Democracy is celebrated for its elections, which provide citizens a means of holding their government accountable. However, the democratic process is only functional if citizens are well-informed. If the public is neither aware of the nation’s condition, nor familiar with the bodies of government, the resulting policies could have disastrous ramifications. Since the 1800s, prominent thinkers and talkers have lamented political ignorance. Walter Lippmann, an American political commentator, argued that limitations such as bias, censorship, and a restricted worldview prevent citizens from making informed decisions (Bybee). John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher and political economist, bewailed that because the voting process allows individuals to exercise power over others, voters’ poor decisions can lead to the detriment of an entire nation (124). Yet today, even with the advent of information technology and mass media, ignorance has not decreased. This is incredibly problematic in the age of globalization; voter decisions impact not only citizens in their respective countries, but also the entire international community.
Political ignorance is a real and prevalent phenomenon, particularly in the United States. As outlined by Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, countless studies have shown that Americans have little knowledge of governmental structure and controversial national issues. One example of this is the 2014 midterm election, when control of the Senate and the House of Representatives was a major contention. Leading up to the election, only 38% of Americans realized that the Democrats controlled the Senate and the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives (Somin, 1). Consequently, citizens likely had trouble accurately evaluating the performance of each party. Another disputed topic was the deportation of undocumented immigrants. An alarming 53% of Americans believed that the number of deportations under the Obama administration had decreased compared to the preceding 10 years, while it had in fact reached a record high in 2013 (Somin, 25). Of course, these statistics are not the only way to assess the Obama administration’s immigration policy. Nevertheless, the misinformation could certainly have increased restrictionist anger and immigration supporters’ satisfaction with Obama’s policies in this field (Somin, 25).
A lack of political knowledge leads to a distorted perception of reality, meaning that citizens vote for politicians whose policies are both ineffective and harmful. One such inaccurate worldview is the attitude of American citizens toward the Iraq War around 2004. A survey conducted by the New York Times showed that a staggering 60% of Americans did not know the approximate number of U.S. troops killed in the war. In addition, 58% believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks despite the Bush administration announcing they were unrelated (Somin, 38). Another survey conducted by Gallup revealed that 86% of Americans believed Iraq had facilities to manufacture weapons of mass destruction even though none were found. Knowing the estimated casualties and the purpose of a war are crucial in weighing its costs and benefits. Prevailing misconceptions were thus likely part of the reason citizens did not vote to end the war over the course of eight years. However, the length of the war brought enormous consequences to both America and Iraq, as thousands of American troops died, civilian casualties mounted, and trillions of dollars were spent. Once the public realized this, it called for an immediate pullout. This, too, had disastrous implications; Iraq’s newly formed democratic government was unstable, and the abruptness of America’s departure led to devastating internal turmoil. Regrettably, the Iraq War is only one of many instances in which votes mean life or death for people both at home and abroad.
Accountability is one of the fundamental principles of democracy. When a government implements unproductive or destructive policies, citizens are to vote in another party. Yet without understanding the true nature of such policies, citizens may be instead actively voting for them. Moreover, citizens are often ignorant of the functions of various government branches and the people responsible for different fields, making it difficult for them to assign blame to the correct group. Political ignorance thus raises questions of whether the public should have the power to make important national decisions.
While the choice to vote is generally based on social responsibility, the existence of voter ignorance can be explained by the fact that individual voters cannot significantly influence the election outcome (Somin, 80). For instance, during the 2008 American election, “voters had a one in sixty million chance of casting a decisive vote” (Somin, 75). From a citizen’s perspective, taking time to acquire political knowledge would occupy time better spent on more meaningful activities. The resulting ignorance is similar to the tragedy of the commons, an economic issue where common goods such as clean air are continuously polluted by people and firms because their individual environmental practices would make little difference to global carbon emissions (Chappelow). In this way, voters collectively decide not to educate themselves on politics because they know their vote does not matter. The “wisdom of crowds” is thus rendered ineffective in the face of collective ignorance.
Because there is little benefit to acquiring political knowledge, citizens’ votes are based upon their personal experience and information provided by political parties. However, this presents a number of problems. Although daily life can show the success or failure of government policy, crucial aspects of it cannot be understood through experience (Somin 112). For instance, a voter will not be capable of discerning why prices of goods have increased if they are not knowledgeable about trade relations and the state of the economy. As a result, they are unable to determine which policy is at fault. Moreover, even if they accurately pinpoint the flaw in the government’s policy, they may not know whether another party’s policies will improve the situation. Daily life also fails to account for foreign policy and issues of international scale, as citizens do not regularly interact with them. Information from political parties is not much better. Candidates use rhetoric, emotional arguments, and ad hominem attacks against other candidates in order to persuade their audience. This obscures facts and makes it difficult for ill-informed citizens to understand political issues (Somin, 113).
