After the political earthquakes of recent years – and with another US election just over six weeks away – the question of how well informed voters are is once again a concern. That most people have a low level of political knowledge is widely known and confirmed by decades of research in political science. Is a vote cast in ignorance as valuable as a vote cast in the full knowledge of what’s at stake?
It would be hard to argue that some citizens aren’t ignorant, closed-minded or biased. Many commentators are troubled by the broad lack of public political knowledge. The renowned psychologist David Dunning says “we are all confident idiots”; Vox Editor Ezra Klein claims “politics makes us stupid”; and the Emmy award-winning reporter Rick Shenkman says most voters are “foolish” about politics. These indictments rest fundamentally on the assumption that ordinary citizens should know more about politics.
But is this expectation reasonable?
There are many important topics about which each of us knows nothing, or almost nothing. I know next to nothing about the search for a vaccine for Covid-19. While I very much hope this search succeeds, I nevertheless devote zero effort to learning about the relevant science. I also know little about molecular biology, art history, the Amazon rainforest, Buddhism, and many other subjects – and yet I have little doubt these things are all very important.
This is not unusual. We expect people to have large gaps in their knowledge of various issues, because the act of learning has an opportunity cost. It takes time and effort that we could otherwise spend in our jobs, taking care of our kids, going to church or watching a movie. As Tony Blair wrote in his account of his time as prime minister: “[T]he single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long […] For most normal people, politics is a distant, occasionally irritating fog.”
But does this mean, as the indictments of public ignorance cited above imply, that voters ought to know more about political issues, policies and candidates? Does our conception of democracy invoke a duty for voters to become adequately informed about politics?
As Robert Talisse writes in his new book, Overdoing Democracy, we “take voting to be a duty that is responsibly exercised only after having taken steps to become adequately informed”. Similarly, author Michael P Lynch says we have a democratic obligation to form our political beliefs in responsible ways in accordance with the truth.
Others say voters are not only morally obliged to vote in a knowledgeable way, but that without knowledgeable voters, democracy does not function well. In the most authoritative study of voter knowledge, Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter write that “factual knowledge about politics is a critical component of citizenship”.
Does the ideal of the well-informed citizen create a duty for each individual to be informed? And if so, how strong is this duty? Is it enough just to know a few basic facts? Or must voters know much more than that?
When considering how much voters should know, it is important to remember that humans often reason for purposes other than finding the truth. As psychologists have observed for decades, social attachments and a sense of group belonging are among the most fundamental human needs. Loneliness, isolation and a lack of belonging have negative effects on health, development and overall well-being. A sense of belonging has strong effects on cognitive processing.
This explains why people can seem “irrational” about politics. When forming beliefs, we can have at least two goals. One is accuracy, the other is to feel good about ourselves. In daily life, it often pays to have accurate views about the world. If you have the wrong theory of how to drive a car, you will crash; if you have false beliefs about how to cook a roast, it will burn.
In politics, however, the formation of belief is often not about truth. People care instead about loyalty to their group, increasing their standing in the community, and self-interest. Voters may hold political beliefs that are similar to the people they like and want to associate with, or they may support proposals that would benefit themselves or their group – but not everyone else.
Is this a contemptible way to reason?
Not necessarily. In fact, it’s not even necessarily irrational; the ordinary voter has little, if any, influence on public-choice outcomes, such as who gets elected or what policy is implemented. There are infinitesimally small odds that your vote will decide the outcome of an election. And even if your vote does make a difference, there is no guarantee that your elected politician will stick to their campaign promises. This is assuming you know what you want in the first place: the size and complexity of modern government makes it virtually impossible for most ordinary citizens to have informed opinions about what the government does.
Political beliefs differ, then, from our beliefs about how to drive a car or cook a meal. If we get these ordinary beliefs wrong, they negatively affect our goals. In contrast, false political beliefs are inconsequential or may even positively affect us.
As Paul Bloom writes in Against Empathy: “Suppose I think that the leader of the opposing party has sex with pigs, or has thoroughly botched the arms deal with Iran. Unless I’m a member of a tiny powerful community, my beliefs have no effect on the world. This is certainly true as well for my views about the flat tax, global warming, and evolution.”
We therefore have little incentive to carefully consider the consequences of our beliefs for social policy, and a much greater incentive to adopt beliefs that maximise personal happiness.
Those who criticise voters for knowing too little about politics assume that political beliefs ought to aim at truth. They miss the point that, for many citizens, this is not the sole aim of political thinking.
Our failure to gather evidence, attend to data, and consider counter-arguments does not necessarily reflect stupidity, laziness, or irrationality. It reflects how many of us make sense of politics: we care more about strengthening social bonds with our neighbours, reducing psychological discomfort and enjoying the benefits of being a political “fan”. Our poorly formed political beliefs play valuable roles in daily life.
None of this is to deny the problem public ignorance poses for democracy. When voters ignore facts and logic to indulge their emotions or gratify their egos, they are sometimes led to racist, sexist and xenophobic beliefs. Identity politics may also explain why the US president is peddling conspiracy theories as a form of political propaganda: some voters will readily believe conspiracies with little or no evidence if these theories align with a political outlook that makes them feel included or that they feel might benefit them.
To say that we cannot reasonably expect citizens to be well informed about politics is not to say it is reasonable for them to hold racist or sexist beliefs, or to believe in conspiracy theories. We can criticize these beliefs on other grounds.
Racist and sexist beliefs clearly have direct consequences and an immediate negative effect on other people. Coronavirus myths are dangerous because they prevent individuals from protecting themselves and others. But a voter’s opinion about the flat tax is, at an individual level, unlikely to have much effect on the world.
However, policies and decisions that are founded on collective ignorance tend to blow up in our faces. These collective harms may suffice to generate a democratic duty to vote well. Jason Brennan takes this to mean that voters have a moral duty to learn a lot about politics – and infers, because this is more than we can reasonably expect from most citizens, that citizens have a moral obligation not to vote.
But there is no squaring this with the most basic premise of democracy. If voters are equal, it doesn’t matter how much you know; you still get a say, because you have to live with the consequences of what you choose.
As Michelle Obama said, at a “get out the vote event” in Las Vegas in 2018:
“Voting does not require any kind of special expertise […] You don’t need to have some fancy degree to be qualified to vote. You don’t have to read every news article to be qualified to vote. You know what you need to be qualified to vote? You need to be a citizen […] You need to have opinions about the issues in your community. That’s what qualifies you to vote […] I’ve been voting since I was 18 years old. And trust me, I didn’t know nothing about nothing.”
Indictments of voter ignorance rest on elitist, anti-democratic assumptions that voters themselves resist. Concerns about voter ignorance lead inevitably to an unjustified attack on our democratic rights. By making information the currency of democratic citizenship, those citizens who lack the required funds are excluded from participation.
Michael Hannon is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of “What’s the Point of Knowledge”.
This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the “New Statesman” and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.