Why Low-Information Voters Are Worrisome

Sadly, we live in the era of the low-information voter. The second edition of Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance (2016) documents widespread political ignorance among today’s public, including voters. Although nonvoters are abysmally ignorant of politics, voters are not walking, talking political encyclopedias either. Americans are more likely to be well-informed about celebrities, such as the Kardashians, than about political leaders.

Consistent with earlier research, Somin estimates that nearly a third of the American public are “know-nothings,” who possess “little or no relevant knowledge” about public affairs. As he notes, “[i]f the public really is often ignorant [about public affairs], we might have a serious problem on our hands.” (Hint: We do!)

In addition -- either as a cause or a corollary -- a large portion of the public is politically apathetic. Except in times of crisis, most Americans don’t pay much attention to what happens in the political arena, and most don’t care much about what’s going on in U.S. politics. They are more concerned with personal and family matters than with public affairs.

 (I do not mention America’s low voter turnout rates when writing about apathy. Although some focus on low turnout rates – relative to other western nations – when discussing apathy, voting is not always, and perhaps not even usually, a reliable indicator of how attentive people are to public affairs. Some people who are turned off by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may not vote in 2016, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t pay attention to public affairs.)

When it comes to the quest for the presidency in 2016, what are we to make of the fact that Americans are more familiar with Donald Trump the TV celebrity than they are with his policy proposals? In addition, substantial percentages of people who supported one of the Democrats seeking the presidency weren’t very well-informed about their favorite candidate. When young people who supported the 74-year-old socialist, Bernie Sanders, were asked to explain what socialism means, they tended to offer only vacuous definitions. In addition, one wonders what percentage of Hillary Clinton’s backers are aware of her promise to raise taxes by one trillion dollars over a ten-year period, and, if necessary, to do so via an executive order?

Americans’ political apathy and ignorance are especially worrisome when one considers that the U.S. political system was created by men who assumed – hoped? – that the Republic would be sustained by an engaged and informed populace. James Madison, often said to be the Constitution’s father, wrote that “[a] popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president, wrote that we should “[e]ducate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

If our republic ever was truly a government of, by, and for the people, that is but a dim memory. Today, the U.S. is governed by a ruling class – which constitutes at most only 15% of the populace, and that ruling class – dominated by Democrats, along with a few Republicans who are willing to be minority partners – has corrupted our country.

An obvious question for someone worried about the American public’s political apathy and ignorance is: “Hasn’t it been like this for decades? Therefore, what’s new?”

At first blush, one is inclined to answer yes, and thereby undermine much of the raison d’être for this essay.

On second thought, however, there are grounds for worrying about today’s political apathy and ignorance.

Compare, for example, the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 with those between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. In 1960, a candidate had eight minutes to make a case, and his opponent then had two-and-one-half minutes to rebut him. Each candidate had three minutes for a closing statement. By 2012, each candidate had only two minutes to respond to a question posed by the moderator.

It isn’t just debates’ formats that bespeak shortened attention spans, and consequent increased ignorance. Campaign ads have grown briefer and briefer and consequently far less informative in recent decades. Ads are now much less likely to tout the qualities and policies of the candidate they are designed to favor, and far more inclined to stress the opponent’s negative qualities and/or policies. Patterns of media campaign coverage have deteriorated as well.

It would be wrong to assume that presidential debates are the only venue by which ordinary people learn about public affairs. We should remember, nevertheless, that the audiences for debates are larger and more heterogeneous than those for any other campaign-related event, including the national nominating conventions. Debate formats, moreover, can provide useful insights into the information base of public opinion at the time they are held. A candidate cannot convey the same quantity, and quality, of information in two minutes that Kennedy and Nixon could get across on an important issue in 1960.

Some say what this points to is the American public’s seriously shortened attention span since 1960. Whatever it says, the result is a less politically informed electorate these days than as recently as 1960.

Moreover, government, especially in the age of Obama, has never been bigger, more powerful, and more pervasive in Americans’ lives. As Somin notes, the bigger and more intrusive government is, the more it behooves citizens to be politically attentive and knowledgeable.

According to Madison, “a people who mean to be their own governors should arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Note Madison’s use of the word “arm” in the context of acquiring political information. If one is knowledgeable about public affairs, according to Madison and those who agree with him, one is armed with the facts that will enable her/him to defend herself/himself against the inevitable attempts by big government to limit liberty.

The attentive and knowledgeable citizen can defend herself/himself against governmental depredations. The apathetic and ignorant one is at the ruling class’s mercy.

If the typical citizen attaches far less importance to the political arena than to personal matters such as family, work, health, friends, and even entertainment, should we be surprised that in 2016 many people will cast ballots based on little, if any, knowledge of the major issues facing the nation, and of the candidates’ positions on those issues? Should we be surprised that both major parties have nominated presidential candidates with the highest disapproval rates on record? Should it surprise us that, in both parties, prospective candidates who may have been better qualified for the presidency than those who have been nominated either chose not to enter the nomination fray, or were eliminated from consideration?

If low-information voters constitute a large portion of today’s electorate, wouldn’t America’s Founders (assuming they could live again) be right to fear for the republic’s future? Shouldn’t we?

