The electorate

THE ELECTORATE…. Paul Krugman’s NYT column today is an important one, which raises several points that haven’t received significant attention from major media outlets. In particular, he predicts that if the midterm elections go very badly for Democrats, “the usual suspects will say that it was because Mr. Obama was too liberal,” which would be both foolish and wrong.

And while it’s hardly the most important point, Krugman also noted that policy issues don’t seem to matter to voters, “in part because voters are often deeply ill informed.” The column left the public off easy: “There’s no point berating voters for their ignorance: people have bills to pay and children to raise, and most don’t spend their free time studying fact sheets. Instead, they react to what they see in their own lives and the lives of people they know.”

Isaac Chotiner is less forgiving.

There are certainly voters who work multiple jobs while feeding multiple children, and probably do not have time to educate themselves about politics. And a number of political issues — particularly economic issues — are very hard to understand, even if you do spend time reading up on them.

But when you live in a democracy, there are very few good excuses for not having minimal knowledge about what is going on in the world. How much newspaper reading would it have taken to realize that between 1992 and 1996 the deficit decreased? Or to realize that Saddam did not have a hand in 9/11? Now ask yourself how much time the average American spends watching mediocre television. Voters can choose to be ignorant or disinterested, but that choice is fundamentally their own.

I understand Krugman’s point, and for families juggling schedules and struggling to get by, I imagine it’s incredibly difficult to keep up with the details of current events.

But in general, I’m more persuaded by Chotiner’s take. The political system relies heavily on an informed electorate, and the more voters are uninformed, the more our democracy suffers.

And when I say “suffers,” I don’t just mean voters rewarding the wrong candidates or parties; I mean the entire political process is undermined. When voters are ignorant, candidates are more likely to lie, confident in their ability to get away with it. When the electorate is disengaged, policymakers feel less pressure to exercise good judgment, knowing they can just pull the wool over the public’s eyes later.

I’m obviously engaged in politics, and if you’re reading this, you are too. Not everyone shares our interests, and that’s fine. For that matter, most people have hectic daily lives, and don’t have time to read eight newspapers a day. That’s fine, too.

But many Americans make time for the things they find important. They spent time watching sports, or keeping up on celebrities, or whatever. And while it would be the height of arrogance to suggest the public change its leisure habits, our political system relies on a certain level of sophistication among the public, and there’s ample evidence that we’re just not at that level.

In human history, it’s never been easier to get — and stay — well informed. Folks just have to take some responsibility. If they don’t, the result can be a dysfunctional democracy.

As Digby put it a while back, “We simply cannot adequately govern ourselves if a large number of us are dumb as posts and vote for reasons that make no sense.”