You Hope the Uninformed and Misinformed Even Out at the Polls

Shall we consider why American politics is so screwed up? One reason is a 232-year old Constitution that favors minority rule and is hard to amend. Another is that one of our major political parties is now as radical and authoritarian as certain small right-wing parties in other countries. There’s also the quality of the electorate. Many people don’t bother voting, can’t vote or face too many obstacles, such as waiting in line for hours instead of minutes. Of the people who do vote, many don’t have a clue, either because they’re uninformed or misinformed. David Roberts (of the Volts newsletter) expands on the uninformed issue (the misinformed issue is better understood):

One of the most pernicious aspects of political commentary is how much it relies on polls and surveys that give people a list of options and ask which they care about or believe. It gives the impression that the mass of voters are out there knowing things and worrying over “issues.”

In fact, anyone who looks into it closely finds basically the same thing: voters don’t know anything. They have all kinds of wacky and weird beliefs. They don’t necessarily care about — can’t even necessarily identify — “issues” as political types think about them.

So, so, so much of political commentary is DC/NY City political obsessives retconning voter behavior to render it a rational, or at least legible, response to actual facts and circumstances. It’s like a fun pattern-finding game they all play together. [Note: “retconning” was new to me. It refers to “retroactive continuity”, the practice of going back and changing something in a story, like the way Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes and then brought him back to life, saying the death had been staged all along.]

One example I think about a lot: Obama’s election/presidency basically signaled to a bunch of non-college-educated white folks that Democrats are the party of racial equality. (They did not, as it turns out, view that as a good thing.) Now, to a political type the notion that Democrats are on the side of racial equality is so obvious, so foundational to modern politics, that it’s genuinely difficult to imagine not knowing it. Civil Rights Act? Voting Rights Act? WTF? It’s been decades of this stuff. And I will give you $1,000 if you can find me a political commentator who said, when Obama was elected, “hey, a bunch of people didn’t know where the parties stood on racial equality & this is going to tip them off.” It’s hard to put yourself in the headspace of not knowing things.

Basically every open-ended survey or questionnaire finds this — just depthless ignorance about the very basics of US government and public life — but pundits strategically forget it when they want to ascribe some elaborate belief or intention to a voting result.

Or when they want to play populist and scold people who point out this baseline ignorance. “How dare you look down on hardworking heartland folks etc.”

Basically most punditry strikes me as equivalent to some ancient shaman squinting at chicken bones and finding patterns/truths.


Roberts then suggests reading an article by the MSNBC journalist Chris Hayes:

As several people have noted, this classic . . . ย is one of the few deep dives into voter ignorance and its implications. Foundational reading for anyone interested in politics: “Decision Makers”.

I plan to read it.