Celebrating 125 Years of Publishing
Celebrating 125 Years of Publishing
The Introduction provides an overview of the book's arguments, and places the debate over political ignorance in historical context, going back all the way to the origins of democracy in ancient Greece.
This chapter summarizes the alarming extent of political ignorance in the United States, up through the most recent election cycles in 2012 and 2014. It also shows that the problem of ignorance is not of recent origin, and that political knowledge levels have increased very little, if at all, over the past fifty to sixty years.
This chapter compares actual levels of political knowledge with the requirements of several widely accepted normative theories of democratic participation: retrospective voting, Burkean trusteeship, representation of public opinion on policy issues, and deliberative democracy. It finds that voter knowledge falls short of the requirements of all of them, even the least demanding. The chapter also describes some situations where voter knowledge might actually be harmful, but argues that such cases are relatively rare. It further explains why the disproportionate political power of the affluent (who have greater knowledge, on average, than the poor and middle class) should not lead to complacency about political ignorance.
This chapter explains why political ignorance is the result of rational behavior by voters. It also shows that voters have little incentive to avoid bias and irrationality in their evaluation of the political information they do know—a phenomenon known as "rational irrationality." The combination of rational ignorance and rational irrationality is much worse than either would be alone, and makes political ignorance a difficult problem to solve. It also leaves voters vulnerable to demagoguery and deception.
Many argue that political ignorance is not a serious problem, because voters can offset it by relying on information shortcuts. This chapter reviews the major types of shortcuts, and concludes that they are less effective than advocates claim and often actively counterproductive. The shortcuts analyzed include retrospective voting, information from everyday life, party identification, reliance on opinion leaders, and others. The chapter also rejects claims that voter ignorance is irrelevant because of the so-called miracle of aggregation.
This chapter explains why people have stronger incentives to seek out information and use it more wisely when they "vote with their feet" in the private sector or in a federal system than when they vote at the ballot box. Both rational ignorance and rational irrationality are far less prevalent in the former settings. The informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government power. The chapter also addresses influential objections to foot voting, such as claims that it is undermined by moving costs, that it will lead to a race to the bottom, that it is bad for minorities, and that it will exacerbate an already dangerous "Big Sort," under which we become ever more ideologically segregated.
This chapter explains why widespread political ignorance strengthens the case for forceful judicial review. Strong judicial enforcement of constitutional limits on government power can help facilitate foot voting by limiting and decentralizing government power. In addition, political ignorance undercuts the main standard objection to judicial review: the so-called countermajoritarian difficulty, which holds that judicial review is harmful because it goes against the will of democratic majorities. In a world of widespread political ignorance, much of the legislation courts might strike down does not meaningfully reflect the will of the people.
This chapter assesses a variety of proposals for increasing voter knowledge, including education, reforming media coverage of politics, structured deliberation, jurylike "sortition" mechanisms, and paying voters to increase their knowledge. It argues that none of these proposals are likely to achieve major progress in the foreseeable future. Some proposed election reforms, most notably mandatory voting, might even make things worse.
The Conclusion summarizes the themes of the book, and also considers prospects for the future. Although political ignorance is an extraordinarily difficult challenge to overcome, there is reason to hope that we can mitigate it by limiting and decentralizing the power of government. Over time, voters might come to have a better understanding of their own limitations, and perhaps become more willing to channel their frustration and skepticism about politics into efforts to reduce its role in society.