Voters Are Ignorant, Not Stupid

Voters Are Ignorant, Not Stupid

Voters Are Ignorant, Not Stupid by Jared Meyer, Foundation For Economic Education

Despite all the unexpected, entertaining events during the primaries, most people have given little notice to the candidates’ specific policy proposals. Even this year’s record turnout for the presidential primaries does not change this reality.

Democracies rest on the ability of the general public to hold their elected officials accountable. But what happens when a large segment of voters knows very little about today’s policy debates or even the basic workings of American government?

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The just-published second edition of Ilya Somin’s book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, tries to answer these questions and many more. In what follows, Somin explains why voters tend to remain politically uninformed, and what that means for public policy debates and American democracy.

Jared Meyer: You provide a lot of numbers in your book to show just how clueless Americans are when it comes to what is happening in Washington. I have some of my favorite examples (one third of Americans think that foreign aid is the government’s largest expense, and nearly half of Americans think cap and trade has to do with healthcare or financial regulation instead of the environment), but what do you think is the most powerful statistic to back up your central thesis?

Ilya Somin: No one survey question is all that important by itself. What matters far more is the cumulative weight of widespread political ignorance across a wide range of issues. But one good example of the extent of public ignorance is that only about 34% of Americans can even name the three branches of the federal