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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:
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11 Comments

Sarah Palin, Ignorance, and Stupidity:

I have often emphasized that political ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. For most voters, even quite intelligent ones, being ignorant about politics is perfectly rational behavior, since there is very little chance that their votes will make any difference. I am happy to see that liberal Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has made use of a similar ignorance-stupidity distinction in analyzing Sarah Palin. Robinson argues that Palin is not stupid, but merely ignorant about some important political issues:

My view of Sarah Palin has changed in the two months since John McCain named her as his running mate....

I thought Palin was a lightweight; she's not. I thought she was an ingenue; she is, but only as long as her claws are sheathed. I thought she was bewildered and star-struck at her sudden elevation to national prominence; if she ever was, she isn't anymore....

That she wasn't ready to meet the national media became clear when she sat down with Katie Couric for those embarrassing sessions. But compare the bunny-in-the-headlights Sarah Palin of just a few weeks ago with the much more poised and confident Sarah Palin of today. Ignorance isn't the same thing as stupidity. When Palin talks about economic policy these days, her sentences don't meander into the Twilight Zone the way they once did. She has more to say about foreign policy besides the fact that Russia is just across the Bering Strait. She has learned much in a very short period.

Like Robinson, I too thought that Palin's ignorance is a strike against her. And I still think so. However, as Robinson points out, ignorance is more easily remediable than stupidity. An intelligent but ignorant person can quickly assimilate new information. A stupid and ignorant person might be able to do so as well, but only with much greater difficulty.

Palin, I think, falls into the "intelligent but ignorant" category. As Fred Barnes shows, people familiar with her and her political career (including many of her longtime political enemies) generally believe that she is smart and capable. That said, I still think that her ignorance is a problem. After all, there is a limit to how much even a smart politician can learn in a short period of time, especially given that she has many other demands on her schedule.

An interesting related question is that of why Palin was so ignorant to begin with. After all, she has been in politics for 12 years, and governor of Alaska for the last two. Ordinary voters tend to be ignorant about politics because they have little incentive to acquire additional information; their ignorance is "rational." But surely governors and other prominent politicians have stronger incentives to become informed.

I don't have a complete answer to this puzzle. But it seems to me that some politicians (e.g. - Bill Clinton) have a genuine interest in the details of policy and others do not. Palin likely falls in the latter category. She and other politicians like her only acquire such policy knowledge as is needed to advance their political careers. As Mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska, Palin had no need to become knowledgeable about non-Alaska political issues. For that reason she didn't bother to do so; she obviously didn't expect to be nominated for Veep so early in her career. My admittedly nonexpert impression is that Palin does have considerable knowledge about energy policy and other Alaska issues. I'm sure readers with greater knowledge of Alaska will correct me if I'm wrong about that.

Of course, even with respect to issues within their areas of responsibility, politicians often have only limited incentive to become knowledgeable if their ignorance won't affect their electoral fortunes. That may explain why the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee doesn't know the first thing about Muslims in the Middle East, despite the fact that intelligence about that region is a central focus of the Committee's responsibilities. Moreover, the sheer size and scope of modern government makes it difficult for even the most wonkish politicians to have more than a superficial acquaintance with more than a small fraction of the issues.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Sarah Palin, Ignorance, and Stupidity:
  2. Larry Bartels on Political Ignorance:
97 Comments