Four Reasons Why Being Politically Ignorant May or May Not Matter
The Onion, as it so often does, hits the nail on the head regarding political ignorance with this "headline": "Man Who Understands 8% Of Obamacare Vigorously Defends It From Man Who Understands 5%." The satirical headline is simply highlighting the commonplace that Americans simply do not know much about American politics/policy.
I Ain't Ignorant
In his book, Just How Stupid Are We?, journalist Rick Shenkman takes the American populous to task: "Fifty percent of Americans can name four characters from 'The Simpsons,' but only two out of five can name all three branches of the federal government. No more than one in seven can find Iraq on a map." Zing! See how stupid you are. (As an aside, Shenkman's book is a pretentious jeremiad which confuses stupidity with political ignorance).
But it is true we don't know much about politics. Americans think we spend far more on foreign aid than we actually do. Americans will tell you the homicide rate is increasing when it is actually dropping, drastically.
So, let's explore some different answers to the question: Does Being Politically Ignorant Matter?
1. Yes. But We Need to Have More of "Dialogue" About the Issues, then We can Vote Smartly.
So, there's something that's been dreamed up called "deliberation day." In short,
Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin argue that Americans can revitalize their democracy and break the cycle of cynical media manipulation that is crippling public life. They propose a new national holiday--Deliberation Day--for each presidential election year. On this day people throughout the country will meet in public spaces and engage in structured debates about issues that divide the candidates in the upcoming presidential election.
I am not making this up. Ackerman is a Yale law professor who came up with the idea. It is so precious, so ivory tower, it is difficult to take seriously. Well, you see, me and my colleagues have wine and cheese and discuss political issues all the time! It would be great if everyone did it. This is no more than wishful thinking.
Besides being a pie in the sky idea, it ignores research which shows that when misinformed people are confronted with facts that challenge their priors, they reject such and may even become more entrenched in their incorrect beliefs.
2. No. Because People take Their Cues From Political Elites and Well-Informed Friends and Acquaintances.
Political scientists who aren't as starry-eyed as those who advocate "deliberative democracy" (see above), note that many people look to political elites or leverage the expertise of the well-informed in their social networks to take their cue on how to approah an issue. In this sense, opinion leaders in both camps matter. For example, in a study where people were been told that "[Pat Buchanan/Jesse Jackson] support or oppose no-fault automobile insurance," Democrats and Republicans used that "cue" to formulate their response to the issue.
Moreover, there is the obvious but often forgotten point that not all voters care about all issues to the same degree. I might really care about income inequality, you might be an environmentalist, or really care about LGBT rights. Therefore, they may be competent in those areas and use cues from elites on issues that they know less about. And others have added that "aggregate preferences" -- the idea that the collective view will resemble the average individuals' long term priors -- of the American public reach something that resembles an accurate representations of the American public's attitudes toward different issues.
Based on all this, then, one could say that the American public's political ignorance is not quite as threatening as one might think.