Public Ignorance and Democracy

July/​August 1999 • Policy Report
By Jeffrey Friedman

Public Ignorance and Democracy

Why is Bill Clinton still president? It seemed rather unlikely that he would last more than a week or two when the news of his affair with a White House intern surfaced. His survival exemplifies a crucial and almost certainly insurmountable problem with modern democracy, one with vast implications for the ration‐​ality of public policy: the problem of public ignorance.

The key to understanding President Clinton’s survival is to keep in mind his conversations with political consultant Dick Morris when the scandal broke. At first Clinton proposed an apology to the American people, and Morris took an overnight poll to see how it would be received. The poll showed that although a substantial minority of those surveyed condemned the affair, most did not think it warranted resignation or removal from office. But the majority of those surveyed demanded the president’s voluntary or involuntary removal if he had committed perjury or obstructed justice.

In the end, of course, the public did not support Clinton’s removal, despite credible evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice.

After hearing the poll results, Clinton notoriously responded, “Well, we just have to win, then.” And win he did—by playing on the fact that the public did not know, as did the Washington pundits who prophesied Clinton’s demise, that the gravity of the scandal lay in the allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice, not in the adultery itself. The president’s spinners, after an initial few days of indecision, seized on the strategy of portraying the scandal as “just about sex” and, therefore, as a politically motivated investigation of (as Dan Rather put it) “the president’s private life.” It was only months later that surveys indicated that the public was becoming aware of what Morris’s test subjects had been told: that criminal accusations were involved, not just personal indiscretions. By then, however, most people’s minds were already made up: any legal charges must be politically motivated attempts to destroy the president on the part of “mean‐​spirited” Republicans and, of course, the puritanical, perverted, and overzealous special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr. It was the public’s initial and long‐​lasting ignorance of what was really at stake that made this massive hoodwinking—and Bill Clinton’s ultimate victory—possible.

Regardless of whether one thinks the charges against the president warranted his impeachment and removal from office, the impeachment episode cannot help but be disturbing when it is recognized as one of countless instances in which public ignorance has been the dominant factor in politics. It’s easy to overlook this factor, especially if one is a journalist or a member of the well‐​informed minority that reads serious newspapers and journals—that is, if one is keenly aware of political matters. To such observers of politics, the depth of public ignorance can be nearly unfathomable.

The public’s reliance on distorted, simplistic stereotypes for its political views was noticed as long ago as the 1920s by Walter Lippmann and was given a definitive treatment in Philip Converse’s 1964 paper, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” Converse found that more than 86 percent of the American people based their political decisions on criteria ranging from blind party loyalty and a candidate’s perceived personal traits (is he smart? does he “care about people like us”?) to such vague and dubious criteria as the “nature of the times” (if there is prosperity and peace, the incumbent party must be responsible) and primitive judgments about the attitudes of political parties toward social groups such as races and classes. Even most members of the small segment of the public that relied for political guidance on “liberal” or “conservative” ideas had only a rather feeble grasp of the meaning and policy significance of those ideas. That left only 2.5 percent of the public that judged politics against some sort of “abstract and far‐​reaching conceptual” yardstick, such as a firm grasp of the meaning of liberalism or conservatism.

Converse’s study showed that the vast majority of the public lacks the most basic political information. Subsequent research has confirmed that conclusion again and again. In a recent issue of Critical Review devoted to the topic of public ignorance, Ilya Somin reviewed some of the more spectacular fruits of this research. A month after the 1994 congressional election handed control of Congress to the Republicans for the first time in decades, 57 percent of the American people had yet to hear of the leader of the “Republican revolution,” Newt Gingrich, despite intensive publicity about his victory. That and other data indicate that the GOP did not win its epochal victory because of public approval of its program; most people had never heard of the Contract with America, let alone understood and agreed with its contents. More examples: at the height of the Cold War, 62 percent of the U.S. public failed to realize that the USSR was not a member of NATO. Seventy percent of the public doesn’t know the names of either of their state’s senators, nor can most people name either congressional candidate in their district at the height of the campaign season.

