Sunday, February 24, 2008

Voters are a foreign country

At The Monkey Cage, a group blog authored by four political science professors at George Washington University, John Sides dissects surveys that attempt to illustrate just how much (or little) Americans know about politics.

He points to a study that shows that respondents who were given more time to respond and/or a financial reward for correct answers performed better than a control group of respondents who had only a minute to respond (and no reward).

The post is worth a look, but reading it brought to mind a bigger dilemma that I face a political analyst and political scientist-to-be.

I find it exceedingly difficult to understand the thinking of the "average" voter not just in Japan, but in my own country. As someone whose days are spent following the news and reading and writing commentary, I find it impossible to imagine what facts, ideas, and prejudices shape voter decisions, and as this study shows, the US news media — which often reports on surveys illustrating the ignorance of the American people and I suspect skews its political coverage accordingly — probably doesn't have any better idea about what voters think.

That said, as Professor Sides notes, "If the average respondent in every group answered about 5 or 6 out of 14 questions, is this 'sweeping generalization' really that inaccurate? Is most of the variance in knowledge really explained by, well, knowledge, rather than by a lack of effort or ability to recall the answers correctly?"

I don't doubt that the average voter, who maybe glances at the headlines of the daily newspaper a few times a week and watches a few minutes of evening news a week, has a limited knowledge of political trivia, but what does that mean for voting behavior? Do ignorant voters equal bad voters?


Janne Morén said...

Two thoughts:

* There really is no one average voter. Someone working in the farming or forestry industry in the rural north may not have anything in common, politically, with a small-scale production worker in the outskirts of a major city. They may be similar in income level, social status and level of over-all political knowledge, but that's about it.

Voters in their 70's have not only different views than voters in their 20's; in a very real sense they live in rather different political landscapes. Their interests and their experiences mean they care about very different things, and hear different things even if they listen to the same words.

I think you may be better off not thinking of "the average voter" at all and be resigned to consider people as belonging to much more fine-grained groups from the start.

Which brings me to my second point:

* People tend to be knowledgeable about things they care about. If people don't know about some issue, it's mostly because the issue is of little importance to them, and they do not have any strong opinions on the matter.

So, if it turns out, for instance, that most people are rather ignorant about who the Chairman of the Federal Reserve is, then it is pretty safe to deduce that they do not think knowing the identity and specifics of this individual will actually matter to them in any kind of realistic sense. And they'd be completely right. Knowing who it is (or what kind of policy papers they've been writing) will not in fact help people plan their economical future or affect their lives in any other way. COnversely, they ahve no say in selecting this individual. Unless you take a particular interest in macroeconomics you really have no reason to know this.

In fact, I suspect you could use this data in this way, to determine in a "crowdsourcing" kind of way what political issues actually do matter socially and which ones are incidental and unimportant. If most people do not know who Bernanke is then that may be an indicator that the role of that position in steering the economy is overstated.

Christopher said...

Something that has helped me a lot is to do a lot of campaign doorbelling. After you've talked to a few thousand random people like this, you get a pretty good sense of what sort of political things the average voter is aware of. I'd recommend it to anyone who hasn't done it.

It's kind of depressing to discover that in most elections, most voters will make their decision by only remembering one candidate's name and not the other candidate's name... turning most campaigns into mere name-recognition building exercises.

Of course people with different occupations, living in different areas, etc. are all different but the hardest part for people like us who pay a lot of attention to politics is really to understand people who do not think about politics very much, if at all.

This is even if it directly affects them. There's a certain level of abstraction that people have trouble dealing with - they may understand that e.g. gas is expensive, but will have trouble connecting that (via the gas tax, events in Iraq/Nigeria/Venezuela/China/India, emissions control regulations, etc.) to which candidate to vote for.

MTC said...

Herr Morén -

Wonderful points.

It would be interesting to conduct cross-national comparative tests of awareness of government. My prejudices whisper to me that Japan's wonkier presentation of political and business news and the more upfront role of government officials in the economy promote a greater common awareness of the identities and policies of principal actors than found in, let us say, the United States.

It might be difficult to tease out a hard rule from out of the results. However, I think it would be possible to a least find hints of a connection between the density of the political information provided and performance on tests of "common knowledge."

It would be instructive, though possibly humilitating, to find out whether or not I have been fooling myself.

