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.
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. 3. Yes. People Are Too Ignorant to Know What They're Voting About, So We Should Shrink the Government.
This is the view of Professor Ilya Somin. But he is a libertarian so it's not shocking that his prescription is . . . smaller government. I don't think Somin's answer to the problem is particularly helpful for a number of reasons. First, Somin agrees, the public is very ignorant vis-a-vis traditional notions of political acuity. Dangerously ignorant. Then he dismisses the notion of "information shortcuts" or cues: "The major problems are that shortcuts often require preexisting knowledge to use effectively, and that many people choose information shortcuts for reasons unrelated to truth-seeking."
Next, Somin decides that there is no feasible way to fix the lack of political knowledge. Therefore, the only way for democracy to really work is to have a small government because people could then wrap their heads around that. I love libertarians. They have one answer for everything: smaller government!
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4. No. Because Not Even Politicians Are Not Experts on Every Issue They Vote On.
Lobbyists can be a pejorative word, but politicians will tell you that sometimes they provide useful information on a specific topic that the politician does not know much about. Less happily, there is the story about congressmen filing in to vote on a bill and relying on a "trusted" lobbyist who signals how to vote with a thumbs up or down. Or, congressman and Senators will rely on a trusted colleague who they know has a specific area of expertise (e.g., John Kerry on foreign policy; Paul Ryan on budget issues; Ted Cruz on being a raging as*hole & c.). The bottom line here: maybe we are holding the public to too high of a standard given political elites own inability to master policy.
American politics is really complicated. No one is an expert on everything -- beware of the person who refuses to say, "I don't know enough about to have an informed opinion on it." Elite manipulation of opinion -- JFK and the missile gap, GWB on Iraq -- is sometimes a concern, but the public has mostly shown a stubborn resistance to not be openly manipulated. (See Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence, at p. 26).
I'm sympathetic to the concern that Americans don't pay enough attention to the policies that affect them every day because they are not tangible. But Somin's call for a smaller government is no more than a ideological end-run using political ignorance as a tool to get to his policy preference for smaller government. Another idea that has been around since Plato, is the idea of philosopher-kings/technocrats/experts who are benevolent political rulers. However, in the end, the best evidence is that for all their alleged informational deficits, voters do a pretty good job of accurately expressing their policy preferences. Political ignorance matters, but not as much as some would lead us to believe.