News Colette Browne

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Voters know enough to uphold democracy

Published 05/12/2013 | 02:30

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Ding dong democracy is dead. That's according to the 'Irish Times', which ran an opinion poll over the weekend outlining how stupid we all are.

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To summarise, the electorate is comprised of a rag-tag bunch of knuckle-dragging ne'er-do-wells who know precisely nothing about the political world that surrounds them.

Vast swathes of the populace don't know that pension payments comprise a bigger proportion of the social welfare budget than unemployment benefit; think that politicians' pay has gone up instead of down; and don't realise that those on salaries in excess of €75,000 comprise the top 10pc of income earners.

But, does any of this matter? While the paper lamented our collective idiocy, and wondered about the democratic implications of such a dense electorate, what it didn't tell you was that it has always been thus.

Since scientific opinion polling began in the 1950s, social scientists have been aghast at citizens' ignorance.

As far back as 1964, one dejected researcher concluded: "Large portions of the electorate simply do not have any meaningful beliefs."

The examples are myriad. During the 1992 American election, 84pc of voters knew the name of George Bush's dog, Milly, but just 5pc were aware of his stance on capital gains tax.

More recently, when asked what percentage of the federal budget was spent on foreign aid, a majority of Americans said 20pc when the correct figure is less than 1pc.

I could go on, but you get the picture. While most voters could probably name the characters in The Simpsons, they'd be hard pressed to correctly reel off a list of cabinet ministers.

So in representative democracies, where good governance depends on voters making informed decisions during elections, how can we trust the masses of ignoramuses to choose correctly?

This question has obsessed political theorists since antiquity, when Plato worried that the ancient Athenians were too dim-witted to exercise democracy responsibly.

Yet, somehow, democracy works. People don't need an encyclopaedic knowledge of political trivia in order to make informed decisions.

Instead, they use information gleaned from social groups, media and politicians as cues to make a reasonable, if not always rational, decision. And, if they make the wrong one, they can always correct it at the next election.

Voters may not possess a wealth of detailed information on divergent issues, but they use shortcuts – like party affiliation or trade union endorsement – as proxies for comprehensive knowledge.

In this regard, voters are rationally ignorant. They do not have the time, or the inclination, to closely monitor every political development or remember every obscure fact.

So, while a certain minimum threshold of knowledge is required to understand the available options, it is doubtful that knowing how many people use Twitter each day is necessary for that task.

It should also be noted that if voters are confused about facts, there are some obvious explanations.

When answering the kinds of survey questions posed by the 'Irish Times', a large body of research suggests respondents will search their memory for "top of the head" thoughts on the subject and make snap responses.

In that respect, it is hardly surprising that most people thought the number of medical cards had decreased over the past five years when media reports have been carrying stories of cutbacks for weeks.

Similarly, it's likely a majority assumed the unemployment budget was the biggest strain on the Department of Social Protection because it features most prominently in public discourse, usually framed in a way that is disparaging of social welfare recipients.

It's also easy to see why most people thought an income of €150,000 was required to put workers in the top 10pc of earners when politicians routinely speak of wages under €100,000 as being "average".

The inability of voters to answer some arbitrary political questions does not sound the death knell for democracy, but reports of its demise could prove damaging.

If people are conditioned into thinking they are stupid, that politics is too complex and their opinions are worthless, then they are much less likely to engage in the democratic process.

Instead of political anoraks bemoaning the disinterest of the hoi polloi, the onus is on the media, and others with the power to shape public opinion in an engaging way. This is especially critical today, when politicians and special interest groups employ a phalanx of spin doctors to massage figures and manipulate their message.

The notion of the fully informed voter is a myth but the adequately informed voter, armed with the right information, can be just as effective.

Irish Independent

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