Monday, June 8, 2015

Voter Information vs. Voter Understanding

What does it mean to be a well-informed voter?

Political scientists have developed all sorts of questionnaires to measure political knowledge. Some questions focus on the basic structure of the government -- how many Supreme Court justices are there, who runs the House of Representatives. Others ask voters to name their own Congressman and Senators, or even state legislators (which I can't do). Other focus on current political issues, questions like what TARP was or whether budget deficit is going up or down. These surveys repeatedly show that the voters who know the most about the government are often wrong about current hot-button issues:
In 2006, the political scientists Christopher Achens and Larry Bartels presented a paper titled "It Feels Like We're Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy." In it, Achens and Bartels make a point that is so obvious we often forget its implications: "Very few politically consequential facts are subject to direct, personal verification."

In other words, an informed voter rarely knows anything firsthand, the way we know the sky is blue and the sun rose this morning. Everything she knows is taken on trust; an informed voter is only as good as her information sources. And because we all get to choose which information sources to believe, voters with more information are not always more informed. Sometimes, they're just more completely and profoundly misled.

Looking at the 1996 election, for instance, Achens and Bartels studied whether voters knew the budget deficit had dropped during President Clinton's first term (it had, and sharply). What they found will shake anyone who believes more information leads to a smarter electorate: how much voters knew about politics mattered less than which party they supported. Republicans in the 80th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Democrats in the 20th percentile of political knowledge. . . .

Similar experiments have shown similar self-deception among Democrats when the questions favor Republican ideas or politicians. Achens and Bartels's conclusion is grim: much of what looks like learning in American politics is actually, they argue, an elaborate performance of justifying the beliefs we already hold. "Most of the time, the voters are merely reaffirming their partisan and group identities at the polls. They do not reason very much or very often. What they do is rationalize."
This effect becomes strongest when you look at conspiracy theorists; people who think JFK was assassinated by Martians know many more facts about the assassination than people who think Oswald probably shot him.

And this is why Democrats (like Hillary Clinton this year) have been pushing so hard to  get more poor and minority people to vote, and Republicans keep trying to stop them. Because how people vote is very largely determined by who they are, not what they know.


G. Verloren said...

We're just as tribal and clannish as we've always been. Not much surprise there.

G. Verloren said...

To be honest, I sometimes feel the primary failing of democracy is that it demands the average person be educated, rational, and wise - which clearly has never been the case ever in the history of the universe.

Although to be fair, the fault may lie less in democracy making such demands, and more in humanity being too flawed to meet them...