Photo by Ohmann Alianne on Flickr
Anyone familiar with the findings of political scientists like Philip Converse, about the spectacular combination of profound ignorance and political disinterest of most voters, will be unsurprised by this story on Yahoo! News:
LONDON (AFP) – Britons are losing their grip on reality, according to a poll out Monday which showed that nearly a quarter think Winston Churchill was a myth while the majority reckon Sherlock Holmes was real.
The survey found that 47 percent thought the 12th century English king Richard the Lionheart was a myth.
And 23 percent thought World War II prime minister Churchill was made up. The same percentage thought Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale did not actually exist.
Three percent thought Charles Dickens, one of Britain’s most famous writers, is a work of fiction himself.
Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi and Battle of Waterloo victor the Duke of Wellington also appeared in the top 10 of people thought to be myths.
Meanwhile, 58 percent thought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Holmes actually existed; 33 percent thought the same of W. E. Johns’ fictional pilot and adventurer Biggles.
Similarly, close to a majority of Americans believe in “creation science”. Although these sorts of beliefs don’t bear directly on our democratic choices, the work of Converse and others consistently shows equally profound levels of general ignorance about political parties, belief systems, issues and policies. It makes you wonder why our governments aren’t even more inept or corrupt than they actually appear to be, if the people who elect them are so deeply stupid. Political scientists like Samuel Popkin explain the conundrum by positing the proposition that people substitute “heuristics” or shortcuts to deal with political information overload, and that this works tolerably well, while others like Michael Schudson argue that people rely on trusted “monitorial citizens” such as influential media columnists or radio shockjocks to tell them how to think and vote.
More recently, this relatively rosy view about how democracy works has been somewhat undermined.
Markus Prior, for example, argues that the fragmentation of media generated by the Internet and cable TV makes Schudson’s monitorial citizen concept an implausible argument for the notion that people’s political behaviour might be more sensible than it seems. Cable TV and the Internet enable average disengaged citizens to filter out politics from their lives completely and sink still further into previously unimaginable depths of ignorance. Cat bloggers appear to be much more numerous than their political counterparts.
In this 2004 paper I compile some of the extensive evidence showing that the majority of citizens lack even very basic knowledge about the parties, the structure of the political system, and major issues. The findings are consistent with a lot of previous research on the subject. In that paper and in this article, I try to explain why standard “information shortcuts” such as relying on political parties and opinion leaders are not enough to offset such deep and pervasive ignorance. I also relate actual levels of voter knowledge to the demands of different normative theories of democracy and explain why the actual levels fall short. They even fall short of the demands of relatively forgiving theories such as “retrospective voting” and Joseph Schumpeter’s approach. People can disagree about how much knowledge voters should have. But it’s very hard to show that the persistently abysmal knowledge levels that exist in the real world are anywhere close to adequate, even under a fairly weak undemanding conception of democratic participation.
However, as Louis Menand put it in the article about Converse linked earlier:
Man may not be a political animal, but he is certainly a social animal. Voters do respond to the cues of commentators and campaigners, but only when they can match those cues up with the buzz of their own social group. Individual voters are not rational calculators of self-interest (nobody truly is), and may not be very consistent users of heuristic shortcuts, either. But they are not just random particles bouncing off the walls of the voting booth. Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.
Of course, that means we’re intensely vulnerable as a community to unscrupulous politicians and their spin doctors who play on our hopes, fears and prejudices. However, it seems they don’t get away with it indefinitely if what they’re actually doing is screwing the majority, otherwise John Howard would still be with us and GW Bush would be retiring an honoured hero. Churchill was right when he said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. And so was Abe Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
It may not be much but it’s all we’ve got. I think I feel an urge to buy a cat.
PS – However, you can mount a plausible argument that Australian voters got it right most of the time on John Howard. Systemic integrity demanded Keating’s rejection in 1996 after his dishonest “L-A-W law” election victory in 1993, and Howard’s small target strategy made him a seemingly reasonable choice at the time. And in 1998 he arguably was the better choice on his record and policies to that point compared with a lacklustre Beazley-led Opposition. In fact I even voted Liberal that year, the only time ever. Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight most of us are probably relieved we didn’t end up with Mark Latham in 2004 despite Howard’s evident shortcomings. By contrast, it’s hard to make a rational case for either of GW Bush’s victories.
Update – In a Reason article about the survey discussed at the start of this post, a commenter proposed the following similar quiz about American historical(?) figures. See how you go:
Real or fictional?
- Daniel Boone
- Davy Crockett
- Pecos Bill
- Buffalo Bill
- Annie Oakley
- Johnny Appleseed
- John Henry
- Paul Bunyan
- The Hatfields and the McCoys
- Mark Twain
- Tom Sawyer
- Huckleberry Finn