A high-information voter.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Ignorant Citizens Can Be Good Citizens

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Hillary Clinton's support of automatically registering Americans to vote has sparked a fascinating discussion on the relationship between voting and ignorance. 

Ezra Klein of Vox points to research finding that those people most involved in politics -- often called "high-information" voters -- are unusually vulnerable to believing false information. The most informed Republican voters in 2000, for example, believed that the federal budget deficit had risen during Bill Clinton's presidency when in fact it had been wiped out and replaced by a surplus. Another study showed that high-information Democrats, for their part, believed that inflation increased when Ronald Reagan was president, when it substantially decreased.

But as Slate's Jamelle Bouie argues in his newsletter, voters' mastery of the sort of facts Klein is talking about isn't important for a mass democracy to work. Instead, voters use political parties and interest groups:

An informed voter isn’t someone who can recite facts, its simply someone who can identify their interests -- or those of their community -- and connect them to the political process. And they gain this knowledge through experience. The Chicago factory worker may not know what the “League of Nations” is, but he knows his boss steals his wages and he knows that Democrats are for the worker. The California store owner couldn’t tell you who sits on the Supreme Court, but he knows that Nixon wants to be harder on the criminals who smashed his windows. 

Bouie's conclusion:

These people, the large majority of Americans, may not impress you with their intelligence, but they know why they’re voting and they know what they want to get from their choice. As we see from the whole of American history, this is all you really need to have a well-functioning democracy. And so when you expand the pool of potential voters, you don’t do much to shrink the average knowledge of the electorate.

Yes. For the system to work, most people need someone to advocate for them. In practical terms, this means that whatever they see as their political identity has either an interest group dedicated to it, or a political party representing the "us" voters feel part of, or both. It requires that voters be able to identify those groups and parties ("he knows that Nixon wants to be harder on the criminals") and, reciprocally, that those parties and groups try to represent the citizens who support them.

This doesn't mean voters will be correct in some objective sense when they choose the party they believe supports what they consider "us." In a way, it's purely arbitrary whether, using myself as an example, my primary political identity is as a Texan or a Jew or a parent or a man or a political scientist or a lefthander or a baseball fan. Or perhaps my primary identity is based on an issue -- my views on abortion or immigration or whatever.

Plenty of political fights are about who the "us" is that voters identify themselves with. Take the immigration issue. The future of the Republican Party is tied up in the question of whether one large and growing set of citizens will identify themselves primarily as Latinos, in which case they'll probably solidify as Democrats, or whether most of them will choose various other identities on which to base their political views. The more that immigration is an active issue (and the more that some Republican politicians discuss it in ways those voters hear as excluding them from the Republican "we"), the more likely Democrats are to wind up with a large and growing group of loyal voters.

What's important here is how unimportant political information held by ordinary voters is to the process. As long as I (believe I) know which political party represents the "us" that I feel a part of -- and as long as this party tries to represent this group -- representation and democracy will do fine. Despair if you'd like because voters don't know basic facts about how the government works or what it does -- but don't think that this will prevent them from being good citizens, or mean that democracy can't work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net