Rational ignorance and the growing risks of political illiteracy
How politically stupid are Americans? A 2011 Newsweek survey measured the political literacy of the average U.S. citizen. The results may (or may not) surprise you. Out of 1,000 Americans, 380 failed the test. Answers revealed that 29 percent of Americans couldn’t name the vice president, 73 percent couldn’t explain why we fought the Cold War, 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights and six percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on the calendar. America’s dismal political literacy is one of the reasons that solving complicated issues such as the perennial budget deficit and growing national debt is so challenging.
I am not defending the excessive spending and fiscal irresponsibility that has become the status quo in Washington. Corruption and feckless policy-making are certainly problems. But our ignorance is not helping, for two reasons:
First, ignorance makes political pandering and manipulation too easy. Elected officials are concerned about job security—like most of us are—and thus work hard to please their boss. And remember, we are their boss!
But our ignorance often causes us to equate well-crafted speeches with good lawmaking. We “hire” flashy, exciting politicians who say the right things instead of the people who are right for the job. If we want competent lawmakers in Washington—lawmakers who provide substance rather than mere stimulation—we must demand competence from ourselves first.
Second, political ignorance makes it difficult for the qualified, responsible lawmakers to make hard but necessary choices. Because uninformed voters have difficulty grasping complicated issues, political parties build campaigns with a rhetorical framework of slogans and one-liners, and constituencies buy in. But these oversimplified axioms lock our lawmakers in rigid ideological battles that make compromise nearly impossible. Party slogans cannot solve our nation’s problems.
For example, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) was one of the 18 members on the 2010 Fiscal Commission, but ultimately opposed the Fiscal Commission’s plan to balance the budget because of cuts to unemployment benefits and entitlement programs. In a Huffington Post blog, Schakowsky sneered at the commission report’s talk of “shared sacrifice” and “painful” decisions regarding the proposed budget, all because it dared touch entitlements. Her reaction is understandable, though. As a Democrat from Illinois, if her constituency caught wind of her approving even modest entitlement cuts, they’d have a fit.
National defense is the Republican’s sacred cow. Mitt Romney knew this, and that is why, according to the Huff, he inadvertently criticized his future running mate, Paul Ryan, for supporting cuts to the defense spending rate included in last year’s debt ceiling deal. The presidential hopeful was trying to win the support of his base, while the representative from Wisconsin was working to solve the nation’s budget crisis.
Often what is best for the country and what is best for one’s political career are at odds. When we choose ignorance over being informed, we amplify this tension. Lawmakers are forced to focus on pleasing their constituency—who often think they are informed but frequently are not—instead of fixing the country’s problems.
The current sequester, which arbitrarily cuts $1.2 trillion over 10 years from the budget, is another example of this mentality. It was included in the debt ceiling bill to deter lawmakers from ineffective budget negotiations.
Why didn’t it work? Politicians cannot escape the chains of ideology to reach reasonable compromise. And popular ignorance just reinforces these chains.
Though no one would admit to it, some lawmakers may even be pleased with the sequester outcome. While lawmakers would have to answer to their constituencies for cuts included in a budget deal, the sequester makes necessary, automatic cuts without a direct vote.
The theory of rational ignorance suggests people choose to be ignorant because the cost of being informed outweighs the potential benefits. To some extent, rational ignorance is inherent to republics. Citizens outsource political responsibilities to full-time elected officials so they can focus on private aspirations. But we must realize that the aggregate cost of individual indifference—and even worse, the lack of vigilance by many who do vote—is taking a toll on America. Thomas Jefferson thought ignorance and liberty to be incompatible: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what will never be.” Perhaps we’re not in danger of an actual tyrant, but if we don’t get the budget under control, we will soon be slaves to our monstrous debt.