Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, Second Edition

Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, Second Edition

by Ilya Somin


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Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, Second Edition by Ilya Somin

One of the biggest problems with modern democracy is that most of the public is usually ignorant of politics and government. Many people understand that their votes are unlikely to change the outcome of an election and don't see the point in learning much about politics. This creates a nation of people with little political knowledge and little ability to objectively evaluate what they do know.

The second edition of Democracy and Political Ignorance fully updates its analysis to include new and vital discussions on the implications of the "Big Sort" for politics, the link between political ignorance and the disproportionate political influence of the wealthy, assessment of proposed new strategies for increasing political knowledge, and up-to-date survey data on political ignorance during recent elections. Ilya Somin mines the depths of the current state of ignorance in America and reveals it as a major problem for democracy. He weighs various options for solving this problem, provocatively arguing that political ignorance is best mitigated and its effects lessened by decentralizing and limiting government. People make better decisions when they have stronger incentives to acquire relevant information—and to use it wisely.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804799317
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 06/15/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ilya Somin is Professor at the George Mason University School of Law. Somin writes regularly for the Volokh Conspiracy law and politics blog at the Washington Post. He is also the author of The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain (2015), and coauthor of A Conspiracy Against Obamacare: The Volokh Conspiracy and the Health Care Case (2013).

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Democracy and Political Ignorance

Why Smaller Government is Smarter

By Ilya Somin


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9935-5


The Extent of Political Ignorance

Nothing strikes the student of public opinion and democracy more forcefully than the paucity of information most people possess about politics.

Political scientist John Ferejohn

THE REALITY THAT MOST VOTERS are often ignorant of even very basic political information is one of the better-established findings of social science. Decades of accumulated evidence reinforce this conclusion. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved much over time.


The sheer depth of most individual voters' ignorance may be shocking to readers not familiar with the research. Rarely if ever is any one piece of knowledge absolutely essential to voters. It may not matter much if most Americans are ignorant of one or another particular fact about politics. But the pervasiveness of ignorance about a wide range of political issues and leaders is far more troubling.

Many examples help illustrate the point. A survey conducted not long before the 2014 election, which determined control of Congress, found that only 38 percent of Americans knew that the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives at the time, and the same number knew that the Democrats had a majority in the Senate. Not knowing which party controls these institutions makes it difficult for voters to assign credit or blame for their performance.

One of the most contentious issues in recent American politics has been the Affordable Care Act of 2010 — President Barack Obama's health care reform law, often known as Obamacare. Yet much of the public remains ignorant about many aspects of this program. As late as August 2013 a survey found that 44 percent did not even realize that the ACA was still the law.

For years, there has been an ongoing debate over the future of federal spending in the United States, with sharp partisan divisions over how to deal with increasingly serious budget deficits that are likely to get worse in the long run. Yet a September 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that only 20 percent of Americans realize that the federal government spends more money on Social Security than on foreign aid, transportation, and interest on the government debt. Some 33 percent believe that foreign aid is the biggest item on this list, even though it is actually the smallest, amounting to about one percent of the federal budget, compared with 17 percent for Social Security.

This result is consistent with numerous previous surveys showing that most Americans greatly underestimate the percentage of federal spending devoted to Social Security and other entitlement programs, while vastly overestimating the amount devoted to foreign aid and other minor programs such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It is difficult for voters to evaluate competing approaches to reforming tax and spending policy if they don't have even a basic understanding of how federal funds are currently spent.

A series of polls conducted just before the Republican Party chose Representative Paul Ryan to be their vice presidential nominee in August 2012 found that 43 percent of Americans had never heard of Ryan and only 32 percent knew that he was a member of the House of Representatives. Unlike Governor Sarah Palin in 2008, Ryan was not a relative unknown catapulted onto the national stage by a vice presidential nomination. As his party's leading spokesman on budgetary and fiscal issues, he had been a prominent figure in American politics for several years.

One of the key policy positions staked out by President Obama in his successful 2012 reelection campaign was his plan to raise income taxes for persons earning more than $250,000 per year, an idea much discussed during the campaign and supported by a large majority of the public — 69 percent in a December 2012 poll. A February 2012 survey conducted for the political newspaper The Hill actually asked respondents what tax rates people with different income levels should pay. It found that 75 percent of likely voters wanted the highest-income earners to pay taxes lower than 30 percent of income, the top rate at the time of the 2012 election. This inconsistency suggests that many people supported increasing the tax rates of high earners because they did not realize how high taxes were already.

