Wednesday, April 27, 2011

High-impact, low-information, no rhyme or reason

Michael Kazin surveys independent voters and wonders if they're
a confused and clueless horde, whose interest in politics veers between the episodic and the non-existent?
Sure, but wasn't this common knowledge already? One would expect that the people who know and care least about a subject are also the people least likely to make up their minds on that subject. As far as I know, political science has repeatedly and consistently confirmed this conclusion.

What's incredible to me is the way the political media, and politicians themselves, consistently delude each other and us into thinking otherwise.

Kazin talks about two conceptions of the American electorate: Walter Lippman's technocratic democracy, in which experts and elites choose optimal policy, and John Dewey's more populist vision, in which voters educate themselves to make an informed choice between competing ideas. To hear pundits and politicians speak today, you'd think Dewey's vision has been utterly vindicated. If Obama wins the presidency, pundits tell us it's because voters prefer cap-and-trade to the Republican alternative (which was -- oh wait -- also cap-and-trade). If Democrats get pounded in the midterms, it's because voters have considered Obama's policies and rejected them as liberal overreach, instead endorsing Republican plans for austerity. And if polls now find that Republicans are immensely unpopular again, it must be because the fickle American electorate has tested GOP ideas and found them wanting.

Nonetheless, looking past the commentariat, it's hard to see how Lippman wasn't basically correct. Independents often decide close elections, and independents don't seem to know anything about anything. To the extent that independents are making important decisions, how could we possibly expect them to make the right ones? To use one recent example, voters who can barely tell you what a deficit is simply aren't capable of making intelligent decisions about the deficit.

This is all the more frustrating because independents and other low-informations could play an essential role in our democracy. Independent voters are very knowledgeable about one important subject: their own lives. And with regards to that subject, they're more qualified than anybody to make important policy decisions. They don't have to think hard or educate themselves: instead, if the guys in charge aren't making you happy, just throw the bums out! And if nothing gets better under the new guys, throw them out too! Wash, rinse, repeat. Even uninformed voters can still find the best ideas by churning through all the bad ones first.

Unfortunately, electoral trial-by-error only works if voters see change when they elect someone new. To return to what is already well-trodden ground on this blog, elections that don't trigger policy innovation don't provide any cues for voters, either. The true failing of the American political system is not that its voters are too dumb to make good choices, but that it ignores voters' choices all too often.

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Joe Schmoe sees that he's got less money in his bank account. He notices energy prices going up. He's stressed that his family can't afford health insurance. Is it the President's fault? The Senate's? Maybe it was something that the last Congress did, that the current Congress can't find the votes to repeal. Or maybe it was something his state legislature did. Or his city council. Regardless, here's how Joe will respond: he's going to go to the polls and cast a vote against some incumbent, somewhere. If he's lucky, he'll vote against a person who actually had a hand in creating his problem, but probably not.

Either way, some pundit, somewhere, will end up in front of a TV screen, talking about how the Joe Schmoes of America have demonstrated a clear preference for less government spending, or maybe for more government spending. We tell ourselves that America wants a divided Congress because it doesn't like one party having all the power, or that voters have been swayed by the President's arguments in favor of middle-class tax cuts. Charitably, you might call these misconceptions; less charitably, excuses. We justify the failures of our political system -- ignore the obvious truth that complexity make decisionmaking hard and breeds chaos -- by pretending that everybody knows about things that hardly anybody knows about. It's absurd.

Modern democracy has a place for independent, low-information voters. After all, the majority of people are never going to invest themselves heavily in politics, and any democracy that gave the majority of people little credence would deserve little credence itself. But in order to build a system that actually works for most voters, we have to stop kidding ourselves about who these people are and what they're doing when they're in the ballot booth.

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