Sadly, we live in the era of the low-information voter. The second edition of Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance (2016) documents widespread political ignorance among today’s public, including voters. Although nonvoters are abysmally ignorant of politics, voters are not walking, talking political encyclopedias either. Americans are more likely to be well-informed about celebrities, such as the Kardashians, than about political leaders.

Consistent with earlier research, Somin estimates that nearly a third of the American public are “know-nothings,” who possess “little or no relevant knowledge” about public affairs. As he notes, “[i]f the public really is often ignorant [about public affairs], we might have a serious problem on our hands.” (Hint: We do!)

In addition -- either as a cause or a corollary -- a large portion of the public is politically apathetic. Except in times of crisis, most Americans don’t pay much attention to what happens in the political arena, and most don’t care much about what’s going on in U.S. politics. They are more concerned with personal and family matters than with public affairs.

 (I do not mention America’s low voter turnout rates when writing about apathy. Although some focus on low turnout rates – relative to other western nations – when discussing apathy, voting is not always, and perhaps not even usually, a reliable indicator of how attentive people are to public affairs. Some people who are turned off by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may not vote in 2016, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t pay attention to public affairs.)

When it comes to the quest for the presidency in 2016, what are we to make of the fact that Americans are more familiar with Donald Trump the TV celebrity than they are with his policy proposals? In addition, substantial percentages of people who supported one of the Democrats seeking the presidency weren’t very well-informed about their favorite candidate. When young people who supported the 74-year-old socialist, Bernie Sanders, were asked to explain what socialism means, they tended to offer only vacuous definitions. In addition, one wonders what percentage of Hillary Clinton’s backers are aware of her promise to raise taxes by one trillion dollars over a ten-year period, and, if necessary, to do so via an executive order?

Americans’ political apathy and ignorance are especially worrisome when one considers that the U.S. political system was created by men who assumed – hoped? – that the Republic would be sustained by an engaged and informed populace. James Madison, often said to be the Constitution’s father, wrote that “[a] popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president, wrote that we should “[e]ducate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

If our republic ever was truly a government of, by, and for the people, that is but a dim memory. Today, the U.S. is governed by a ruling class – which constitutes at most only 15% of the populace, and that ruling class – dominated by Democrats, along with a few Republicans who are willing to be minority partners – has corrupted our country.

An obvious question for someone worried about the American public’s political apathy and ignorance is: “Hasn’t it been like this for decades? Therefore, what’s new?”

At first blush, one is inclined to answer yes, and thereby undermine much of the raison d’être for this essay.

On second thought, however, there are grounds for worrying about today’s political apathy and ignorance.

Compare, for example, the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 with those between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. In 1960, a candidate had eight minutes to make a case, and his opponent then had two-and-one-half minutes to rebut him. Each candidate had three minutes for a closing statement. By 2012, each candidate had only two minutes to respond to a question posed by the moderator.

It isn’t just debates’ formats that bespeak shortened attention spans, and consequent increased ignorance. Campaign ads have grown briefer and briefer and consequently far less informative in recent decades. Ads are now much less likely to tout the qualities and policies of the candidate they are designed to favor, and far more inclined to stress the opponent’s negative qualities and/or policies. Patterns of media campaign coverage have deteriorated as well.

It would be wrong to assume that presidential debates are the only venue by which ordinary people learn about public affairs. We should remember, nevertheless, that the audiences for debates are larger and more heterogeneous than those for any other campaign-related event, including the national nominating conventions. Debate formats, moreover, can provide useful insights into the information base of public opinion at the time they are held. A candidate cannot convey the same quantity, and quality, of information in two minutes that Kennedy and Nixon could get across on an important issue in 1960.

Some say what this points to is the American public’s seriously shortened attention span since 1960. Whatever it says, the result is a less politically informed electorate these days than as recently as 1960.

Moreover, government, especially in the age of Obama, has never been bigger, more powerful, and more pervasive in Americans’ lives. As Somin notes, the bigger and more intrusive government is, the more it behooves citizens to be politically attentive and knowledgeable.

According to Madison, “a people who mean to be their own governors should arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Note Madison’s use of the word “arm” in the context of acquiring political information. If one is knowledgeable about public affairs, according to Madison and those who agree with him, one is armed with the facts that will enable her/him to defend herself/himself against the inevitable attempts by big government to limit liberty.

The attentive and knowledgeable citizen can defend herself/himself against governmental depredations. The apathetic and ignorant one is at the ruling class’s mercy.

If the typical citizen attaches far less importance to the political arena than to personal matters such as family, work, health, friends, and even entertainment, should we be surprised that in 2016 many people will cast ballots based on little, if any, knowledge of the major issues facing the nation, and of the candidates’ positions on those issues? Should we be surprised that both major parties have nominated presidential candidates with the highest disapproval rates on record? Should it surprise us that, in both parties, prospective candidates who may have been better qualified for the presidency than those who have been nominated either chose not to enter the nomination fray, or were eliminated from consideration?

If low-information voters constitute a large portion of today’s electorate, wouldn’t America’s Founders (assuming they could live again) be right to fear for the republic’s future? Shouldn’t we?