One of the best-selling political books of the 2008 election season has been Just How Stupid Are We? a report on “the truth about the American voter” by popular historian Rick Shenkman. Shenkman’s little book presents a familiar collection of bleak results from opinion surveys documenting some of the many things most Americans don’t know about politics, government, and American history. “Public ignorance,” he concludes, is “the most obvious cause” of “the foolishness that marks so much of American politics.” Lest this pronouncement seem dispiriting, an obligatory hopeful coda offers anodyne proposals for civic improvement.
Never mind whether the additional civics courses and “democracy parties” Shenkman proposes are really going to stem the tide of public ignorance. The reader’s first response to Shenkman’s indictment should be: So what?
Does it really matter whether voters can name the secretary of defense or know how long a senate term is? The political consequences of “public ignorance” must be demonstrated, not assumed. And that requires focusing not just on what voters don’t know, but on how what they don’t know actually affects how they vote. Do they manage to make sensible choices despite being hazy about the details of politics and government? (Okay, really hazy.) If they do, that’s not stupid—it’s efficient.
Obviously, what counts as a “sensible choice” is itself a matter of legitimate disagreement. Shenkman seems to think that since “foolishness . . . marks so much of American politics,” voters must be making stupid choices. However, most analysts have aspired to judge voters by less subjective standards—criteria grounded in specific notions of procedural rationality, or in voters’ own values and interests, or in comparisons with the behavior of better-informed voters who are similar in relevant ways. Moreover, such analysts have recognized that what really matters is not whether individual voters go astray, but whether entire electorates do. A lot of idiosyncratic behavior can be submerged in the collective verdict of 120 million voters.
According to Shenkman, “The consensus in the political science profession is that voters are rational.” Well, no. A half-century of scholarship provides plenty of grounds for pessimism about voters’ rationality.
When social scientists first started using detailed opinion surveys to study the attitudes and behavior of ordinary voters, they found some pretty sobering things. In the early 1950s, Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues at Columbia University concluded that electoral choices “are relatively invulnerable to direct argumentation” and “characterized more by faith than by conviction and by wishful expectation rather than careful prediction of consequences.” For example, voters consistently misperceived where candidates stood on the important issues of the day, seeing their favorite candidates’ stands as closer to their own and opposing candidates’ stands as more dissimilar than they actually were. They likewise exaggerated the extent of support for their favorite candidates among members of social groups they felt close to.
In 1960, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan published an even more influential study, The American Voter. They described “the general impoverishment of political thought in a large proportion of the electorate,” noting that “many people know the existence of few if any of the major issues of policy.” Shifts in election outcomes, they concluded, were largely attributable to defections from long-standing partisan loyalties by relatively unsophisticated voters with little grasp of issues or ideology. A recent replication of their work using surveys from 2000 and 2004 found that things haven’t changed much in the past half-century.
The worry that the masses are too stupid to be trusted to chhose their leaders well are as old as political philosophy. After all, it was Plato, writing in The Republic, some 2400 years ago, who proposed that in an ideal state we'd be governed by philosopher-kings. Here's a queer thing though, because of the little sailing ship in the logo of The New Republic I'd always sort of assumed that they were referring to making the American Republic "new," in that fey way that the Progressives have:
But, it turns out that Walter Lippmann and company were, instead, indicating a certain agreement with Plato.
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
There's really no need for you to read the book--though it is available for free on-line--just consider the obvious contradictions in his own description of what he's up to:
The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined. Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time are but a few moments of insight and happiness. Yet this same creature has invented ways of seeing what no naked eye could see, of hearing what no ear could hear, of weighing immense masses and infinitesimal ones, of counting and separating more items than he can individually remember. He is learning to see with his mind vast portions of the world that he could never see, touch, smell, hear, or remember. Gradually he makes for himself a trustworthy picture inside his head of the world beyond his reach.
Those features of the world outside which have to do with the behavior of other human beings, in so far as that behavior crosses ours, is dependent upon us, or is interesting to us, we call roughly public affairs. The pictures inside the heads of these human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship, are their public opinions. Those pictures which are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion with capital letters. And so in the chapters which follow we shall inquire first into some of the reasons why the picture inside so often misleads men in their dealings with the world outside. Under this heading we shall consider first the chief factors which limit their access to the facts. They are the artificial censorships, the limitations of social contact, the comparatively meager time available in each day for paying attention to public affairs, the distortion arising because events have to be compressed into very short messages, the difficulty of making a small vocabulary express a complicated world, and finally the fear of facing those facts which would seem to threaten the established routine of men's lives.
