“The Low Information Electorate” is the title of Chapter Five in “Head In The Cloud”, an important book by William Poundstone. Both conservatives and liberals agree about how spectacularly dumb the great mass of conservatives and liberals are. Poundstone notes that this statement is true and proceeds to prove his point.
Ignorance is probably most pronounced in judicial races. In 1992 the well-respected California judge Abraham Aponte Khan lost an election to a virtually unknown challenger who had been rated “unqualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association. The name of he challenger was Patrick Murphy, a name that sounded less foreign than “Khan.” Should you ever have problems with judicial decisions, perhaps the first factor to consider is how they are chosen. There are ample data to show that judicial elections are a bad idea.
Poundstone conducted a survey of adults to name the holders of fourteen elected offices—national, state, and local. He found that essentially everyone can name the president, 89% were able to name the vice-president, 62% could identify at leas one of their state’s US senators. Slightly less than half could name both and 55% knew their district’s congressperson. 81% were able to name the governor of their state. Barely half of those who said they lived in a municipality with a mayor or city manager were able to name that official. These offices were the limit of the typical citizen’s knowledge. Less than a third of the respondents could name the current holders of other offices. These participants were asked to describe their political preferences on a five-point scale from “very conservative” to “very liberal.” There was no correlation between these ratings and knowing the names of elected officials.
However, Poundstone did find a correlation between knowing the name and knowing something about the individual. A voter who does not know the name of a mayor is unlikely to know much else about her, such as the issues she ran on and any accomplishments, failures, or criminal convictions that would bear on a bid for reelection.
in 2014 the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a survey of adults on facts that they should have learned in civics class.
*If the Supreme Court rules on a case 50 to 4, what does it mean?
21% answered, “The decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.” Wrong!
*How much of a majority is required for the US Senate and the House of Representatives to override a presidential veto?
Only 27% gave the correct answer, two-thirds.
*Do you happen to know any of the three branches of government? Would you mind naming any of them?
Only 36% were able to name all three (executive, legislative, judicial)
What is also striking is the ignorance among professional politicians. In a 2015 speech presidential candidate Rick Perry quoted a great patriot: “Thomas Paine wrote the ‘duty of a patriot’ is to protect his country from his government.” Paine did not write this. It appears in the writings of radical-left environmentalist Edward Abbey.
In 2011 another presidential contender, Michele Bachman told Nashua, New Hampshire, supporters, “You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord.” As the sharp readers of the healthy memory blog likely know that those towns are in Massachusetts.
Of course, these individuals are failed presidential candidates. Bill Clinton, however, is a two-term president. On October 16,1996 he said, “The last time I checked, the Constitution said, “Of the people, by the people and for the people” That’s what the Declaration of Independence says.” Unfortunately those words are from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and are not in either of the documents he cited. Bill Clinton has said many times, that Hillary is better than he is. That is undoubtedly true, but unfortunately she had not proofread his speech. All three individuals have staffs who should be vetting their speeches. So what gives???
One might think that character can override ideology. We hear of swing voters who say they will decide between two ideologically different candidates based on character, likability, or simply being the “better man or woman for the job.” Unfortunately UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck has found the split-tickets—those who vote for candidates from more than one party—are less informed than those who hold to a party line. She surveyed a sample of 45 thousand Americans, asking them to name the current occupations of politicians such as Nancy Pelosi and John Roberts. She compared the survey results to voting patterns. Those who fell in the bottom third of political knowledge stood a 12% chance of voting for senatorial and presidential candidates from different parties in the 2012 election. Among the best-informed third, the chance of a split ticket was only 4%.
Under informed voters were also more likely to describe themselves as undecided on hot-button issues such as immigration, same-sex marriage, and increasing taxes on the wealthy. These finds fit in with the notion of a “mushy muddle.” Political pollers recognized that many who identify themselves as moderates are really just those who “don’t know.”
Poundstone writes, “We hope that voters in the middle supply a reality check to partisanship and help promote the compromise necessary to a democratic society. There “are” voters who hold strong, well-reasoned political convictions that happen to lie in between those of the two parties. There just aren’t too many of these voters, it seems.”
Given this epidemic of ignorance, how do democracies survive? Here is an explanation offered by Poundstone. “One way to think of it is that democracies are like casinos. They exploit human irrationality—and, come to think of it, there aren’t many firmer foundations than that. There are enough “irrational” voters to channel the wisdom of crowds and select candidates who are in tune with public sentiment and who are , usually not all that bad.”
HM is always annoyed and exhortations “to vote.” The exhortation should be to get informed, and when once informed, consider voting. There is already significant noise in elections. What is the point of increasing the noise?
Poundstone concludes the chapter that relates knowledge of elected officers to personal wealth. When he asked his respondents to name the current occupants of these seven elected offices: at least one of your state’s two US senators, your state’s governor, you state senator, your county sheriff, your city of town councilperson, and your local school board representative. The average adult can name only about three of the seven. Those who could name all seven offices made about $43,000 more per year than those who couldn’t name any of the offices.
This fact points to the importance of certain information being in one’s brain rather than being found some place in the cloud.
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