POLITICAL IGNORANCE IS NOT BLISS
It never ceases to amaze me how people around the world complain about their governments. Yet citizens of democracies – via the ballot box – determine who holds political power. So, it’s largely our fault if we end up with poor political leadership.
Voters have a track record of choosing idiots, authoritarians and demagogues for elected office. These leaders invariably turn out to be incompetent and dishonest and thrive on emotion-driven discourse. They hoodwink people into supporting them by exploiting voters’ credulity and prejudices.
Politics is nothing if not a mirror of the society it serves. As a society, we crave quick fixes and instant gratification and expect politicians to solve all of society’s ills at the snap of a finger. That’s why politicians who pander to the immediate demands and desires of voters are rewarded by the electorate.
We jump quickly into the arms of political charlatans, but fail to embrace sensible and rational candidates with policies that have an eye to the future. Such long-term outcomes are rejected by “here-and-now” voters who are selfishly focussed on “what’s in it for me”.
Voting (free and fair elections) is the cornerstone of a true democracy. Yet, in many nations around the world, much of the public is disengaged from politics. Citizens are not politically informed and this is dangerous as voters do not make informed choices at the ballot box.
Donald Trump owes his victory to the uninformed. Indeed, he is on the record as proclaiming: “I love the poorly educated”. Political ignorance accounts for a large part of Trump’s success. His followers believe virtually any lie he tells – no matter how outrageous.
When voters know little, they choose the politician with the highest emotional appeal. Trump and other populists play on this, which is why millions voted for him against their best interests. Trump appealed to the anger and discontent of middle-America, tapping into their fears about jobs, race and immigration.
Leaders like Donald Trump prove that doing or saying unintelligent things is no barrier to being elected. “We have unserious and unfit leaders,” according to a columnist for The Washington Post, “because voters are unserious and too often reject sensible, fit candidates for office”.
That voters are poorly informed and make irrational decisions is no surprise to renowned political scientists – Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. These two academics co-authored the acclaimed book – Democracy For Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.
The authors’ core belief is that people cast their votes for no particularly good reason and that incumbents often get rewarded or punished for events beyond their control. They illustrate this point by tracing the electoral impact of a random event: a dramatic series of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916.
In what has become the most famous example in the book, they note that voters on the New Jersey seashore blamed President Woodrow Wilson for the shark attacks in the summer of 1916. As a result, Woodrow Wilson lost his home state in the presidential election.
The beachfront towns – which relied on tourism – were negatively impacted by the attacks. Even though Wilson was obviously not responsible for the string of shark-related fatalities, he was the incumbent, and people vote against incumbents when things are bad.
This, of course, is illogical. As Achen and Bartels declare: “Punishing the incumbents for events beyond their control makes no more sense than kicking the dog to get back at a difficult boss at work” … yet “… governments are punished willy-nilly for bad times”.
At the polling booth, election-year natural disasters (droughts, floods, etc.) and the performance of the economy in the months prior to the election, have a major impact on whether an incumbent or challenger wins an election. If things are going well – whether they’re controllable or not – they’ll reward the party in power. If not, they’ll look for someone else to lead them.
Achen and Bartels assert that most citizens are unable to evaluate sensitive information to reach an informed opinion whether times have been good or bad under the incumbent government.
Citizens are unlikely to know whether crime has gone up or down, only whether gruesome murders appear in the local news. Their judgments about the seriousness of environmental threats are virtually uncorrelated with those of experts. Even in the domain of the economy, where detailed statistical information is plentiful … voters may fixate on current conditions to the neglect of the incumbent’s full record.
The book lays waste the comforting view that citizens cast votes based on rational choice – the so-called “folk theory of democracy”. Voters don’t have anything like coherent preferences. Most people pay little attention to politics and vote irrationally and for contradictory reasons.
Also, the majority of voters are too shortsighted to choose economic policies that will produce long-term prosperity. This, in my opinion, is most evident in the irrational attitude of many citizens to government debt. The ill-informed are seduced by populist politicians who promise to balance the national budget. (See my recent post on Modern Monetary Theory).
Our harmful misunderstanding of economic policy is also evident when interest rates rise and fall. Interest rates go up when things are overheating and go down when times are tough. It is ironic, therefore, that nit-picking oppositions are critical when interest rates rise (a sign of a strong economy) and glory-seeking governments take the credit when interest rates fall (a sign of a weak economy).
Most economic truths are counter-intuitive. Yet an ignorant public cannot help but endorse intuitively appealing policies in any given instance, since it has so little information to go on. In the words of the US based think-tank, The Cato Institute:
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.
Downright misrepresentations and blatant disregard for facts have always plagued politics, and this holds true in Australia as well. During the 2016 federal election, Australians were falsely told that the Liberal Party was going to privatise Medicare and that the Labor Party’s carbon price would lead to $100 lamb roasts.
As few expect politicians to tell the truth, we are not particularly surprised when half-truths and downright lies are exposed. It’s often said, however, that politicians lie because voters do not want to hear the truth. The truth often offends and no one wants to hear things that they find confronting. As noted in the online magazine, Psychology Today:
It is decidedly better for politicians to tell people what makes them feel comfortable. Why should politicians be the purveyors of bad news (and decrease the likelihood of getting people’s votes) when they can tell fairy tales with happy endings (which, of course, everyone wants) and come out the victor.
I believe that education is the key to a more literate electorate. We teach our kids “hard” subjects like maths and science, so there’s no reason why we can’t add politics and economics to the curriculum. The next generation of voters – unlike many of those who are about to cast a vote in the US presidential election – must be able to discern if political candidates are pulling the wool over our eyes and just marketing political and economic snake oil.
As things currently stand, Winston Churchill’s words still ring true: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer