Voters are ignorant and we must fix them. This belief has spawned much political science research and many efforts to inform the “ignorant. ” But what if this premise is false?
In a forthcoming book – The trouble with voters and those who try to fix them – Center for Political Studies (CPS) researcher and professor of political science Arthur Lupia suggests that voters aren’t as ignorant as many fear.
First, it is impossible to know all potentially relevant political information. Lupia presents his own position as a citizen as a case study. To be informed about all legislation that could affect him, Lupia should know about the more than 2,000 laws passed by the United States Senate and signed by the President. He should also know about the 40,000 additional proposed bills. As a resident of Michigan, Lupia should know about the 1,239 proposed bills, 42 concurrent resolutions, 26 joint resolutions, and 174 resolutions from the Michigan House of Representatives, as well as the 884 bills, 25 continuing resolutions, and 19 joint resolutions from the Michigan Senate in 2011 alone. Living in Ann Arbor, Lupia should also know about the many city ordinances passed in recent years. Does he know the gist, let alone the details, of each of these? No. Does he or anyone need to? No.
Second, even if you could know all potentially relevant political information, shortcuts can get you there faster. That is, voters without certain knowledge tend to vote the same as if they possessed that knowledge. Lupia likens this to traffics signals. It is impossible for a driver to know the traffic flows and locations of all vehicles in all directions when approaching an intersection. A traffic light signals the optimal time to go and stop. Voters can therefore seek out signals in a saturated, sometimes chaotic political environment to make informed choices.
So, voters are not crippled by ignorance. What then of those who try to fix voters? Lupia sees fixers as playing an integral role in civic society. But these fixers would benefit from changing their baseline assumption. Voters are not broken. With this paradigm shift in place, fixers could appeal to this group with precision and tact. To this end, Lupia offers the latest from biology and brain science, strategic communication, and marketing to help fixers better deliver their messages.
Lupia summarizes his argument in succinct terms: “From these facts alone, we can draw an important conclusion. When it comes to political information there are two groups of people. One group is almost completely ignorant of almost every detail of almost every law and policy under which they live. The other group is delusional. There is no third group.”