Does Public Ignorance Mattter for Electoral Outcomes?

Larry Bartles over at his web page:

One of the best-selling political books of this election season is Just How Stupid Are We?, a report on “the truth about the American voter” by popular historian Rick Shenkman. Shenkman’s little book presents a familiar collection of bleak survey results documenting some of the many things most Americans don’t know about politics, government, and American history. He concludes that “public ignorance” is “the most obvious cause” of “the foolishness that marks so much of American politics.” Lest this conclusion seem dispiriting, an obligatory hopeful coda offers anodyne proposals for civic improvement.

Never mind whether more civics courses and “democracy parties” are really going to stem the tide of public ignorance. The reader’s first response to Shenkman’s indictment should be: So what?

Does it really matter whether voters can name the Secretary of Defense or know how long a senator’s term is? The political consequences of “public ignorance” must be demonstrated, not assumed. And that requires focusing not just on what voters don’t know, but on how what they don’t know affects how they vote. Do they manage to make sensible choices despite being hazy about the details of politics and government? (Okay, really hazy.) If so, that’s not stupid—it’s efficient. Moreover, what really matters is not whether individual voters go astray, but whether entire electorates do. A lot of idiosyncratic individual behavior can be submerged in the collective verdict of 120 million voters.

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