The Myth of the Informed Electorate

–Richard E. Vatz

(Perhaps) said by Abraham 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.”

(Certainly) said by Vatz: “Perhaps, but you can fool enough of the people enough of the time.”

Most people at one time or another iterate the phrase or a variation of the phrase, “You cannot fool the voters.” Voters, as anyone who has stood in line at the polls to vote knows, are composed largely, but not entirely, of completely uninformed people. This is not a criticism of voters, because most of them have full lives and do not have the time to engage in researching the large number of candidates among whom they must choose for public office.

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Some election ballots include policy questions. These are proposals about which I propose that if you combine (1.) the percentage of people who are considering the question for the first time in the booth with (2.) the percentage of people who are befuddled by the propositions’ impenetrable prose, you will approach around 75%.

Evidence abounds that large numbers of informed voters don’t exist. The evidence is almost inexhaustible, but read this analysis by pollster John Zogby (no conservative he), referencing in 2008 two items in the public domain of which I suspect all pundits thought liberals and conservatives alike were aware: “Nearly three quarters (72%) of Obama voters did not correctly identify Biden as the candidate who had to quit a previous campaign for President because he was found to have plagiarized a speech, and nearly half (47%) did not know that Biden was the one who predicted Obama would be tested by a generated international crisis during his first six months as President,” [“Zogby Poll: Almost No Obama Voters Ace Election Test,” November 18, 2008]

Did Obama supporters do any better on irrelevant information? Zogby reports, “Ninety-four percent of Obama voters correctly identified Palin as the candidate with a pregnant teenage daughter, 86% correctly identified Palin as the candidate associated with a $150,000 wardrobe purchased by her political party, and 81% chose McCain as the candidate who was unable to identify the number of houses he owned. When asked which candidate said they could ‘see Russia from their house,’ 87% chose Palin, although the quote actually is attributed to Saturday Night Live‘s Tina Fey during her portrayal of Palin during the campaign.”

Economist Bryan Caplan wrote a book titled The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies in which he claims there is profound economic ignorance of voters and counters the arguments that people vote in their self-interest by definition or that ignorance from different sides cancels each other out.

Lack of knowledge of the electorate is often fostered by news organs. I assume by now everyone knows – oops, there I go too – that is, probably only a tiny percentage of voters knows that during the Ehrlich Administration House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s control of the House Ways and Means Committee prevented the full House from even voting on the slots bill. According to The Washington Post at that time, a primary factor in Busch’s disapproval of slots is the “alcohol and gambling problems which devastated [his] family.”

In today’s Sun there is an endorsement of Speaker Busch as a great compromiser who “did not use his position to stand in the way if a majority of Marylanders disagreed.”

No problem if history is incompatible with a newspaper’s political preferences; just change the history.

One Democratic advertisement blames Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich for permitting the 72% BGE rate hike; there is no reference to the 1999 Democratic-majority General Assembly’s deregulation plan which created the eventual rate hikes which would years later yield a 72 percent rise in electric bills. There is no Washington Post or Baltimore Sun Ad Watch critiquing such selective and/or false information.

I once started a ruckus on Maryland Public Television when I said that many Democrats vote on a lark. I don’t think I said “most,” but that would probably be not far from the truth.

With apologies to H. L. Mencken, “no one ever went broke underestimating the political knowledge of the American people.”

Particularly the political knowledge of liberals.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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