The analysis then turns from these more or less external limitations to the question of how this trickle of messages from the outside is affected by the stored up images, the preconceptions, and prejudices which interpret, fill them out, and in their turn powerfully direct the play of our attention, and our vision itself. From this it proceeds to examine how in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them. In the succeeding sections it examines how opinions are crystallized into what is called Public Opinion, how a National Will, a Group Mind, a Social Purpose, or whatever you choose to call it, is formed.
The first five parts constitute the descriptive section of the book. There follows an analysis of the traditional democratic theory of public opinion. The substance of the argument is that democracy in its original form never seriously faced the problem which arises because the pictures inside people's heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside. And then, because the democratic theory is under criticism by socialist thinkers, there follows an examination of the most advanced and coherent of these criticisms, as made by the English Guild Socialists. My purpose here is to find out whether these reformers take into account the main difficulties of public opinion. My conclusion is that they ignore the difficulties, as completely as did the original democrats, because they, too, assume, and in a much more complicated civilization, that somehow mysteriously there exists in the hearts of men a knowledge of the world beyond their reach.
I argue that representative government, either in what is ordinarily called politics, or in industry, cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions. I attempt, therefore, to argue that the serious acceptance of the principle that personal representation must be supplemented by representation of the unseen facts would alone permit a satisfactory decentralization, and allow us to escape from the intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs. It is argued that the problem of the press is confused because the critics and the apologists expect the press to realize this fiction, expect it to make up for all that was not foreseen in the theory of democracy, and that the readers expect this miracle to be performed at no cost or trouble to themselves. The newspapers are regarded by democrats as a panacea for their own defects, whereas analysis of the nature of news and of the economic basis of journalism seems to show that the newspapers necessarily and inevitably reflect, and therefore, in greater or lesser measure, intensify, the defective organization of public opinion. My conclusion is that public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today. This organization I conceive to be in the first instance the task of a political science that has won its proper place as formulator, in advance of real decision, instead of apologist, critic, or reporter after the decision has been made. I try to indicate that the perplexities of government and industry are conspiring to give political science this enormous opportunity to enrich itself and to serve the public. And, of course, I hope that these pages will help a few people to realize that opportunity more vividly, and therefore to pursue it more consciously.
Got that? We see only the shadows on the wall, not the wider reality. [Ignore, for now, that there is no rational basis for the idea that you, I, we, the shadows, the wall or anything beyond exists.] We, therefore, lack the "competent opinion about all public affairs" that he posits is required in order for representative democracy to work. It was hoped that the press would be capable of discovering the hidden facts for us and making our opinions competent, but it turns out not to be. However, we can happily now turn to political scientists to organize our opinions for us and illuminate the cave.
If you've followed this far you will hardly need me to point out the obvious fatal flaw in this reasoning, but here goes: if you and I are just watching the shadows and the press turns out to just be watching the shadows then why aren't political scientists just watching the shadows too? And if there is such a thing as a "political scientist" who can see beyond the shadows how would we identify him?
And it is here that Mr. Lippmann himself subverts all that has come before, in his own conclusion:
When Plato came to the point where it was fitting that he should sum up, his assurance turned into stage-fright as he thought how absurd it would sound to say what was in him about the place of reason in politics. Those sentences in book five of the Republic were hard even for Plato to speak; they are so sheer and so stark that men can neither forget them nor live by them. So he makes Socrates say to Glaucon that he will be broken and drowned in laughter for telling "what is the least change which will enable a state to pass into the truer form," because the thought he "would fain have uttered if it had not seemed too extravagant" was that "until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one... cities will never cease from ill,--no, nor the human race..."
Hardly had he said these awful words, when he realized they were a counsel of perfection, and felt embarrassed at the unapproachable grandeur of his idea. So he hastens to add that, of course, "the true pilot" will be called "a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing." But this wistful admission, though it protects him against whatever was the Greek equivalent for the charge that he lacked a sense of humor, furnished a humiliating tailpiece to a solemn thought. He becomes defiant and warns Adeimantus that he must "attribute the uselessness" of philosophers "to the fault of those who will not use them, and not to themselves. The pilot should not humbly beg the sailors to be commanded by him--that is not the order of nature." And with this haughty gesture, he hurriedly picked up the tools of reason, and disappeared into the Academy, leaving the world to Machiavelli.
