Americans may be divided by party, but they are united in ignorance. Seventy percent of them are unaware that Congress passed a prescription drug benefit for the elderly, the most publicized domestic accomplishment of the Bush years.
Nearly 60% are unfamiliar with the Patriot Act and, as a result, are oblivious to the debate taking place in Washington about whether civil liberties should be curtailed in wartime. If Republicans lose control of one or both houses of Congress in November, the message voters deliver will be tempered by the fact that a majority does not know that Republicans currently control both.
Does ignorance matter? For years, scholars argued that it did not. Some pointed out that voters rely on what political scientist Samuel Popkin calls “low-information rationality” when making their decisions; in other words, they respond to cues -- Al Gore’s sighs, George W. Bush’s sneers -- that stand in, not always incorrectly, for a candidate’s broader policy positions.
Others, such as professors Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro, argue that although each voter may not possess considered views, the mistakes cancel each other out when all views are added up, producing a coherent overall picture. Still others -- notably, Stanford University professor Morris Fiorina -- claim that voters hold politicians accountable retrospectively; that even if they don’t know the details of a candidate’s policy positions, they are quite capable of comparing the quality of their lives now with the quality four years ago and judging their elected officials accordingly.
The views of these political scientists once had some merit. Throughout much of the 1970s and into the ‘80s, voter ignorance, however disturbing to people who teach about politics, did not interfere with how democracy worked because Americans were centrist in their views. Office-seekers understood that and tended to move to the center in search of support, and voters and politicians wound up on the same page. Americans were not harmed by their lack of knowledge because whatever the president or Congress did was more or less in accord with what most Americans wanted.
In recent years, the conditions that made democracy work in the face of ignorance remain in place -- except one. Most Americans continue to remain moderate in their views: They think abortion should be legal but rare; that Social Security should be reformed but not privatized, and that the war against Iraq was justified, although they would have preferred to have had the support of the United Nations.
Yet the nation’s current leaders no longer share voters’ centrist inclinations; the Bush administration prefers judges who would restrict the legality of abortion, seeks to change the basic principles that have undergirded Social Security since the 1930s and went to war without the support of the United Nations. Not only are voters and politicians no longer on the same page, they are not even reading from the same book.
In these more ideological times, voter ignorance, far from being a relatively harmless quirk, becomes a serious problem for democratic performance. Politicians, for one thing, come to rely on ignorance to get what they want; lack of political knowledge, in that sense, is not a byproduct of the public’s failure to read newspapers or talk with their neighbors but is the result of systematic efforts to mislead the public by those claiming to represent them.
All politicians try to “spin” the truth to their advantage, as we saw during the Clinton years. But no one has ever gone to the extremes of the Bush administration in suppressing data hostile to its policies, punishing those who leak information needed by the public to make informed decisions, paying off journalists sympathetic to its causes or repeating claims widely known by everyone else to be false.
The Bush administration does not do these things because it is mindlessly mendacious; it does them because it is keenly aware that the more informed the public becomes, the less likely it will be to support what the administration hopes to accomplish. And to the degree that the public fails to pay attention to the administration’s objectives, it harms itself. Only later -- when voters discover that the war in Iraq cost more than projected or that Medicare pays less than promised -- do they realize how much their lack of attention has cost them.
Voters could respond to this attempt to impose on them policies they do not support by overcoming their political ignorance. But this they rarely do. Instead, Americans tend to grow increasingly cynical about politics; the distrust they express toward their leaders is as consistent a finding among political scientists as their lack of political knowledge.
When politicians try to manipulate them, Americans frequently respond not by informing themselves about events but by concluding that they were correct to distrust politicians in the first place. This creates a vicious cycle in which ignorance breeds manipulation that then justifies further ignorance. Why pay attention to politics, Americans ask themselves, if politicians are just going to ignore what we want?
Given the disheartening times through which so many Americans have lived -- the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate, the Clinton impeachment, the 2000 election, Sept. 11, the Iraq war and a looming constitutional crisis over presidential authority during the Bush years -- it is perhaps understandable that they learn so little about politics and distrust it so much. Such a conclusion, however, can take us only so far.
Ultimately, the American public’s lack of information about politics stems from one fact only: Americans have a choice concerning the future of their democracy, and they are not exercising that choice responsibly.
This is a harsh conclusion to reach, and I do not reach it lightly. One always wants to give ordinary Americans the benefit of the doubt; Americans tend to be reasonable in their views and moderate in their inclinations.
But reasonableness is not enough, not in this contentious age. Leaders determined to achieve ideologically driven agendas have raised the stakes for Americans, brilliantly taking advantage of their ignorance of and hostility toward politics to pursue policies that can only prey on their fears and destroy their hopes.
American democracy will only be as good as Americans are willing to make it. If it is to perform better, they will have to work harder.