This recent Daily Kos-sponsored poll showing that large proportions of self-identified Republican voters hold irrational and extremist views has gotten a lot of attention recently. In the above-linked post, Markos Moulitsos writes that the results are “startling.”
There are some methodological problems with the survey (see here and here). In my view, the most important is that it probably oversamples the most committed Republicans. Strong partisans are more likely to hold extreme views, such as the “birther” belief that Obama wasn’t really born in the US (endorsed by 36% of Kos’ respondents). Some 83% of the Kos respondents say they are likely to vote in the 2010 elections, which is a much higher proportion than in the general population; Committed partisans are far more likely to turn out (especially in midterm elections) than lukewarm ones.
Despite such flaws, I think that many of the Kos findings are roughly accurate. The mistake is not the conclusion that partisan Republicans hold many irrational views, but the implicit assumption that this problem is confined to one side of the political spectrum.
I. Ignorance and Irrationality are Common Among Democratic Voters Too.
One can easily find parallel examples for Democrats. Thus, Kos makes much of the finding that 23% of Republicans in the survey say they want their state to secede. But a 2008 Zogby/Middlebury College poll found that support for secession was vastly more common among liberals than conservatives. In that poll 32% of liberals claimed that their state has a right to secede (compared to only 17% of conservatives), and a whopping 33% of African-American respondents (an overwhelmingly Democratic group), said that they would support a secession movement in their state. I suspect that supporters of the opposition party are always disproportionately likely to express support for secession when they are angry at an incumbent administration of the opposite party (as Republicans are today, and Democrats were in 2008). I don’t think that support for secession is necessarily ignorant or stupid. To the extent that it is problematic, it’s not a problem limited to Republicans.
Kos also points out the 36% of Republicans in his study who seem to endorse birtherism and the 22% who say they aren’t sure. Birtherism is indeed ridiculous. Yet a 2007 poll found that 35% of self-identified Democrats believe that Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, and 26% say they don’t know if he did.
Other examples of ignorance and irrationality by Democratic voters are not hard to come by. For example, some 32% of Democrats believe that “the Jews” deserve a substantial amount of blame for the financial crisis (compared to 18% of Republicans). In November 2008, some 59% of Obama voters did not know that the Democrats then had control of Congress.
II. Voter Ignorance and Irrationality are General Flaws of Modern Government.
The truth is that voter ignorance and irrationality are general shortcomings of modern democracy, not pathologies that afflict only the dim-witted rubes on one side of the political spectrum. As I have argued elsewhere (e.g. here, here, and here), voters have incentives to be “rationally ignorant” about politics because the extremely low chance that any one vote will be decisive means that there is little payoff to acquiring additional knowledge. For similar reasons, they also have incentives to do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do have. Thus, voters tend to discount any information that goes against their preconceptions while overvaluing anything that seems to confirm them. This explains both Republican susceptibility to birtherism and Democratic receptivity to 9/11 conspiracy theories. The problems of voter ignorance and irrationality are exacerbated by the size, scope, and complexity of the modern state, which is so enormous that even the best-informed voters can’t keep track of more than a small fraction of its activities, or rationally evaluate the available data about them.
If you are genuinely concerned about voter ignorance and irrationality, the best solution is to work to reduce the range of decisions made by the political process. When people act in the market and civil society, they have much better incentives to make well-informed decisions, though of course it’s impossible to eliminate ignorance completely. Reducing the size and complexity of government would also diminish the number of issues rationally ignorant voters have to keep track off, thereby enabling them to monitor government more effectively.
For committed partisans, it’s always fun to denounce the other side’s voters. And there’s no shortage of data proving that many of them are ignorant and irrational. Unfortunately, partisan activists tend to ignore the inconvenient truth that their own party’s voters are just as bad.