Widely respected columnist Stuart Taylor writes:
[O]ne reason that candidates get away with dishonest campaign ads and speeches may be that it is so hard for undecided voters like me to discern which charges are true, which are exaggerated, and which are false. Most people can’t spend hours every day cross-checking diverse sources of information to verify the accuracy of slanted stories and broadcasts.
In other words, political candidates and media outlets often get away with deceptive campaign tactics and inaccurate charges because voters don’t know the truth and don’t have sufficient incentive to rectify that ignorance through investigation. Taylor goes on to blame the media for this state of affairs, suggesting that more accurate reporting would increase our knowledge. Here, I partly disagree with Taylor. The media is indeed flawed in many ways. But its failures are not the only, or even the principal, cause of widespread political ignorance. Surveys show that most citizens are ignorant of many very basic facts about politics – such as the very existence of major programs (e.g. – Bush’s massive prescription drug benefit, the largest new government program since the 1960s, which 70% of the public was not aware of). These basic facts are widely and accurately reported in the media, yet most people still don’t know them.
Moreover, the media are not completely autonomous; if they want to stay in business, they have to give viewers and readers what they want. If the public wanted unbiased and accurate coverage and was willing to reject outlets that turned out to be biased and inaccurate, the media would have strong incentives to comply. Newspapers and TV news stations that continued to be biased or inaccurate would lose market share.
In reality, of course, most people either don’t follow political news at all, or prefer outlets that are biased in favor of their own preferred party or ideology. Thus, the demand for Fox News, the New York Times, and many other media outlets that are strongly biased towards one party or the other. Social science research going back to the 1940s shows that Republicans tend to prefer Republican-leaning media and Democrats the opposite.
Ultimately, the root of the problem is the insignificance of the individual vote to electoral outcomes. For people whose only motive for acquiring political information is to be a better voter, it turns out that there is little incentive to acquire political knowledge at all. They are “rationally ignorant.” Some people, of course, seek out political knowledge for reasons unrelated to voting. For example, they find politics entertaining or they enjoy rooting for their preferred party or ideology – much as sports fans enjoy rooting for their favorite team, even though they know they have little chance of affecting the outcome of games. For this latter group, however, there is little incentive to analyze the information they acquire in an unbiased way or even to check up on its accuracy. To the contrary, listening to pundits and reporters who have the same biases as you do while heaping abuse on the opposition, is part of the fun of being a fan. Political fans often avoid opposing points of view for much the same reasons that most of my fellow Red Sox fans prefer to listen to pro-Red Sox sports radio rather than pro-Yankees shows. That’s the main reason why left and right-leaning blogs usually have similarly inclined readers. People also tend to discount political information that goes against their prior views and overvalue anything that seems to reinforce them. Economist Bryan Caplan calls this phenomenon “rational irrationality.”
I discuss both rational ignorance and rational irrationality in more detail in this article, as well as provide citations to some of the social science literature documenting the finding that most people evaluate political information in a highly biased way and prefer media outlets that favor their preexisting views.
Knowing that most of the public is rationally ignorant, highly biased in its evaluation of political information or both, candidates take these realities into account. They can see that lies, deception, and unfair charges will often increase their chances of winning, and act accordingly. Indeed, even an altruistic, public-spirited candidate might adopt such tactics, so long as he genuinely believes that his victory will benefit the nation. After all, abjuring them would likely ensure the victory of his more unscrupulous opponents whose policies – the principled candidate believes – would be worse for the country than his own. Media outlets face similar incentives. Those who don’t cater to the prejudices of one or another side of the political spectrum are at a competitive disadvantage relative to their rivals. The same goes for those who emphasize in-depth news analysis at the expense of entertainment value.
It’s easy to blame unscrupulous politicians and reporters for the flaws in our political discourse. But the root of the problem lies elsewhere – in the structural weaknesses of democracy itself.