The Uninformed Bloc
by Scott Winship
I know what you’re thinking. I’ve failed to keep the faith. I’ve made a mockery of the “daily” in “Daily Strategist”. I’ve been out lollygagging, making the rounds of the D.C. cocktail circuit. But lemme explain. There was a much needed trip to Boston (shout out to T.L., J.H., and C.W. -- um, holla atcha boy?) and Maine. Not “summer home” Maine either – my blue-collar, limited-internet-access hometown (shout out Lawrence Bulldogs). And there’s this magazine that I’m supposed to be running. And do we have some great stuff planned for the next few months. That’s not a question, I mean we do have some great stuff planned.
But for now, let me just draw your attention to a piece by Stephen Earl Bennett in a fairly new publication called Public Opinion Pros [subscr.]. POP is an online magazine aimed at disseminating public opinion research. It published the essay by Amy Gershkoff that I summarized way back when. Following my own particular obsessions, I was drawn to the Bennett article, which examines the extent of political knowledge among voters.
The whole point of polling is to obtain an accurate picture of the state of public opinion and preferences, but if voters are generally uninformed, then we might hesitate to craft public policies around those preferences. Furthermore, uninformed voters might be vulnerable to deceptive framing of policy debates, such that their preferences may be quite malleable, which of course renders polling data problematic as a guide to strategy. The textbook example illustrating both points is the majoritarian belief that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the 9/11 attacks, which greatly facilitated the Administration’s goal of invading Iraq and overthrowing Hussein.
So, to put it in provocative terms, how ignorant is the electorate? Bennett found that nearly one-third of adults were unaware that the Republican Party is more conservative than the Democratic Party. And lest the reader think that this is an expression of cynicism rather than a lack of knowledge, Bennett found that whether or not respondents knew there were major differences between the two parties was associated with the amount of knowledge they had of major politicians and the parties but not with their levels of governmental trust.
Only one in ten adults knew who Denny Hastert is. Out of eight similar questions about politicians and the two parties, the average adult got just 4.5 right. One-third of adults said they follow politics “hardly at all” or “only now and then”.
Bennett uses a Gallup question asking which party controls the House and Senate to argue that political knowledge has only slightly declined since the mid-1940s. But it has become more associated with age – through the 1970s, young people were just as well informed as older Americans, but today’s twenty-somethings know less than their elders about politics and government. Bennett attributes this change to the decline in newspaper readership and in the influence of political parties.
Finally, in an intriguing finding, Bennett shows that consistency in positions taken across issue areas increases as political knowledge increases. Those who have little knowledge tend to have unconventional combinations of issue positions. If it is also the case that those with little political knowledge are less consistent in their positions on individual issues over time than other people are, then the result might be a sizeable constituency for demagoguery and misdirection. Bennett’s results imply that that bloc would be as large as one-third of the population. It seems important to separate these people out, to the extent possible, when analyzing characteristics of the electorate by, say, party or ideology. And it would be nice to know more about the positions they take on issues and the candidates they support. A Daily Strategist project for another day….
UPDATE: The editor of Public Opinion Pros has generously made the Bennett piece available to TDS readers via the new link above.