Tony Blair on Political Ignorance

David Bernstein’s post referencing a commenter who greatly overestimates the extent to which the public pays attention to politics reminds me of an interesting comment on political ignorance from Tony Blair’s recently published memoir:

The single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh…., before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll…..

For most normal people, politics is a distant, occasionally irritating fog. Failure to comprehend this is a fatal flaw in most politicians.

Whatever you think of Blair’s overall record (I have very mixed feelings myself), he was certainly a highly successful politician, leading his party from the wilderness to an unprecedented three consecutive electoral victories. Blair’s claim that most “normal people” pay very little attention to politics is backed up by decades of polling data showing that most voters tend to be ignorant about even basic political facts and issues. As I have argued elsewhere, this is rational behavior, given the very low chance that any one vote will make a difference to an electoral outcome. As David notes, the swing voters who determine electoral outcomes are generally also the most ignorant part of the electorate.

I do disagree with Blair’s statement on one point. Most politicians do in fact understand the widespread nature of political ignorance. That’s why they usually talk in simple sound bites, and constantly try to exploit the public’s ignorance for electoral advantage. Of course few of them are willing to comment on public ignorance openly. If they did, it would look like they were putting down the intelligence of voters, even though ignorance isn’t really equivalent to stupidity. Therefore, most politicians work hard to exploit political ignorance even as they pretend to believe that the voters are repositories of profound wisdom. It’s telling that Blair revealed his thoughts on public ignorance only after he left office.

The people who really overestimate public knowledge are not politicians but political pundits. They follow politics closely and are surrounded by others who do the same thing. Unlike politicians, they have little incentive to study public knowledge systematically. As a result, it’s easy for them to assume that the general public is paying attention to the same things as they are. An excellent example of this is the current debate over the reasons for Obama’s plummeting popularity. Republican pundits tend to claim that it’s because he has adopted very liberal policies that most Americans disapprove of. Many Democratic ones blame the administration’s public relations strategy and relentless Republican attacks.

In reality, most voters have very little understanding of the administration’s policies and have not followed them closely (see here and here for examples). Obama’s falling popularity is primarily caused by the continuing poor condition of the economy. As political scientist Larry Sabato points out, Obama’s poll numbers are roughly in line with those of previous presidents who presided over bad economies. The same thing happened to Ronald Reagan in 1981-82, for example, even though the Great Communicator had an excellent public relations strategy and pursued policies that were arguably more in line with public opinion than Obama’s.

Blaming political incumbents for economic doldrums is often incorrect, or at least oversimplified. After all, Obama did not cause the current recession or the associated financial crisis. While I think that many of his policies made things worse rather than better, the economy might well still be in bad shape at this point even under optimal policies. But simplistically attributing whatever happens in the status quo to the incumbent is the kind of reasoning one would expect from an electorate with very little knowledge of policy. Historically, voters have often blamed or rewarded incumbents for conditions they had no real influence over, including such events as trends in the world economy that national leaders cannot control, droughts and shark attacks.

A minority of voters, of course, do follow politics closely because they find it interesting. They, however, tend to have very strong partisan or ideological commitments, and evaluate new evidence in a highly biased way. As a result, we get an electorate where the majority of voters have very low levels of knowledge and the more knowledgeable minority often does a poor job of evaluating what they know.