Such indicators of public ignorance could be multiplied endlessly. Moreover, shocking levels of public ignorance are not confined to America. They are observed in all modern democracies.

The Politics of Ignorance

Public ignorance is not confined to political information. Sixty‐​nine percent of the public believe, according to a recent survey, that price increases are mainly caused by companies manipulating the market to raise their profits. Less provocative, but just as indicative of ignorance of economic affairs, only about a third of all Americans know that the Fed sets monetary policy, or even that the consumer price index measures price inflation. It is little wonder, then, that incumbent politicians are able to take credit for good economic times—regardless of the success, failure, or irrelevance of their economic policies—and that presidents cursed with bad economies usually are booted from office, even if their policies have been sound.

Readers of Cato Policy Report are likely to have encountered even more important instances of public ignorance. Familiarity with basic economic principles reveals why minimum wages will tend to increase unemployment, and why rent control can be expected to make housing scarce. But the public is not familiar with those principles, so such irrational policies, and myriad others, often command strong popular support. The fact is that most economic truths—perhaps most truths in general—are counterintuitive; yet an ignorant public, even were it to realize this, cannot help but endorse intuitively appealing policies in any given instance, since it has so little information to go on. Once there is a perceived problem, the most intuitive thing to do is pass a law against it.

Such primitive logic explains how it is that interest groups and politicians with axes to grind—or pockets to line—are so often able to gain political support for their proposals from the very public that would be hurt by those measures. Do health insurance companies restrict coverage for expensive illnesses? Then it seems plain that we need “patients’ bills of rights” that forbid this practice. The fact that such measures tend to raise insurance rates, reducing the availability of insurance, is relatively difficult to perceive. As such examples suggest, public ignorance is more pernicious than the economist’s concept of “rational ignorance.” The rational ignoramus, who has decided not to inform himself because he knows (or at least intuits) that to be truly informed is impossible or unprofitable, realizes that he is ignorant. But the advocate of such nostrums as the minimum wage would not support those measures if he realized that his support was rooted in ignorance. The public‐​ignorance thesis brings home the irrational side of politics, which can be obscured by economic analyses.

Once one starts to think about public ignorance, one notices it everywhere. Most congressional activity is designed to produce either tangible or symbolic effects. In the first category fall favors to individual constituents and the funding of visible public works such as roads and schools; in the second category go intuitively appealing but often disastrously counterproductive measures, such as drug prohibition. Both tangible and symbolic congressional actions “work” politically because such blunt instruments are needed if members of Congress are to get the attention of an ignorant public. Similarly, in The Rhetorical Presidency, Jeffrey Tulis describes how presidents, who in the 19th century refrained from policy advocacy—declining even to appear personally to deliver a State of the Union Address—have in the 20th century made themselves the focus of American political life by relentlessly championing measures both tangible (100,000 new teachers! 100,000 new cops!) and symbolic (gun control! a war on poverty!). The most politically successful presidents, such as Reagan and Clinton, have made campaigning for such programs a permanent process. Whether the problems the programs are supposed to address are real, and whether the solutions do more harm than good, have become secondary to whether presidents display “leadership” by proposing sufficiently ambitious agendas to address the “crisis” of the moment. The calculus of presidential success has therefore become focused on approval ratings and actions taken, not results achieved. Measures of political success are relatively easy to convey to an ignorant public, whereas the actual effects of the policies passed are subject to heated dispute even among experts who spend their lives studying the problems in question.

Public ignorance is a topic bursting with political implications, but we can only scratch their surface here. Consider the vast amount of legislation and bureaucratic regulation of which the public at large is completely unaware. How could it be otherwise, given the huge scope of the modern state and the vast amount of time it would take even the most assiduous news junkie to comprehend a tiny fraction of the state’s doings? Or consider that what is idealistically known as “public debate” consists in truth of a few partisans making arguments about whichever of the thousands of potential “issues” has captured the media spotlight of the day—arguments of which the public is usually ignorant, and which it could not competently evaluate anyway. Few minds are changed by this “dialogue”—and that is probably a good thing. But as John Zaller has shown in The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, what “public debate” does accomplish is to send out cues to those who consider themselves Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, as to what “their” position should be. Public discussion mobilizes public opinion, but it can hardly be said to inform it.