David said...

"As someone whose days are spent following the news and reading and writing commentary, I find it impossible to imagine..."

With all due respect, perhaps this is the difference between the average person and those who are extremely interested in politics. Folks working 8-12 hours a day doing something else really aren't going to pay much attention to things (as mentioned in the previous comment) which they don't feel are important to them. And they probably know what is really important and what isn't. Thus, the lack of concern/knowledge about Japan (for example) among the average American.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Ignorant voters mean bad voters. In theory a society's government is merely concerned with the small, local needs, of the local community. I suppose we can assume this sort of condition existed in pre-modern times. We like to think of the old greek democracy, with it's active participation of the electorate, but this is not a suitable example as they were up to their ears in foreign disputes.

Ignorant voters make for bad voters they same way ignorance breeds bad citizens. Racism and a whole bunch of other -isms often stem from ignorance more than anything else. It should be ignorance that we are fighting against more than anything. Let people make bad informed decisions, that's the goal of representative democracy. Ignorant good or bad decisions make the case for non-representative government.

The problem is in America we excuse what is essentially ignorance. You throw out "Oh, someone who glances at the newspaper a few times a week." That's fine if that person is informed in some other way, (for example they get briefed and research at election time.) The point is they must take some time to get informed before voting. Of course they need not be constant news junkies, but the way many people do stay informed is to monitor the news cycle on a daily basis. Now ofcourse, this doesn't necessarily mean one is getting "informed", but we do now someone who does even less than mindlessly absorbing what the media throws at them on a daily basis probably isn't getting informed.

You also throw out the word trivia, which is very dangerous. The polls that Americans (and I'm sure those in other countries as well) fail often are hardly testing trivia. Trivia would include knowing McCain's change of Church affiliation. The statistics that make the news are the one's asking basic policy positions or candidate info. The one's showing a majority of American's think the 9-11 hijackers included Iraqis, or that show a percentage hold that Obama is Muslim make the case for the electorate's shameful ignorance (or perhaps racism). People really just don't know or give a shit. Ask people who started the EPA or supported some act that they wouldn't expect, and they simply won't know. Are these important for a informed electorate? Ofcourse. And it is precisely our system that relies so heavily on TV ads that feed on voter ignorance that shows this. TV ads would have little or no influence if voters understood the issues before them and were well informed of the candidates positions. The ads are both campaigns acknowledgements that American's don't know shit and aren't going to spend time to find out shit. They'd rather sit and watch TV on their fat asses, so that's where the campaign money goes, to accepting that American's are lazy and couch potatos. Perot, god bless his heart, took it one step further. He said, ok, so American's are a lazy bunch, they like to watch tv, want politics to get better, but don't really want to spend time to get informed. I'll advertise like everyone else, but instead of buying a 30 second clip showing you kissing a baby, he bought like 30 minutes, brought out some pie charts, and said, hey you lazy bums, you can't help but be informed about my positions now. Brilliant.

America is complicated, staying informed of issues around the world is required as America doesn't live in a box. People don't follow world events, let alone domestic events (unless you mean Britney Spears), hence our government is gone to the shitter. Obama ain't going to do poop about it and neither is McCain , assuuming he makes it to the election (he is old). Nothing short of a revolution of the contemporary government system (direct democracy initiatives), or culture would really have any impact. It's an American leftover trait from our days of being out on the frontier, and being a country without much worldy significance. And you can take that to the paper mill!

Anonymous said...

As someone who does follow the news carefully though not professionally (I am retired so I have more time to do this than the average wage earning adult) I am appalled at the level of ignorance and media misinformation that the average American and Japanese citizen must endure to try to make sense of the increasingly complex world they inhabit. Just to cite one example, you are no doubt acquainted with the case of NYT reporter Judith Miller who became an "authority" at the NYT newsroom on the question of Iraqi possession and concealment of WMD. The problem was that she relied for her information on her cozy relations with Vice President Dick Cheney's staff who deliberately fed her with false information and reports. The average middle class citizen is already beset with a struggle to survive daily life on inadequate income and a poor educational system on top of having to deal with horrendously fiendish temptations to indulge in credit card debt and endless consumer distractions so it should not be surprising perhaps that they are badly misinformed over getting the details of complex international political topics right in their minds.