Ignorant Citizens Are Not Stupid

I haven’t written yet about Suzanne Mettler’s work on what she calls The Submerged State, mostly because, well, I haven’t read it and haven’t even carefully read through her recent articles about it (i.e. here). I’ll recommend it anyway — it’s important stuff.

What I do want to write about a bit is Mettler’s recent piece about reactions to her work. She writes:

In reading the comments, I’ve noticed that some readers interpret me to be implying that people are stupid or ignorant. That is not my argument and the data do not support that conclusion… the fact that citizens often fail to recognize these policies as government social provision is attributable not to some fault of citizens, but rather to the characteristics of the policies themselves.

She’s using “ignorant” as a pejorative there, but if we use it instead descriptively — people just don’t know about things — then I very much agree with her, and find that this kind of confusion shows up a lot if you think about citizens in a democracy.

For example, one of the things that I’ll say all the time is people’s opinions are inconsistent: for example, they’ll approve of cutting government spending in the abstract, but support increasing virtually all the individual components of that spending. Or that they don’t know very much, with the classic example being that virtually everyone wants foreign aid cut, but if you ask them what percentage of federal spending should go to foreign aid, they’ll support some figure that’s many times what is actually spent.

Anyway, it’s worth noting that in all of these cases, I don’t mean to draw any negative conclusions about American voters. I don’t think they’re stupid. I just think that people have a lot of other interests besides the minutia of politics and public policy. There’s nothing wrong with that; indeed, it’s in most cases very smart to use shortcuts such as political party and other opinion leaders to substitute for detailed study of public policy.

That people respond to pollsters with silly, illogical, or nonsensical views, in my opinion, doesn’t “count” for all that much. What counts is what they do on election day, or when they otherwise take political action, whether it’s giving to a candidate they support or lobbying the government for some policy they support. And in those situations, they’re mostly likely to act pretty rationally, as long as we accept that using party as a shortcut is rational.

Think of it this way: when you need to buy a home appliance, you probably wind up spending a bit of time and effort researching it  — although that might come down to “ask a friend who has proved reliable on these things in the past” rather than a careful start-from-scratch approach. But if you get a marketing survey about washer/dryers today and you’ve never thought about them before or haven’t for a decade, you might well give some awfully foolish answers if you do decide to answer their questions. That doesn’t make you stupid, and doesn’t make you ignorant in that pejorative sense. It’s just that you don’t travel around the world with ready-made, carefully-researched, intelligent things to say about home appliances.

The trick in designing a democracy is to make it work for everyone, the political junkies and the occasionally attentive and the rarely attentive. Political parties, as it happens, do a fair amount of that work; interest groups do a lot of the rest. And there are real, and very difficult in my view, questions about how much extra influence the especially attentive should have. But I like to remind everyone every once in a while that those of you who read blogs like this are not at all typical of most citizens when it comes to political knowledge and interest, and that’s not because of anything great about us and terrible about everyone else. It’s just one of the basic conditions of large-polity democracies.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.