Even before the 2012 election, economic inequality had been a major political issue for years, in both the United States and many European nations. Yet surveys consistently show that most Americans and citizens of other democracies have little or no understanding of either the extent of inequality or whether it has been increasing or decreasing. A 2009 survey found that only somewhere between 12 and 29 percent of Americans can roughly place the shape of the income distribution in the United States when given a choice of five different simple diagrams with accompanying explanations. Even the higher figure is only slightly better than what we would expect from random guessing.

Equally striking is the fact that in late 2003, more than 60 percent of Americans did not realize that a massive increase in domestic spending had made a substantial contribution to the then-recent explosion in the federal deficit. Most of the public is unaware of a wide range of important government programs structured as tax deductions and payments for services. As a result, they are also unaware of the massive extent to which many of these programs transfer benefits primarily to the relatively affluent.

Despite years of controversy over the War on Terror, the Iraq War, and American relations with the Muslim world, only 32 percent of Americans in a 2007 survey could name "Sunni" or "Sunnis" as one of "the two major branches of Islam" whose adherents "are seeking political control in Iraq," even though the question prompted them with the name of the other major branch (the Shiites). Such basic knowledge may not be absolutely essential to evaluation of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. But it is certainly useful for understanding a region that has long been a central focus of American foreign policy, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Such widespread ignorance is not of recent origin. As of December 1994, a month after the takeover of Congress by the Republican Party, then led by soon-to-be Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, 57 percent of Americans had never even heard of Gingrich, whose campaign strategy and policy stances had received massive publicity in the immediately preceding weeks. In 1964, in the midst of the Cold War, only 38 percent were aware that the Soviet Union was not a member of the U.S.-led NATO alliance. Later, in 1986, the majority could not identify Mikhail Gorbachev, the controversial new leader of the Soviet Union, by name. Much of the time, only a bare majority know which party has control of the Senate, some 70 percent cannot name both of their state's senators, and the majority cannot name any congressional candidate in their district at the height of a campaign.

Three aspects of voter ignorance deserve particular attention. First, many voters are ignorant not just about specific policy issues but about the basic structure of government and how it operates. Majorities are ignorant of such basic aspects of the U.S. political system as who has the power to declare war, the respective functions of the three branches of government, and who controls monetary policy. Admittedly, presidents sometimes manage to initiate war without congressional approval, as in the case of recent military interventions in Libya and against the ISIS terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria. But even under modern conditions, presidents usually seek congressional authorization for major conflicts, and generally keep interventions that lack such authorization carefully limited, usually to air strikes alone. A 2014 Annenberg Public Policy Center study found that only 36 percent of Americans could even name the three branches of the federal government: executive, legislative, and judicial. Some 35 percent could not name even one. The 36 percent result was an even lower figure than the 42 percent who could name all three branches in a similar 2006 poll.

Another 2006 survey found that only 28 percent could name two or more of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. A 2002 Columbia University study indicated that 35 percent believed that Karl Marx's dictum "From each according to his ability to each according to his need" is in the Constitution (34 percent said they did not know if it was or not), and only one-third understood that a Supreme Court decision overruling Roe v. Wade would not make abortion illegal throughout the country.

Ignorance of the structure of government suggests that voters often not only cannot choose between specific competing policy programs but also cannot easily assign credit and blame for policy outcomes to the right officeholders. Ignorance of the constraints imposed on government by the Constitution may also give voters an inaccurate picture of the scope of elected officials' powers.

The second salient aspect of ignorance is that voters often lack an "ideological" view of politics capable of integrating multiple issues into a single analytical framework derived from a few basic principles; ordinary voters rarely exhibit the kind of ideological consistency in issue stances that are evident in surveys of political elites. Some scholars emphasize the usefulness of ideology as a "shortcut" to predicting the likely policies of opposing parties competing for office. At least equally important is the comparatively weaker ability of nonideological voters to spot interconnections among issues. The small minority of well-informed voters are much better able to process new political information and more resistant to manipulation than is the less-informed mass public.

Finally, it is notable that the level of political knowledge in the American electorate has increased only modestly, if at all, since the beginning of mass survey research in the late 1930s. A relatively stable level of ignorance has persisted even in the face of massive increases in educational attainment and an unprecedented expansion in the quantity and quality of information available to the general public at little cost.

