Better Informed or More Misled?
Ezra Klein shows how higher information voters often lag behind more casual voters in measures of factual political knowledge on vox.com.
In a world where we pick our information and our experts based on whether we agree with them, it’s little surprise that sometimes the most informed can be the most badly misled. For instance, 9/11 truthers typically have a tremendous amount of information about 9/11 at their disposal. They know much more than the average American does about the physical composition of the Twin Towers, and the melting point of steel, and the pattern of warnings that preceded the attacks. But they have used that information to convince themselves of something that isn’t true.
The same process can play out, in less dramatic fashion, with hardcore partisans. In 2003, I knew a lot of very informed liberals who were skeptical that President George W. Bush would even allow a presidential election — at the time, many lefties feared the establishment of martial law, or at least the wholesale theft of the election through the use of Diebold voting machines. In 2010, I knew many very informed conservatives who believed Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim born in Kenya, and therefore ineligible to hold the presidency.
If you ranked these groups in terms of political knowledge, they would be off the charts. They were constantly reading about politics online, learning about the issues, talking to other high-information partisans. But their information, as voluminous as it was, had profoundly misled them. They had a much less accurate view of American politics than people who paid far less attention to the news.
Hurdles to voting don’t primarily select for intelligence; they select for interest in American politics. That’s why Pew finds that people are most likely to vote when they’re consistently conservative or consistently liberal. Those are the people most ferociously committed to winning the ongoing war that is American politics — and for that reason, those are the people who see the most reason to go to the polls, and those are the people the two parties make the largest effort to push to the polls.
But a ferocious commitment to destroying the other side in American politics doesn’t necessarily lead to clear reasoning on the issues facing the country. Partisanship is normal and even healthy in a competitive democracy, but it’s not such an unalloyed good that we should be biasing the electorate toward hardcore partisans.
Universal voter registration won’t necessarily mean that dumber Americans heads to the polls; it will mean that less politically attached Americans head to the polls. And in an age as polarized as this one, that’s probably a good thing.
Cross-posted from The Sensible Center
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