The Nazis and Political Ignorance

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer has an article arguing that political ignorance makes democracy work better, and may even be essential to its survival. Much of the article is based on extrapolations from a dubious study of fish behavior, which I criticized here. Lehrer takes the argument a step further by claiming that excessive political knowledge may have been a big factor in facilitating the Nazis’ rise to power in 1930s Germany:

If every voter was well-informed and highly opinionated, then the most passionate minority would dominate decision-making. There would be no democratic consensus—just clusters of stubborn fanatics, attempting to out-shout the other side. Hitler’s rise is the ultimate parable here: Though the Nazi party failed to receive a majority of the votes in the 1933 German election, it was able to quickly intimidate the opposition and pass tyrannical laws.

That the Nazis succeeded because German voters were too knowledgeable would have come as news to Adolf Hitler, who wrote in Mein Kampf that “[t]he receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous.” As a result, he advocated taking advantage of political ignorance by using crude and simplistic propaganda:

All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be. But if, as in propaganda for sticking out a war, the aim is to influence a whole people, we must avoid excessive intellectual demands on our public, and too much caution cannot be extended in this direction…..

Once understood how necessary it is for propaganda in be adjusted to the broad mass, the following rule results:
It is a mistake to make propaganda many-sided, like scientific instruction, for instance….

[A]ll effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered.

This kind of propaganda was an important part of the Nazis’ electoral success under the Weimar Republic, when they eventually managed to get over one third of the vote, making themselves the single most popular party. If the average German voter was “well-informed,” it would have been much harder for the Nazis to achieve so much electoral success. For example, a well-informed German electorate would have been skeptical of absurd Nazi claims that Germany’s political and economic crisis was caused by the tiny Jewish minority. They might also have rejected the Nazis’ crude zero-sum view of the world economy, which posited that Germany could only achieve prosperity by conquering other nations. It isn’t possible to list here all the different ways that the Nazis benefited from voter ignorance. But the bottom line is that a more knowledgeable German electorate would not have been to their advantage.

Lehrer also presents a distorted view of what happened after the Nazis took control of the government in early 1933. They did not “intimidate the opposition” by being “the most passionate minority,” as may have occurred in the fish study. Rather, they did so by the more conventional method of banning all opposition parties, imprisoning their leaders, and inflicting severe punishment on anyone who resisted. Absent these measures, it is unlikely that they would have been unable to crush the opposition so completely. There is no reason to believe that an electorate composed of “opinionated and well-informed” voters would necessarily give in to the most “most passionate” minority absent the use of force. Indeed, the more opinionated and well-informed you are, the less likely it is that you will change your mind about an important issue merely because a “passionate minority” loudly claims that you are wrong. As Hitler recognized, crude propaganda is usually most effective with ignorant audiences.

I don’t deny that there can be unusual situations where political ignorance is actually beneficial. But the rise of the Nazis is one of the last places to look for evidence that ignorance leads to bliss.