Political Ignorance and Obamacare Repeal

A recent Kaiser poll finds that only 52% of Americans realize that the Obama health care plan has not been repealed, with 22% believing that it has been, and 26% saying they don’t know. The 52% figure probably slightly overestimates the percentage of people who really know the right answer to this question, since some survey respondents guess on multiple choice polls rather than admitting that they don’t know the correct answer. Only 49% of Republicans and 50% of independents know that the law has not been repealed, compared to 64% of Democrats. Ironically, the uneven distribution of ignorance about repeal might actually help Democratic supporters of the law. To the extent that many Republicans and pro-repeal independents think that the law has already been repealed (30% of Republicans and 25% of independents, respectively), they are unlikely to press their representatives in Congress to make repeal a priority or focus on it as a major electoral issue.

This result is not surprising in light of past data showing widespread political ignorance on other issues. Such ignorance is not primarily the result of “stupidity,” but is actually rational behavior for most voters.

Although not surprising, the recent Kaiser data is still troubling. If only a bare majority of the public knows so basic a fact about the health care bill, it seems highly unlikely that more than a small fraction know enough about the act to have a reasonably informed opinion about its merits – a vastly more complicated issue. This reality surely reduces the quality of public debate on the subject, and also the quality of health care policy decisions made by the democratic process. Give widespread public ignorance, elected officials and interest groups will continue to exploit and manipulate ignorance to their benefit rather than enact good policies. Health care policy is a particularly complicated field, and therefore even more susceptible to this dynamic than comparatively simpler policies.

A possible complication in the data is that some of the 26% who say they don’t know could have been influenced by the two district court decisions striking down the mandate. However, three other courts (two by the time the poll was conducted in early February) have upheld the mandate. And anyone with a basic knowledge of constitutional litigation knows that the final decision is going to be made by appellate courts. Thus, the litigation so far should not lead any even moderately informed person to conclude that the law has been “repealed.”

UPDATE: The original version of this post stated that only 50% of Democrats know that the health care bill has not been repealed. In reality, that survey result refers to independents. The mistake has been corrected.