Scott Winship has an interesting article in The Democratic Strategist today in which he dissects one of those polls that measures how stupid Americans are about politics. And boy are they stupid about politics --- only one in ten knows who Denny Hastert is. But the good news is that they aren't measurably more stupid than they were in the 40's and 50's when there was a lot more illiteracy and many people didn't graduate from High School. I suppose that's good news.
Here's the part I find interesting:
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.
I happen to know an excellent place to start. Chris Hayes wrote an article about exactly this odd phenomenon after the 2004 election and I posted about it here.
Undecided voters aren't as rational as you think. Members of the political class may disparage undecided voters, but we at least tend to impute to them a basic rationality. We're giving them too much credit. I met voters who told me they were voting for Bush, but who named their most important issue as the environment. One man told me he voted for Bush in 2000 because he thought that with Cheney, an oilman, on the ticket, the administration would finally be able to make us independent from foreign oil. A colleague spoke to a voter who had been a big Howard Dean fan, but had switched to supporting Bush after Dean lost the nomination. After half an hour in the man's house, she still couldn't make sense of his decision.
A disturbing number of undecided voters are crypto-racist isolationists. In the age of the war on terror and the war in Iraq, pundits agreed that this would be the most foreign policy-oriented election in a generation--and polling throughout the summer seemed to bear that out...But just because voters were unusually concerned about foreign policy didn't mean they had fundamentally shifted their outlook on world affairs. In fact, among undecided voters, I encountered a consistent and surprising isolationism--an isolationism that September 11 was supposed to have made obsolete everywhere but the left and right fringes of the political spectrum.
To be sure, maybe they simply thought Kerry's promise to bring in allies was a lame idea--after all, many well-informed observers did. But I became convinced that there was something else at play here, because undecided voters extended the same logic to other seemingly intractable problems, like the deficit or health care. On these issues, too, undecideds recognized the severity of the situation--but precisely because they understood the severity, they were inclined to be skeptical of Kerry's ability to fix things. Undecided voters, as everyone knows, have a deep skepticism about the ability of politicians to keep their promises and solve problems. So the staggering incompetence and irresponsibility of the Bush administration and the demonstrably poor state of world affairs seemed to serve not as indictments of Bush in particular, but rather of politicians in general.
undecideds seemed oddly unwilling to hold the president accountable for his previous actions, focusing instead on the practical issue of who would have a better chance of success in the future. Because undecideds seemed uninterested in assessing responsibility for the past, Bush suffered no penalty for having made things so bad; and because undecideds were focused on, but cynical about, the future, the worse things appeared, the less inclined they were to believe that problems could be fixed--thereby nullifying the backbone of Kerry's case. Needless to say, I found this logic maddening.
Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues. Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the "issues." That is, while they might favor Kerry on the economy, they favor Bush on terrorism; or while they are anti-gay marriage, they also support social welfare programs. Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured--a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example--but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I'd just asked them to name their favorite prime number.
But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to... So I tried other ways of asking the same question: "Anything of particular concern to you? Are you anxious or worried about anything? Are you excited about what's been happening in the country in the last four years?"
These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment. As far as I could tell, the problem wasn't the word "issue"; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the "political." The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief--not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.
In this context, Bush's victory, particularly on the strength of those voters who listed "values" as their number one issue, makes perfect sense. Kerry ran a campaign that was about politics: He parsed the world into political categories and offered political solutions. Bush did this too, but it wasn't the main thrust of his campaign. Instead, the president ran on broad themes, like "character" and "morals." Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values--we all know what's right and wrong. But how can undecided voters evaluate a candidate on issues if they don't even grasp what issues are?
Liberals like to point out that majorities of Americans agree with the Democratic Party on the issues, so Republicans are forced to run on character and values in order to win. (This cuts both ways: I met a large number of Bush/Feingold voters whose politics were more in line with the Republican president, but who admired the backbone and gutsiness of their Democratic senator.) But polls that ask people about issues presuppose a basic familiarity with the concept of issues--a familiarity that may not exist.
As far as I can tell, this leaves Democrats with two options: either abandon "issues" as the lynchpin of political campaigns and adopt the language of values, morals, and character as many have suggested; or begin the long-term and arduous task of rebuilding a popular, accessible political vocabulary--of convincing undecided voters to believe once again in the importance of issues. The former strategy could help the Democrats stop the bleeding in time for 2008. But the latter strategy might be necessary for the Democrats to become a majority party again.
I think Democrats need to do a bit of both. Certainly, the Republicans, for whatever reason, seem to better understand heuristics and are willing to demagogue wherever necessary. These last few years have taught us nothing if they haven't taught us how far you can go even when you make no sense whatsoever.
But the fact remains that this is not good for the country. We simply cannot adequately govern ourselves if a large number of us are dumb as posts and vote for reasons that make no sense.
The polling data suggests that the best solution is this:
The surest way to enhance political information levels is to convince people to become more interested in politics. In 2004, the mean score on the PI scale for the least interested segment of the public was 1.7. Among the most interested, the mean score was 6.2.
Increasing political interest won’t be easy, however. One suggestion has been for schools to conduct more classes in civics or American history, but the link between the number of such classes taken K-12 and informed citizenship is extremely weak. Get-out-the-vote campaigns in the mass media have also been popular, but the people who most need such encouragement don’t read newspapers or watch the news on TV. “Kids Voting” programs may benefit some, but they tend to be too few in number around the country, and their effects are generally minor.
Tne possible solution is deliberative polls, as suggested by University of Texas professor James Fishkin. The 2004 ANES found, for example, that persons who reported discussing politics with family and friends were significantly better informed than those who eschewed political talk. It is likely that political information and political discussions are mutually reinforcing.
And that, my friends, is our mission, should we decide to accept it. As the trainspotting, vanguard political junkies, our job is to take this conversation offline and spread the good word to our families and friends and co-workers. We can hang out in the blogosphere and hash out the arguments and organize ourselves around issues and candidates and raise money and volunteer. But if we do nothing else, we need to talk about this stuff out in the real world and build this dialog into the body politic.
I don't know how many people you can inspire or how many in whom you can even tweak an interest. But it doesn't take very many. Once a poltically informed person is created they tend to create more. I've been quite hopeful that this will be a positive benefit of the blogosphere for sometime. And when you read that data you can see just how necessary it is.