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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 [...]

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