The Conundrum of Political Ignorance

Political ignorance is rational because, as individual voters, we have virtually no chance of influencing the outcome of an election

political ignorance
What explains our political ignorance? (Photo: Flickr)

In his book “Democracy and Political Ignorance,” law Professor Ilya Somin develops the thesis that political ignorance is a serious problem for democracy. Born in the USSR, Professor Somin has a keen appreciation for the merits of democratic governance, but argues that democracy works better when government is smaller and limited and there is less government for the voters to oversee. This column follows Professor Somin’s arguments.

The essence of democratic governance is the accountability of elected officials to the voters. And, even if as individual voters we do not care about holding public officials accountable; we have a responsibility to do so for the benefit of our fellow citizens since elected officials govern over everyone in our society. In this sense, our voting decisions exercise “power over others” as John Stuart Mill taught in his “Considerations on Representative Government” (1861).

Mills feared political ignorance so much that he proposed giving extra votes to the more knowledgeable voters. Similarly, Plato contended that democracy is a defective form of government because it formulates policies based on the views of the ignorant masses. And, James Madison argued for an indirectly elected senate “as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions” (Federalist 63).

As individual voters we have little incentive to learn about politics because there is only a very small chance that our vote will actually affect an electoral outcome. Thus, it is rational for most citizens to invest little effort to acquire political knowledge given the insignificance of any one vote to electoral outcomes. As Professor Somin notes, “Political ignorance is…a rational individual behavior that leads to potentially dangerous collective outcomes.”

Our political knowledge has barely increased over the years notwithstanding increases in education and in the quantity and quality of information available to voters. For example, a 2014 Annenberg Public Policy Center study found that only 36 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government. This was a decrease in political knowledge from the 42 percent that could not name the branches of government in an earlier 2006 survey. Professor Somin documents numerous other examples of our political ignorance.

Political ignorance is not due to not having access to the relevant information. It is mostly a case of voters rationally choosing not to invest the necessary time and effort to learn and understand political issues. Political ignorance is rational because, as individual voters, we have virtually no chance of influencing the outcome of an election. In the case of a U.S. presidential election our chances are less than one in one hundred million. From this perspective, it is not worth the trouble to devote great time and effort to acquire political information.

Thus, Professor Somin asserts that the problem of political ignorance is unlikely to be solved by proposals to improve civic education, enhance media coverage of politics, and the like. It seems our political ignorance is here to stay. He concludes that political ignorance is best addressed, not by seeking to increase political knowledge, but by seeking to reduce the consequences of our political ignorance.

There are several theories of political participation, and I have discussed two of them, retrospective voting and deliberative voting in my column, Why do we vote as we do? Each theory requires different levels of political knowledge from the voters. But, the fundamental question remains: How much political knowledge do voters need in order for democracy to work?

One explanation of voter behavior, the Burkean Trusteeship model, named after eighteen-century political theorist Edmund Burke, requires little of voters. According to Burke, voters should choose based on a candidate’s knowledge and virtue. Focusing on a candidate’s virtue is best since most voters lack the knowledge to evaluate complex public policy options.

However, the connection between the virtues of opposing candidates and their skills and governing abilities is unclear. Just as interestingly is this related question that I must leave for another time: What happens to democracy when it is the voters that have flawed values?

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