Jason Brennan, a political philosopher from Georgetown University, states that democracy is not the optimal form of government because it fails to benefit citizens or lead to more equitable outcomes. Brennan believes a society ruled by elites is necessary for the common good. He argues that countries should adopt an “epistocracy,” a system that “distributes political power in proportion to knowledge or competence” (Brennan, 208). This could mean only allowing those who have passed a knowledge test to vote, or more heavily weighting the votes of the educated. When questioned about how much knowledge would be considered enough and who would create the test, Brennan proposed that 500 citizens be randomly selected to design the knowledge test in order to avoid bias. He argues that this would be effective because citizens often have an idea of what they ought to know, but do not actually spend the time to find out the answers. Despite Brennan’s good intentions, an epistocracy could be disastrous. In particular, those living in poverty may have limited time and resources to learn about politics. The rich would therefore have greater influence in elections, and the poor would be underrepresented and further disenfranchised. Even if the votes were distributed more equitably to account for financial status or discrimination, there is no guarantee that an epistocracy could be implemented in an unbiased manner.
Somin suggested that countries should implement “foot voting,” a system in which the government is decentralized and citizens migrate internally to show approval for local governmental policies (Somin, 136). Governments thus have incentive to adopt more responsible legislation in order to attract people. In addition, because citizens choose where they live, there is a higher incentive to understand politics (Somin 136). One example of foot voting was the Southern Black Migration during the Jim Crow era, when hundreds of African Americans migrated to the North for improved living conditions and civil rights. In fear of losing black labour, Southern governments finally began addressing African American lynching (Somin 151). However, foot voting also has a number of drawbacks. Firstly, its inherently local nature does not account for foreign policy and international relations. Secondly, it could encourage minority oppression and large-scale ethnic enclaves. People would gravitate toward those of similar beliefs and culture, instead of trying to understand and coexist with others. Finally, competition between different regions could lead to harmful policies due to a lack of strong central government. For instance, a region might ignore federal legislation and relax environmental regulations to attract more firms and create jobs. This would hurt regions that do uphold regulations, as well as encouraging pollution.
There are no quick fixes to political ignorance. Both epistocracy and foot voting favor the wealthy, as citizens require the means and time to educate themselves or move. In addition, they do not ensure citizens get what they want, as societal issues are incredibly multi-faceted and each potential solution has different drawbacks and benefits. Finally, they reduce accountability and make it easier for authority figures to abuse power; in an epistocracy, the wealthy can manipulate the knowledge test and make policies that further prevent the poor from voting, and foot voting forbids citizens from having input in international affairs. Given that such drastic upheavals to the voting system can have undesirable outcomes, long-term solutions appear to be the only way to mitigate the impacts of ignorance.
One such solution is educating the youth. Schools should incorporate current events discussions into the curriculum and encourage conversation about the latest societal issues. By consistently exposing children to real world problems and emphasizing the importance of voting responsibly, it is more likely that they will remain engaged. One main concern is that teachers are biased. To minimize this problem, teachers should teach factual knowledge rather than preaching the superiority of certain moral values. This is what the public lacks: accurate facts to be evaluated based on personal morality. In addition, students can be taught to consider different perspectives and identify bias from both primary sources and the media, reducing the influence of rhetoric during elections.
Another possible solution is having an unbiased third party such as national elections organizations create information packages. These would provide a breakdown of election issues to be mailed out to citizens and distributed on election day. It could include proposals and quotes from different candidates, as well as essential factual information. The compilation would allow voters who lack the time to filter through multiple media sources to understand recent controversies and compare points of view. Although these packages are also susceptible to bias and could take substantial resources to create, they are necessary considering the immense impacts of ignorance. Furthermore, they are a great improvement from the alternative, where citizens only view content provided by one political party or rely on inaccurate rumors on social media.
Political ignorance, though seemingly rational, is detrimental for individuals and societies alike. When votes can mean life or death, there is no room for misinformation. However, as much as a vote grants citizens power over others, it is also a fundamental right. Although accountability is fruitless if citizens are uninformed, threatening to remove their right to vote or removing voting entirely is inequitable and does not lead to better policies. Instead, citizens should be made aware of the responsibilities that come with voting, and reliable political knowledge should be accessible to all demographics. Ignorance is not bliss. Citizens must be informed to demand change.
Somin, Ilya. Democracy and Political Ignorance : Why Smaller Government Is Smarter / Ilya Somin. Second ed., 2016.
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Illing, Sean. “Epistocracy: A Political Theorist’s Case for Letting Only the Informed Vote.” Vox, 23 July 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/7/23/17581394/against-democracy-book-epistocracy-jason-brennan.