My Response to Sean Trende’s Commentary on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has posted my response to RealClearPolitics Senior Elections Analyst Sean Trende’s thoughtful commentary on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

Here is an excerpt:

Sean offers three important criticisms of the argument advanced in Democracy and Political Ignorance: that voters know enough to make good decisions on really important issues, that they can make good choices between the two options on offer in major elections, and that the historical success of American democracy suggests that political ignorance may not be such a serious problem. Each of these points has some merit. But each is overstated. Political ignorance does not prevent voters from making good decisions in some important situations. But it does make the performance of democracy a lot worse than it would be otherwise….

Sean cites the 2010 midterm election as one where the voters were well-informed about big issues. According to the majority of Americans at the time, the most important issue was the state of the economy. Yet preelection polls showed that 67% of voters did not even realize that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year. The majority also did not know the basics of the 2009 stimulus bill, the most important policy adopted by the Obama administration to try to promote economic recovery. Moreover, a plurality believed that the 2008 bailout of major banks enacted to try to contain the financial crisis and recession that occurred that year – had been enacted under Obama rather than under President George W. Bush (only 34% knew the correct answer)….

This kind of ignorance about major issues was far from unique to 2010. There was comparable ignorance in numerous other elections, some of which I discuss in detail in the book….

In addition, ignorance sometimes dictates what voters consider to be important issues in the first place…..