Sarah Palin, Ignorance, and Stupidity:

I have often emphasized that political ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. For most voters, even quite intelligent ones, being ignorant about politics is perfectly rational behavior, since there is very little chance that their votes will make any difference. I am happy to see that liberal Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has made use of a similar ignorance-stupidity distinction in analyzing Sarah Palin. Robinson argues that Palin is not stupid, but merely ignorant about some important political issues:

My view of Sarah Palin has changed in the two months since John McCain named her as his running mate....

I thought Palin was a lightweight; she's not. I thought she was an ingenue; she is, but only as long as her claws are sheathed. I thought she was bewildered and star-struck at her sudden elevation to national prominence; if she ever was, she isn't anymore....

That she wasn't ready to meet the national media became clear when she sat down with Katie Couric for those embarrassing sessions. But compare the bunny-in-the-headlights Sarah Palin of just a few weeks ago with the much more poised and confident Sarah Palin of today. Ignorance isn't the same thing as stupidity. When Palin talks about economic policy these days, her sentences don't meander into the Twilight Zone the way they once did. She has more to say about foreign policy besides the fact that Russia is just across the Bering Strait. She has learned much in a very short period.

Like Robinson, I too thought that Palin's ignorance is a strike against her. And I still think so. However, as Robinson points out, ignorance is more easily remediable than stupidity. An intelligent but ignorant person can quickly assimilate new information. A stupid and ignorant person might be able to do so as well, but only with much greater difficulty.

Palin, I think, falls into the "intelligent but ignorant" category. As Fred Barnes shows, people familiar with her and her political career (including many of her longtime political enemies) generally believe that she is smart and capable. That said, I still think that her ignorance is a problem. After all, there is a limit to how much even a smart politician can learn in a short period of time, especially given that she has many other demands on her schedule.

An interesting related question is that of why Palin was so ignorant to begin with. After all, she has been in politics for 12 years, and governor of Alaska for the last two. Ordinary voters tend to be ignorant about politics because they have little incentive to acquire additional information; their ignorance is "rational." But surely governors and other prominent politicians have stronger incentives to become informed.

I don't have a complete answer to this puzzle. But it seems to me that some politicians (e.g. - Bill Clinton) have a genuine interest in the details of policy and others do not. Palin likely falls in the latter category. She and other politicians like her only acquire such policy knowledge as is needed to advance their political careers. As Mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska, Palin had no need to become knowledgeable about non-Alaska political issues. For that reason she didn't bother to do so; she obviously didn't expect to be nominated for Veep so early in her career. My admittedly nonexpert impression is that Palin does have considerable knowledge about energy policy and other Alaska issues. I'm sure readers with greater knowledge of Alaska will correct me if I'm wrong about that.

Of course, even with respect to issues within their areas of responsibility, politicians often have only limited incentive to become knowledgeable if their ignorance won't affect their electoral fortunes. That may explain why the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee doesn't know the first thing about Muslims in the Middle East, despite the fact that intelligence about that region is a central focus of the Committee's responsibilities. Moreover, the sheer size and scope of modern government makes it difficult for even the most wonkish politicians to have more than a superficial acquaintance with more than a small fraction of the issues.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Sarah Palin, Ignorance, and Stupidity:
  2. Larry Bartels on Political Ignorance: