Do Facts Matter?: Information and Misinformation in American Politics

Do Facts Matter?: Information and Misinformation in American Politics

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A democracy falters when most of its citizens are uninformed or misinformed, when misinformation affects political decisions and actions, or when political actors foment misinformation—the state of affairs the United States faces today, as this timely book makes painfully clear. In Do Facts Matter? Jennifer L. Hochschild and Katherine Levine Einstein start with Thomas Jefferson’s ideal citizen, who knows and uses correct information to make policy or political choices. What, then, the authors ask, are the consequences if citizens are informed but do not act on their knowledge? More serious, what if they do act, but on incorrect information?

Analyzing the use, nonuse, and misuse of facts in various cases—such as the call to impeach Bill Clinton, the response to global warming, Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court, the case for invading Iraq, beliefs about Barack Obama’s birthplace and religion, and the Affordable Care Act—Hochschild and Einstein argue persuasively that errors of commission (that is, acting on falsehoods) are even more troublesome than errors of omission. While citizens’ inability or unwillingness to use the facts they know in their political decision making may be frustrating, their acquisition and use of incorrect “knowledge” pose a far greater threat to a democratic political system.

Do Facts Matter? looks beyond individual citizens to the role that political elites play in informing, misinforming, and encouraging or discouraging the use of accurate or mistaken information or beliefs. Hochschild and Einstein show that if a well-informed electorate remains a crucial component of a successful democracy, the deliberate concealment of political facts poses its greatest threat.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806149417
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 01/20/2015
Series: The Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture Series , #13
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 1,098,855
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Jennifer L. Hochschild is Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. The author, coauthor, or editor of numerous articles, chapters, and books, her most recent publications include Creating a New Racial Order: How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake Race in America and Bringing Outsiders In: Transatlantic Perspectives on Immigrant Political Incorporation.
Katherine Levine Einstein is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Boston University. Her current research focuses on racial inequality, political segregation, and the splintering of U.S. metropolitan areas.

Read an Excerpt

Do Facts Matter?

Information and Misinformation in American Politics

By Jennifer L. Hochschild, Katherine Levine Einstein


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4941-7



Misinformation on the part of the public makes for bad lawmaking on the part of the government.

Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe, 2010

The other thing about the Tea Party ... is educate, is exposure. If you look into a lot of the bills, we American people have no idea what is in some of those bills. If you follow the Tea Party and they're getting more and more organized in taking on issues and really diving into them and informing the public.... I think this ... motivation and stuff will really help get people ... to band together and start pushing back.

Tea Party advocate, 2010

WAS BARACK Hussein Obama born outside the United States, so that his presidency and all laws passed under it are unconstitutional? Are two out of every five Americans black? Did the crime rate rise during the first decade of the twenty-first century? These are questions of factual information, to which there are correct answers—respectively, no, no, and no. Knowing the right answer to each question is important for making appropriate political choices and policy decisions. And yet in opinion polls, mainstream media, and general public discourse, many sensible and educated Americans have answered yes to each of these queries. They are wrong, and their views are likely to be associated with—may even contribute to—consequential and problematic political actions or public policies.

Consider another set of questions: Do higher taxes reduce car owners' consumption of gasoline? Do more Americans vote in local elections, where their vote has a much greater impact, than in state or national elections, where their vote may be substantively trivial? Can intensive tutoring improve reading and math skills of inner-city students? These are slightly more complicated questions of fact since they involve causal links. But they too have correct, or at least generally consensual, answers—respectively, yes, no, and yes. Many Americans would concur with these answers and support the implied policy or political goals—and yet do not select the actions that would seem to follow directly from them.

Almost every serious thinker who has considered how to make democratic governance stable and effective has emphasized the need for a knowledgeable citizenry that uses relevant information to inform public choices. Let us allow Thomas Jefferson, in his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," to speak for the many:

Even under the best forms [of government], those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that ... they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes. (Jefferson 1779)

Conservative opponents of expanding the franchise in the nineteenth century stood Jefferson's argument on its head, proposing literacy tests for voting on the grounds that "persons wholly destitute of education do not possess sufficient intelligence to enable them to exercise the right of suffrage beneficially to the public" (Samuel Jones, 1842, quoted in Keyssar 2000: 66; see also Scalia 1999). Jefferson would have approved of the answer to the conservatives:

The provision already made for the establishment of common schools, will, in a very few years, extend the benefit of education to all our citizens. The universal diffusion of information will forever distinguish our population from that of Europe. Virtue and intelligence are the true basis on which every republican government must rest. When these are lost, freedom will no longer exist. The diffusion of education is the only sure means of establishing these pillars of freedom.... Our common school fund will ... be consecrated by a constitutional provision; and I feel no apprehension, for myself, or my posterity, in confiding the right of suffrage to the great mass of such a population as I believe ours will always be. (David Buel Jr. of New York, 1821, quoted in Peterson 1966: 203)

And, indeed, most American state constitutions do include provisions requiring public schooling and its funding, following a logic similar to that found in the Texas constitution: "A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools" (Article 7. Education, Sec. 1).

Much more recently, Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter (1996: 3, 5) made the same point in their authoritative study of the role of knowledge in a democracy:

Factual knowledge about politics is a critical component of citizenship, one that is essential if citizens are to discern their real interests and take effective advantage of the civic opportunities afforded them.... Knowledge is a keystone to other civic requisites. In the absence of adequate information neither passion nor reason is likely to lead to decisions that reflect the real interests of the public. And democratic principles must be understood to be accepted and acted on in any meaningful way.

Most simply—and most important, given the speaker's position—a member of Congress declared to Richard Fenno: "I have the best platform from which to educate of anyone in the country. To me, there's no difference between leadership and education.... What is politics if it's not teaching?" (Fenno 1978: 162). President Obama agrees that "an informed and educated citizenry is essential to the functioning of our modern democratic society," though he deflects responsibility to others: "I encourage educational and community institutions across the country to help Americans find and evaluate the information they seek, in all its forms" (Oct. 1, 2009).

Almost no one disputes, in short, that citizens should acquire and use appropriate and correct information when making political and policy choices (see, most generally, the essays in Friedman and Friedman 2012). Schooling is helpful; in one canonical study, for example, high school graduates correctly answered an average of 3.7 out of eight questions probing political knowledge, whereas those with a postgraduate degree correctly answered 6.1 on average (Verba et al. 1995; see also Popkin et al. 1999; Jerit et al. 2006). Nevertheless, even well-educated people frequently use incorrect information in the public arena; in fact, as we show in this book, the well educated may be especially inclined to absorb and use error-laden information. Other people know the facts but do not use them politically.

Do Facts Matter? addresses the political and policy implications, broadly defined, of these three conditions. The starting point is Jefferson's ideal of knowing and using correct information to make policy or political choices. However, we pay more attention to two deviations: knowing but ignoring correct information, and believing and using incorrect information. Our goal is not, as Jefferson's bill was, to design a system of public education that enables every "person, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue ... to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, ... without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance." We are less ambitious than he; we seek to explicate these three relationships between facts and politics so that residents of the United States are better able to pursue Jefferson's ideal and ward off the risks he points to. But we are like Jefferson in being motivated by both hope and fear—hope that Americans can and want to use accurate information to make good decisions, and fear that the temptation to use misinformation can deeply damage the fragile system of democratic decision making.


To introduce the basic logic of our argument and its terminology, we begin with four vignettes.

Reports of the Surgeons General

The surgeon general of the United States first issued a report on the harmful effects of smoking in 1964. It was followed by similar reports from his successors three more times in the 1960s, eight times in the 1970s, ten times in the 1980s, four times in the 1990s, and six times in the 2000s—that is, almost annually for four decades. Cigarette packages received their first warning labels in 1965, and Congress prohibited cigarette ads on television and radio in 1969.

Cigarette consumption in the United States had risen steadily since 1900, peaking in 1963 at 4,345 per capita annually among adults, at which point it started a steady decline. Adults' per-capita consumption fell to just over 3,000 in 1988 (the level in 1944), to just over 2,000 in 2001 (the level in 1940), and to 1,200 in 2011 (lower than the level of 1930). Heavy smokers, who consume more than twenty cigarettes per day, declined from 23 percent of the population in 1965 to under 7 percent in 2007 (Pierce et al. 2011). The decline has been steepest among the best educated. The proportion of young adults who have never smoked rose from just under half in 1965 to almost three-quarters in 2008 (American Lung Association 2010). As of 2012, only 17.3 percent of adults age 18–24 smoked cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC 2014).

Survey data suggest that the reports and the behavioral changes are linked. In 1958 and 1960, no more than half of the respondents to Gallup polls agreed that cigarette smoking is "one of the causes of cancer of the lung"; three in ten said it was not, and about a quarter did not know. In 1969, 1971, and 1972, however, the proportion of respondents who denied any link between cancer and smoking had declined by half and the number with no opinion had also diminished somewhat. By 1977 and 1981, the deniers were down to 10 percent of the population, the same as the "don't knows." In 1990, both combined were only 6 percent of respondents, and that is roughly where the numbers have stayed. In short, from 1960 to 1990 the links between cancer and smoking strengthened in the public's mind from an equal division between yes and no to almost unanimity.

Although the path is by no means linear, substantial policy changes have emerged from the reports and Americans' acceptance of the new knowledge. According to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, 3,876 municipalities and thirty-six states have laws or ordinances that specify locations where smoking is prohibited. Over four-fifths of the U.S. population live in places with smoking bans in some or all work-places, restaurants, bars, or outdoor recreation areas. All three levels of government tax cigarettes, litigation by the National Association of Attorneys General and others have generated various judicial controls, and cigarette advertising is banned in particular times and places. In a move that even public health experts find excessive, a few employers are refusing to hire people who smoke (Walton 2013).

