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Guest column

The problem of low-information voters

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John Ray

John Ray

“A properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate. If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.” —Thomas Jefferson

While we take some comfort that we have politically stepped back a bit from the precipice of authoritarianism, the results of the election give scant comfort regarding democracy’s condition in the United States.

I am not focusing so much on the election’s results but the reasons motivating far too many voters to vote as they did and what this says about American citizenship. Our country’s political institutions demand compromise and tolerance but we have an electorate that is fundamentally split into two warring factions, inimical to compromise.

Why? Far too many voters are low-information voters. Low-information voters know little about government or the issues. They are less interested in using reason or ideas to understand politics. They tend to be anti-intellectual, hostile to science and religious in orientation. They are more likely to say “thinking is no fun.” They vote on the basis of cues, particularly from a strong leader. They tend to have authoritarian personalities: distrust of reason, lack of imagination, emotional rigidity; place a high value on obedience, conformity and dogma; have a strong sense that if you are not a member of their in-group(s) you are bad; are hostile to compromise and tolerance; and see only one position as valid. These characteristics are ruinous to sound democratic decision-making.

The lack of political knowledge in America is astounding: 67% of Americans cannot name the three branches of government and 20% cannot name even one. Over 50% can’t name one senator in their state; 50% don’t know that each state has two senators. These are not pedantic points but show a lack of basic political information. No wonder low-information voters will only expose themselves to sources of information that agree with their prejudices and have a proclivity to make ad hominem arguments. To do the opposite would be too disturbing to their dogmatic mind’s peace.

Democratic decision-making rests on the axiom that political truth, i.e. the determination of the best public policy, cannot be determined with the exactitude of the answer to a mathematical problem. The best public truth is found through the give-and-take of debate conducted civilly, rationally, i.e. based on fact and reason, not emotionalism, and agreed-upon rules. Civic deliberation demands that we countenance opposing views and attack the opinion but not the opinion’s holder.

Citizens should deliberate before voting, which is a kind of political choice. Voting is the most important political decision a citizen makes and should be the product of true deliberation.

The problem is that low-information voters have neither the requisite information or skill to engage in productive deliberation. They therefore, as studies show, fall back on stereotypes, emotional appeals, simplistic arguments and the leader’s personal slogans and cues in order to make decisions, i.e. they are authoritarian decision-makers.

Ignorance produces fear and fear produces poor decision making, knee-jerk reactions, hatred of the other and those who are not on our side and violence. The view is that error has no right of expression and if you are opposed to me you are be silenced. Low-information voters are consumed by fear — fear of the other, fear of change, fear of the loss of certainty, fear of diversity and fear of anything they perceive as abnormal. They would subscribe to what was said by a major church leader in 19th century Spain, “far be it from us to engage in the dangerous novelty of thinking.”

It is estimated that about 45% of voters are low-information voters. As long as this continues, we will have the chasm in our politics; we will have paralyzed government and trust in our political institutions will continue to erode.

I am not arguing for elite rule. I do argue for lifting up the population, through outreach and education, into becoming true deliberative citizens.

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” —John F. Kennedy

Dr. John W. Ray is a professor of political science and political philosophy at Montana Tech. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Montana Tech.

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