Richard Shenkman on Stupidity and Political Ignorance:

My George Mason University colleague Richard Shenkman has a good Washington Post op ed rebutting several widespread myths about voters and their knowledge of politics. As Shenkman shows, most voters know very little about politics, liberal voters are not more knowledgeable than conservative ones, and - despite claims that the young are paying more attention to politics - they continue to be even more ignorant than older voters. Shenkman also points out that political knowledge levels have been stable (and low) for decades, despite greatly increasing education levels. Most of these points aren't entirely new; all have been documented by numerous earlier studies (see, e.g., my own summary of the evidence here). Still, Shenkman has performed a valuable service by summarizing them and bringing these issues to the attention of lay readers. He is right to emphasize that widespread voter ignorance is a major shortcoming of our democracy.

I do, however, have one bone to pick with his argument. Shenkman seems to equate political ignorance with stupidity, repeatedly claiming that poorly informed voters are "stupid" and that the relatively well-informed minority are "smart." His recent book on political ignorance is even called Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter.

However, as I explain in this post, ignorance isn't necessarily a sign of stupidity. It is perfectly rational for even highly intelligent people to be ignorant about politics. Because an individual vote has almost no chance of actually determining the outcome of an election, a person whose only reason to acquire political information is to make sure that the "best" candidate wins is quite rational to invest very little time in learning about it. We are all inevitably ignorant about a vast range of matters because they don't interest us much, and because we have little or no incentive to learn about them. For most people, politics falls into that category. I discuss the logic of rational ignorance in greater detail in this article.

The rationality of political ignorance helps explain what Shenkman calls the "almost incomprehensible" finding that political knowledge has not increased much over the last 50 years despite the fact that "[e]ducation levels are far higher today than they were half a century ago, when social scientists first began surveying voter knowledge about politics." Education makes it easier for people to acquire political knowledge but doesn't necessarily give them any incentive to use that ability. Similarly, my college education makes it a lot easier for me to learn about art criticism than it would be for a high school dropout to do so. In fact, however, I know almost nothing about art criticism because I have chosen to devote my time to other pursuits.

Various other trends of the last 50 years might actually have reduced people's willingness to use their education to follow politics. As I explain here, the absence of any incentive to acquire political information in order to be a better voter suggests that most people who learn about politics do so for other reasons. One important reason is entertainment value; some people enjoy following politics for much the same reasons as others follow sports or pop culture. Over the last 50 years however, a wide range of new entertainment options has emerged, including cable TV, video games, the internet, and so on. Politics is no longer as competitive with other entertainment media as it used to be. Some people who in previous generations might have gotten their jollies by following politics are pursuing other entertainment options instead. Back in the 19th century, spending a couple hours listening to political oratory may have been one of the best entertainment choices available to many people. Today, their descendants can watch reality TV and American Idol instead.