The immense power of the media, too, is rooted in the public’s ignorance, which makes the public dependent on, and susceptible to manipulation by, the journalists who provide the only contact most people have with political affairs. And finally, consider nationalism: the simplifying concept, or heuristic, that is probably used by most people to understand politics most of the time. If a policy or candidate seems to favor “us,” that is, oneself and one’s fellow citizens, it is good, even if the opposite policy would help “foreigners” even more. In the long “debate” over U.S. ratification of NAFTA, it was taken for granted by all parties that the only standard against which the treaty should be judged was its effect on Americans’ jobs. That it might pull millions of Mexicans out of poverty was a complete nonissue. In the face of public ignorance, it would be foolish to expect such fine calculations.

Ideology as a Form of Ignorance

Perhaps surprisingly, given its seminal importance, the vast body of research that confirms public ignorance is not well known even to nonspecialist academics. Maybe that is because of its profoundly negative implications for mass democracy. If the public doesn’t know what it’s doing politically, why should it have the power to do so much? This question can have only one answer if we are at all concerned about the effects of public policy: the public should not be so empowered. If there is not enough time in the day for even full‐​time specialists in public policy to master more than a small corner of the wide universe of modern political action, even greater cognitive demands should not be placed on ordinary citizens.

Yet rule by the well‐​informed elite is not a viable alternative either. Even the 2.5 percent of the public who, Converse found, engage in abstract and attentive political reasoning are only relatively well informed. Just as their more ignorant peers rely on simplistic heuristics such as the “nature of the times” in making their political judgments, the cognitive elite relies on what might be an even more dangerous heuristic: ideology.

As Converse puts it, ideology “constrains” political attitudes—imposing conceptual consistency on them, but at the cost of screening out information that would undermine doctrinaire conclusions. This is unavoidable if ideologies are to accomplish their cognitive purpose: making sense of the otherwise incomprehensible world of politics. The ideologue is able to absorb more political information because his preset convictions allow him to better organize data—convenient data, at least—than can members of the ideologically innocent mass public. But part and parcel of the ideologue’s ability to assimilate self‐​confirming data is the ability, and the need, to dismiss conflicting data—and to condemn their purveyors as stupid or evil. If one’s ideological opponents were merely mistaken, one would be obliged to study and rebut their erroneous ideas, and that would undermine the time‐​saving convenience of one’s own ideology. Opponents must be written off entirely if their ideas are to be safely ignored. Thus, animating the most sophisticated of liberal and left‐​wing ideologues is usually the unquestioned assumption that no decent, caring person would oppose government policies intended (whatever their actual consequences) to help the disadvantaged. This assumption allows the ideologue to divide the world neatly into good people on the left and selfish people on the right. In parallel fashion, conservatives are so convinced that the ostensibly well intentioned programs of the left actually hurt their intended beneficiaries that they often cannot accept that liberals are really motivated by benevolence. If liberal politicians oppose school vouchers, it can only be because they are in the pocket of teachers’ unions whose interests are tied to the failed public school system. Again, the world takes on a simple, understandable form that minimizes the need for grappling seriously with uncongenial views. The good guys are on the right, the hypocrites and fools on the left.

In light of the oversimplifications that ideologies, like all political heuristics, impose by their very nature, the idea of rule by ideological sophisticates takes on a frightening aspect. It may well be less dangerous to be ruled by the relatively ignorant and politically hesitant masses than by relatively well informed and confident but dogmatic, demonizing ideologues. What we actually experience, of course, is a hybrid system in which the media tend to transmit watered‐​down ideological views to the mass public, whose ignorance of politics often makes it susceptible to demagoguery but whose inattentiveness sometimes frustrates ideological schemes. Meanwhile, most of the real action takes place beneath the radar screens of both the ignorant and the ideologues: in the colossal welter of federal, state, and local government bureaucracies where most policies are formulated with a large measure of freedom from public scrutiny.

