"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Uninformed Electorate

Many political observers have commented that the American electorate is more uninformed than ever; that rational assessments are trumped over and over again by preconceived, subjective notions.  Totally unfounded conspiracy theories abound.  People vote on appeal and image,and respond to emotional issues that have less to do with their future economic and social well-being than on preformed personal, religious, and family convictions. 

Yet, as many political scientists, sociologists, and political philosophers have argued that the electorate has always been this way – not only uninformed, but happy in that ignorance.

As early as 1922 Walter Lippmann not only concluded the same the thing, but went on to say that modern democracy would never work, corrupted as it was by popular ignorance.  Following is a concise summary of Lippmann’s philosophy:

In 1922, Walter Lippmann published an influential book entitled Public Opinion. In this book, Lippmann was very suspicious and critical of any model of democracy that placed excessive faith and power in the hands of the public. For instance, he argued that participatory democracy was unworkable, that the democratic public was a myth, and hence that governance should be delegated exclusively to political representatives and their expert advisors. Based on empirical evidence about the efficacy of political propaganda and mass advertisement to shape people's ways of thinking, Lippmann contended that public opinion was highly shaped by leaders. Lippmann called this process of manipulation of consciousness 'the manufacture of consent', a concept that Noam Chomsky would popularize many years later in his writings.

Lippmann argued, first in 'Public Opinion' and later in 'The Phantom Public', that since ordinary citizens had no sense of objective reality, and since their ideas are merely stereotypes manipulated at will by people at the top, deliberative democracy was an unworkable dogma or impossible dream. Lippmann saw advocates of participatory democracy as romantic and nostalgic individuals who idealized the role of the ignorant masses to address public affairs and proposed an unrealistic model for the emerging mass society. (Selected Moments of the Twentieth Century, Daniel Shugurensky ed., University of Toronto 2010)

This conclusion was perhaps first stated by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave:

In the dialogue, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners. (Wikipedia)

Lippmann uses Plato’s Allegory of The Cave to illustrate how people have an “inability to functionally perceive and interpret the world with much accuracy.” We take in our “pseudo-environment,” which we create not on a rational basis, but on one based on our limited perceptions, and our personal and subjective interpretations. We believe what we hear and see on the news, radio,and  Internet.  Lippmann states in Public Opinion that “the world as they needed to know it, and they world as they did know it, were often two quite contradictory things.”

In one of the more recent scholarly pieces written, Larry Bartels offers the following similar conclusions:http://www.princeton.edu/~bartels/how_stupid.pdf

When social scientists first started using detailed opinion surveys to study the attitudes and behavior of ordinary voters, they found some pretty sobering things. In the early 1950s, Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues at Columbia University concluded that electoral choices “are relatively invulnerable to direct argumentation” and “characterized more by faith than by conviction and by wishful expectation rather than careful prediction of consequences.” For example, voters consistently misperceived where candidates stood on the important issues of the day, seeing their favorite candidates’ stands as closer to their own and opposing candidates’ stands as more dissimilar than they actually were. They likewise exaggerated the extent of support for their favorite candidates among members of social groups they felt close to.

In 1960, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan published an even more influential study, The American Voter. They described “the general impoverishment of political thought in a large proportion of the electorate,” noting that “many people know the existence of few if any of the major issues of policy.” Shifts in election outcomes, they concluded, were largely attributable to defections from long-standing partisan loyalties by relatively unsophisticated voters with little grasp of issues or ideology. A recent replication of their work using surveys from 2000 and 2004 found that things haven’t changed much in the past half-century. (The Irrational Electorate, Larry Bartels 2008)

In a famous debate with Lippmann in 1922, the political philosopher John Dewey argued that there could be an informed, enlightened electorate, but he had to admit that the role of intelligent, rational intermediaries was critical:

While Dewey did not dispute Lippmann's claim that social inquiry and policy design can be done by experts, he claimed that all the relevant facts and potential implications of such inquiry and proposed policies should remain a public trust which must not be manipulated by private interests. In The Public and its Problems, he admitted that "it is not necessary that the many should have the knowledge and skill to carry on the needed investigations; what is required is that they have the ability to judge of the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns." For Dewey, once the relevant facts are made public (and in this regards he placed great emphasis on the need of a truly free press), the role of discussion is to determine the exact nature of the common good in that particular situation.

I agree with Lippmann and the conclusions of Bartels – an uninformed electorate that votes its heart not its head will be with us for a very long time.  To make matters worse there exists today a vicious circle of an uninformed electorate which is deliberately manipulated by politicians (contrary to Dewey’s hopes) who, because of their education and training can certainly make rational policy choices, but needing to get elected, pander to the ignorance of their constituents and future supporters. Why make sense when no one else does?  Advertising makes the politician’s job easier, for it can craft emotive, non-rational messages that resonate with the personal and subjective convictions of voters.

I am not sure where this leaves me.  As I have expressed in my many posts on Shakespeare and references to Jan Kott’s The Grand Mechanism – the endless repetition of themes, cycles, and events of history – I believe that human beings are as aggressive and self-serving as Shakespeare describes; and as unable to perceive and judge reality as Plato observed.  Do I then fatalistically accept the inevitability of ignorance and withdraw from political action? Or do I follow Winston Churchill who famously said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.

I will grin and bear it, knowing that I am a part of this particular cycle of history, this particular turning of The Grand Mechanism.  I am certainly no different from other Americans – we all think we are informed, rational voters – so I will vote.  I don’t necessarily agree with Churchill that our current form of democracy is the best political system.  It simply is the one which currently best accommodates both the informed and the uninformed.  At the very least it seems to have evened out some of the sharp and ragged edges of our nature.

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