We cannot here parse the exact impact of new knowledge as distinguished from policy or cultural changes, but that is not essential; the role of facts in politics can be just as important if knowledge operates indirectly or as a reinforcement to some other causal mechanism. What matters is that the proportion of smokers declined, heavy smoking decreased, fewer young adults started to smoke, cigarette consumption reversed its upward trend, and the federal government limited advertisements, promulgated regulations, and raised taxes—all within a few years after the government began to publicize widely the association with lung cancer and other health risks (Pennock 2007).

People who have knowledge of relevant facts and make choices that accord with it are, at least in this aspect of their lives, ideal denizens of a Jeffersonian democracy. In our analysis we label them the "active" or "engaged informed" (or, sometimes, Jeffersonian citizens). Their distinctiveness becomes clearer when we compare them with three other groups.

"Yes, but ...": School Desegregation

Surveys show that large majorities of Americans agree that racially desegregated schools benefit both blacks and whites, that they would like their child to attend school with students of different races, that public schools should serve the public interest as well as help individuals to learn, and that communities are substantially segregated and unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. But pluralities or majorities also reject every proposed government policy to mandate or promote school or neighborhood racial desegregation (Hochschild and Herk 1990).

The General Social Survey (GSS) provides one strand of evidence on this complicated conflict among norms, knowledge, and policy preferences. Normatively, 89 percent of the almost 8,700 white respondents who were asked this question from 1972 through 2012 agreed that black and white children should attend the same school. Over 80 percent would not object if their child attended a school in which a few or half of the students were black. Factually, however, almost half of the GSS whites reported that no blacks lived in their neighborhood. So how do whites propose to reconcile facts and norms?

Not, it turns out, through reassignment and mandatory transportation. The GSS asked 20,000 whites over the past forty years whether they supported interdistrict busing: four-fifths were opposed. Moreover, a whopping 85 percent of white respondents who both endorse desegregation and live in all-white neighborhoods opposed busing.

These conflicted whites similarly opposed reconciling facts and their norms through residential integration, a policy alterative that would obviate the need for busing. A third of white respondents to the GSS who both endorsed school desegregation and lived in all-white neighborhoods believed that whites have the right to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods. Only 10 percent of similarly situated white respondents agreed that suburban governments should "encourage black people to buy homes in the [white] suburbs."

Perhaps most striking, many of these respondents were reluctant to support even a nongovernmental resolution to their conflicting norms and facts. In 1977, among the 1,200 whites asked both questions on the GSS, 57 percent of those who agreed that blacks and whites should attend the same schools opposed "voluntary programs" organized by "religious and business groups" to "integrate white suburbs." Among those who both lived in segregated neighborhoods and endorsed integrated schooling, three out of five nonetheless opposed even voluntary desegregative efforts. Overall, most whites were reluctant to use their knowledge in forging policy judgments, even when the proposed solution was voluntary, nongovernmental, and in accord with their stated norms.

The GSS did not ask respondents who live in all-white communities, approve of school desegregation, but oppose policies or programs to integrate neighborhoods or schools what strategy, if any, they would support to achieve their norm. Perhaps there is such a strategy, but no one has yet found it on a large scale. As Richard Kahlenberg (2001: 42) puts it, "Today a bipartisan consensus holds that integrated schools are a good thing but we shouldn't do much of anything to promote them" (see also Hochschild and Herk 1990; Frankenberg and Jacobsen 2011).

We call the set of people whose policy preferences or political engagement do not accord with their knowledge on a particular topic the "inactive" or "disengaged informed." This term has all the defects of a shorthand label; it ignores activity in other realms, it says nothing about motivations or justifications for the relevant inactivity, and it says nothing about whether such inactivity is appropriate or not. We address those issues in later chapters; for now, the central point is to contrast inaction or disengagement with action, as shown previously in the vignette of the surgeon general reports.

The Relative Status of Black Americans

A 1995 survey asked an unusual battery of questions, focusing on substantive knowledge about the well-being of different groups of Americans. Respondents were asked if African Americans were at least as well off as the average white in six domains of life—income, housing, education, health care, jobs, and risk of job loss. The empirical evidence on all of these points is clear; the correct answer is no for each.

Many respondents were, however, factually mistaken in answering these questions. Roughly three in five whites agreed that African Americans are as well off or better off than whites with regard to their jobs or risk of job loss, access to health care, and education; more than two in five said the same with regard to income and housing (only 14–32 percent of African Americans, depending on the arena in question, were similarly 14–32 percent of African Americans, depending on the arena in question, were similarly misinformed).6 Overall, 81 percent of white respondents mistakenly agreed that blacks are as well off as whites on at least one item; 42 percent mistakenly saw racial equality on five or all six items. Only a quarter correctly perceived racial inequality on five or all six items (Washington Post et al. 1995: 54–60; see also Kaplowitz et al. 2003).


Excerpted from Do Facts Matter? by Jennifer L. Hochschild, Katherine Levine Einstein. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Tables,
Foreword, by Carl B. Albert,
1. What Do People Know and Why Does It Matter?,
2. Developing the Argument,
3. Ignoring Correct Information in Making Political Judgments,
4. Using Incorrect Information in Making Political Judgments,
5. Endangering a Democratic Polity,
6. Political Asymmetry,
7. Promoting Jefferson's Ideal,

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