Alternatives to Public Ignorance

If there is any hope for rationality in policymaking, it would seem to be in the bureauc‐​racies, where, at least in principle, one might be able to govern through true experts who, given a sufficient division of intellectual labor, would not be called upon—as democratic citizens are every time they go to the polls—to make decisions that demand knowledge beyond their expertise. We are not talking about bureaucrats planning the economy here, but bureaucrats executing whatever tasks a government has. If the tasks of government could be subdivided into small enough areas, they might become individually comprehensible to expert policymakers, even if nobody could expertly understand the workings of the whole state.

One problem such an approach faces, of course, is motivational: How to ensure that expert bureaucrats serve the public interest rather than their own? But even if that difficulty could be overcome, say, through acculturation with an ethos of public service, there is a more basic and intractable problem: Who will organize the bureaucratic division of labor and choose the experts to make the various decisions? By definition, the overseers of the system cannot be experts, as it is the impossibility of global expertise that necessitates the division of labor to begin with. Standing above the experts, then, would have to be a stratum of inexpert decisionmakers who assign decisions to the experts. At the very least, then, the problems of ignorance and ideology could be expected to recur at the supervisory level. Needless to say, we already see these problems in the politicized operation of putatively nonpartisan expert agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the various science bureaucracies.

In his Critical Review article, Somin proposes a different path to policy rationality: a radical shrinkage of government to its 19th‐​century size, so that fewer items would be on the public agenda and the corresponding demands on public knowledge would be less severe. It is questionable, however, whether we could really hope that the remaining agenda items would be much freer of demagoguery than are the greater number of issues now in play. Even if the role of the federal government were restricted to, say, national defense, the magnitudes would be so large and the standards of success so amorphous that appeals to ignorance and ideology would almost surely continue to be the norm—as they were in the 19th century. Militarism and imperialism were 19th‐​century manifestations of the demagogic potential opened up by public ignorance. The true advantage of shrinking the state lies, most probably, not in the likelihood of greater rationality in the remaining government functions, but in the likelihood of greater rationality in the functions that would no longer concern the state.

The reason, as Joseph Schumpeter pointed out in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, is that the central problem plaguing both ignorant masses and ideological elites is the lack of clearly interpretable feedback that would allow them to judge the problem‐​solving efficacy of public policies. In one’s personal life and in commercial dealings, one often receives signals, such as profits or losses, that indicate the success or failure of one’s efforts and that, in the case of failure, prompt actions to correct error. Individuals who, in their public role as citizens, have little choice but to be ignoramuses or ideologues because they are judging inaccessibly distant social problems can, through the feedback they receive from their choices about immediate personal and economic matters, become relatively competent private decisionmakers. In effect, then, the only way to make “public” policy rational might be to privatize it, so the abstract qualities that render it vulnerable to simplistic nonsolutions can be turned into concrete concerns with readily interpretable consequences for individual agents.

In short, the best way to rationalize political decisions may be to depoliticize them. That would not completely solve the problem of ignorance; ignorance is pervasive, and human beings, with their inherent limits, will always have to deal with it. Individuals who endorse irrational public policies will not magically become all‐​wise in their capacity as private decisionmakers. Heuristics distort private as well as public affairs; we all know people whose lives have been ruined by poor choices based on the cognitive shortcuts, including emotional responses, upon which we must rely even in the private sphere. But, although people will always make disastrous personal and financial decisions, at least in the private sphere they get feedback that often causes them to realize that they’ve made a mistake—something that usually isn’t true of disastrous public policies, which often remain too far removed from individual observers even to be recognized as failures.

We need to start paying explicit attention to the problem of public ignorance if we are to compare the damage it causes with the costs of privatizing public policies. We need, in short, to infuse the study of “public choice” with a much greater appreciation of the environment of ignorance, ideology, and deference to expertise in which interest groups and politicians maneuver. This would produce not only a more realistic understanding of the nature of modern politics but also a more rational approach to setting its limits.

About the Author
Jeffrey Friedman