Thus, in the first great encounter between reason and politics, the strategy of reason was to retire in anger. But meanwhile, as Plato tells us, the ship is at sea. There have been many ships on the sea, since Plato wrote, and to-day, whether we are wise or foolish in our belief, we could no longer call a man a true pilot, simply because he knows how to "pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art." He can dismiss nothing which is necessary to make that ship sail prosperously. Because there are mutineers aboard, he cannot say: so much the worse for us all... it is not in the order of nature that I should handle a mutiny... it is not in the order of philosophy that I should consider mutiny... I know how to navigate... I do not know how to navigate a ship full of sailors... and if they do not see that I am the man to steer, I cannot help it. We shall all go on the rocks, they to be punished for their sins; I, with the assurance that I knew better....
Whenever we make an appeal to reason in politics, the difficulty in this parable recurs. For there is an inherent difficulty about using the method of reason to deal with an unreasoning world. Even if you assume with Plato that the true pilot knows what is best for the ship, you have to recall that he is not so easy to recognize, and that this uncertainty leaves a large part of the crew unconvinced. By definition the crew does not know what he knows, and the pilot, fascinated by the stars and winds, does not know how to make the crew realize the importance of what he knows. There is no time during mutiny at sea to make each sailor an expert judge of experts. There is no time for the pilot to consult his crew and find out whether he is really as wise as he thinks he is. For education is a matter of years, the emergency a matter of hours. It would be altogether academic, then, to tell the pilot that the true remedy is, for example, an education that will endow sailors with a better sense of evidence. You can tell that only to shipmasters on dry land. In the crisis, the only advice is to use a gun, or make a speech, utter a stirring slogan, offer a compromise, employ any quick means available to quell the mutiny, the sense of evidence being what it is. It is only on shore where men plan for many voyages, that they can afford to, and must for their own salvation, deal with those causes that take a long time to remove. They will be dealing in years and generations, not in emergencies alone. And nothing will put a greater strain upon their wisdom than the necessity of distinguishing false crises from real ones. For when there is panic in the air, with one crisis tripping over the heels of another, actual dangers mixed with imaginary scares, there is no chance at all for the constructive use of reason, and any order soon seems preferable to any disorder.
It is only on the premise of a certain stability over a long run of time that men can hope to follow the method of reason. This is not because mankind is inept, or because the appeal to reason is visionary, but because the evolution of reason on political subjects is only in its beginnings. Our rational ideas in politics are still large, thin generalities, much too abstract and unrefined for practical guidance, except where the aggregates are large enough to cancel out individual peculiarity and exhibit large uniformities. Reason in politics is especially immature in predicting the behavior of individual men, because in human conduct the smallest initial variation often works out into the most elaborate differences. That, perhaps, is why when we try to insist solely upon an appeal to reason in dealing with sudden situations, we are broken and drowned in laughter.
For the rate at which reason, as we possess it, can advance itself is slower than the rate at which action has to be taken. In the present state of political science there is, therefore, a tendency for one situation to change into another, before the first is clearly understood, and so to make much political criticism hindsight and little else. Both in the discovery of what is unknown, and in the propagation of that which has been proved, there is a time-differential, which ought to, in a much greater degree than it ever has, occupy the political philosopher. We have begun, chiefly under the inspiration of Mr. Graham Wallas, to examine the effect of an invisible environment upon our opinions. We do not, as yet, understand, except a little by rule of thumb, the element of time in politics, though it bears most directly upon the practicability of any constructive proposal. We can see, for example, that somehow the relevancy of any plan depends upon the length of time the operation requires. Because on the length of time it will depend whether the data which the plan assumes as given, will in truth remain the same. There is a factor here which realistic and experienced men do take into account, and it helps to mark them off somehow from the opportunist, the visionary, the philistine and the pedant. But just how the calculation of time enters into politics we do not know at present in any systematic way.
Until we understand these matters more clearly, we can at least remember that there is a problem of the utmost theoretical difficulty and practical consequence.