Ideology and the Informed Voter

Well, this is depressing.

We like to think that more informed voters are “better” voters–more likely to make reasoned decisions, more likely to base those decisions on evidence rather than emotion or prejudice.

We’d like to think that, but apparently we’d be wrong. Research increasingly confirms that more information does not necessarily translate into better judgment.

An informed voter is only as good as her information sources. And because we all get to choose which information sources to believe, voters with more information are not always more informed. Sometimes, they’re just more completely and profoundly misled.

Looking at the 1996 election, for instance, Achens and Bartels studied whether voters knew the budget deficit had dropped during President Clinton’s first term (it had, and sharply). What they found will shake anyone who believes more information leads to a smarter electorate: how much voters knew about politics mattered less than which party they supported. Republicans in the 80th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Democrats in the 20th percentile of political knowledge.

It gets worse: Republicans in the 60th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Republicans in the 10th percentile of political knowledge — which suggests that at least some of what we learn as we become more politically informed is how to mask our partisanship.

This is all part of what political scientists call “motivated reasoning”–the very human tendency to filter information through our personal worldviews.

Those of us who follow politics most closely do so because we care about issues of governance and have developed value structures and perspectives through which we analyze the information we acquire. The more invested we are in a particular approach to an issue, the more likely we are to apply our ideological “spin” to information about that issue.

It seems counter-intuitive, but it may be that voters who are less  invested in partisan politics and political philosophy–who don’t have a dog in the fight, as the saying goes– are actually more likely to cast votes based upon more or less dispassionate evaluations of the candidates and their campaigns.

If so, the more people who vote, the better.


  1. But, as we’ve all pointed out before, partisan politics these days means a huge number of races aren’t even contested. More voters will likely mean more votes cast for the single candidate—at least until those informed voters also become disillusioned with the concept of elections that are uncontested.

    It’s all depressing, but we can’t give up hope. Otherwise, the status quo wins.

  2. I wish it was true, but I doubt that “the more people who vote, the better.” It’s a good theory, but I’m afraid it’s too late for that to be the answer to the political problems in the US.

    What about an opinion on this point from The Guardian?

  3. The problem is not so much voters with an agenda. The problem is with voters with a badly or hatefully twisted agenda. (I know that’s an over simplifacation but IMHO it is too accurate)

  4. Robert McChesney’s “Blowing The Roof Off The Twenty-First Century”, in the 5th chapter, “This isn’t What Democracy Looks Like” offers hope, after carefully explaining the process of how we got to the present mess. “The degeneration of U.S. politics is a long-term process. It can be explained and it can be reversed.” He begins with a quote from Aristotle: “Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers”, and “If liberty and equality are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons share alike in government to the utmost”. McChesney elaborates Dollarocracy, and the depoliticization of the American public which has resulted in voter apathy. A good read.

  5. This relates back to the role of the free press in our democracy. If we could get facts instead of talking points and opinion from the networks and USA Today, we would have a better opportunity to make informed decisions. The news is so dumbed-down now it’s worthless.

  6. Another good read is “Freedom for Sale” by John Kampfner (2009), former Editor of the New Statesman in England:

    “Governments around the world-whether they fall into the authoritarian or the democratic camp-have drawn up a new pact with the people. These are its forms: repression is selective, confined to those who openly challenge the STATUS QUO, who publicly go out of there way to ’cause trouble.’ The number of people who fall into that category is actually very few. The rest of the population can enjoy freedom of travel, to be more or less as they wish, and to make and spend their money. This is the difference between public freedoms and private freedoms we are prepared to cede. We all do it.”

    This is why things can only get worse. Whether young or old, 99.9% of the people aren’t going to do what’s necessary for any significant change. At least for now. Let’s all hope for a miracle.

  7. History is largely explained by leaders duping the masses. Influential people with an agenda that always includes increasing their influence (power) lying in an artful way that captures minds. Such antics are so powerful that they typically result in people killing others and being killed in return.

    Democracy was conceived as the most difficult system for such mischief to occur within but experience has shown that even it can be overcome. We’ve inadvertently armed the perpetrators by inviting them into our lives and living rooms.

    Today in the Middle East, sub Saharan Africa, South America, Russia, Asia, and America that effect is alive and well and gaining traction. Europe apparently developed some, not total, immunity from WWII. Not unlike living organisms becoming immune from viruses by suffering attacks by them.

    We, like so many others in history see the plot unfolding and expect its tenacity to be checked but also can’t deny its growing success.

    That’s just the way that it is here and now. We can hope, we can act, we can worry, we can speak out but the truth is that the future is unknown. Things could go either way.

    Much damage is already done. Even if this assault is completely defeated it will be many decades before our ramparts are rebuilt.

    The only cure for toxic influence is for capable people to organize more influence. That we are doing. Apparently and realistically insufficently. The only good news is that it seems that the future is not yet decided.

  8. @Pete

    You’re right, there’s HOPE. But it has to be BASED ON REASON which is a very difficult process in this instance since it has to incorporate an accurate projection of the future if it is to have any value at all.

  9. We do not vote issues. We vote for voters who vote for union leaders in Indiana. So how much do we need to learn about any Governor, for example, to know that USA “warriors” annihilate enemies as best they can, if ridicule doesn’t work (Chomsky on globalization 1492–).

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