For the most part, the spread of new information technology, such as television and the Internet, seems not to have increased political knowledge. The rise of broadcast television in the 1950s and 1960s somewhat increased political knowledge among the poorest and least-informed segments of the population. But more recent advances, such as cable television and the Internet, have actually diverted the attention of these groups away from political information by providing attractive alternative sources of entertainment. For the most part, new information technologies seem to have been utilized to acquire political knowledge primarily by those who were already well informed. This record casts doubt on the expectations of political theorists from John Stuart Mill onward that an increased availability of information and formal education can create the informed electorate that democracy requires.


Data from the time of the recent 2004, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections reaffirm the existence of widespread political ignorance, as does more extensive data from the time of the 2000 election derived from the 2000 American National Election Study (ANES).

As this book goes to press, it is too early to make any definitive conclusions about what role political ignorance might have in the ongoing 2016 presidential election. But it is likely that ignorance has been a major factor in the most dramatic development of the campaign's early stages: the unexpected rise of controversial real estate mogul Donald Trump to the status of front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Early survey data consistently show that the variable most strongly associated with support for Trump among potential Republican primary voters is low education. Trump himself famously stated that he "love[s] the poorly educated." And well he should, since his success is heavily dependent on their massively disproportionate support. By contrast, his support varies very little by political ideology, as he does about equally well among moderate and conservative Republicans.

Education and political knowledge are distinct; there are many highly educated people with low levels of political knowledge and some high-knowledge voters with little formal education. But the two are very closely correlated. So it is likely that Trump's disproportionate support from the less educated also represents disproportionate support from those with low levels of political knowledge.

The most obvious alternative explanation for his pattern of support is that he has won the backing of relatively low-income voters who also tend to be less educated, perhaps because he effectively represents their economic interests. But unlike education, household income has only a weak correlation with support for Trump among Republicans.

Political ignorance may also help explain why Trump draws strong support from the generally conservative pool of Republican primary voters, despite the fact that he has a long history of taking left of center positions on many issues. Relatively ignorant voters are less likely to know about those positions, or to check a candidate's record carefully before deciding to support him.

Trump's status as a famous celebrity is also likely helping him with relatively ignorant voters. Such voters are less likely to know much about the other candidates, and thereby more likely to gravitate toward one whose name they at least recognize. Name recognition is an important predictor of candidate support, especially among relatively ignorant voters.

Immigration restriction — the issue that has become the central theme of Trump's campaign — is one that has long-standing associations with political ignorance. In both the United States and Europe, survey data suggest that it is strongly correlated with overestimation of the proportion of immigrants in the population, lack of sophistication in making judgments about the economic costs and benefits of immigration, and general xenophobic attitudes toward foreigners. By contrast, studies show that there is very little correlation between opposition to immigration and exposure to labor market competition from recent immigrants.

Political ignorance may not enable Trump to win the Republican nomination much less the presidency. At this time, his ultimate electoral fate is still unclear. But public ignorance has at least helped Trump become a far more successful candidate than he probably would have been otherwise. And, whatever might be said about the currently ongoing 2016 election cycle, there is more extensive evidence of widespread political ignorance during previous elections.

Political Ignorance and the 2014 Election

The 2014 election saw a major midterm victory for the Republican Party, with the GOP gaining control of the Senate by expanding its number of seats from 45 to 54, and significantly expanding its majority in the House of Representatives from 234 of 435 seats to 247. Table 1.1 compiles data from a number of polling questions on political knowledge conducted shortly before and after the election.

The results are sobering. Although the main political stake in the election was control of the Senate and House of Representatives, only 38 percent of the public knew that the Democrats controlled the Senate before the election, and the same percentage knew the Republicans controlled the House. A different survey found that 49 percent knew who controlled the Senate and 51 percent could correctly identify control of the House. But it still found that only 36 percent could correctly identify control of both houses of Congress. None of these figures are impressive, especially when we consider that they are likely inflated by guessing, and a random guess would have a 50 percent chance of getting each question right. Obviously, it is difficult for citizens to assess the performance of the parties controlling each house of Congress if they do not know which ones they are.


Excerpted from Democracy and Political Ignorance by Ilya Somin. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Edition ix

Acknowledgments for the First Edition xiii

Introduction 1

1 The Extent of Political Ignorance 17

2 Do Voters Know Enough? 47

3 The Rationality of Political Ignorance 74

4 The Shortcomings of Shortcuts 106

5 Foot Voting vs. Ballot Box Voting 136

6 Political Ignorance and Judicial Review 182

7 Can Voter Knowledge Be Increased? 197

Conclusion 224

Appendix 233

Notes 235

Index 281

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