidate said they could "see Russia from their house," 87% chose Palin, although the quote actually is attributed to Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey during her portrayal of Palin during the campaign. An answer of "none" or "Palin" was counted as a correct answer on the test, given that the statement was associated with a characterization of Palin.
Conservatives will no doubt argue that these Palin negatives stuck in the voters' minds because of media bias. That may be true to some extent. But it is probably more likely that they became well known because they were "human interest" stories that could grab the attention of ordinary voters who find complex policy issues boring. There is a long history of polling data showing higher knowledge levels about human interest stories than policy stories. For example, two of the most widely known facts about the first President Bush was that he hated broccoli and owned a dog named Millie.
Widespread political ignorance and bias give partisans plenty of data that demonstrates' the ignorance of their opponents' voters. Unfortunately, they tend to ignore the reality that their own side's voters are usually just as bad.
The true lesson of political knowledge polls is not that either Democrats or Republicans are uniquely ignorant, but that we should reduce the power of government. That way, fewer important decisions will be made under the influence of electoral processes where ignorance, bias, and irrationality play such an enormous role.
UPDATE: Some commenters point to this post by Nate Silver as supposedly discrediting the Zogby results. I don't think it does. Silver says nothing that disproves the results themselves; he merely claims that the poll was commissioned by John Ziegler, a conservative political activist with supposedly nefarious motives (conducting a "push poll" to prejudice survey respondents against Obama). The claim that the survey was a "push poll" is dubious because, as Zogby points outs, it was conducted after the election.
But even if Ziegler's motives were exactly as as Silver suggests, that in no way proves that the poll is methodologically flawed. In particular, Silver doesn't even mention what I think is the single most striking finding: that the vast majority of Obama supporters didn't know which party controls Congress. Silver does suggest that some of the other questions are factually inaccurate, but provides no proof of that. I agree that a few are probably poorly worded; but I don't think I need to prove that every question on the survey is methodologically sound to show that the overall results of the poll demonstrate a fairly high (though predictable) level of political ignorance.