In Search of Rational Voters

"The people have spoken—the bastards!" It can be an effective line, especially when candidates employ it jokingly to lighten the somber mood of their supporters after a deflating loss at the polls. But it's also a dangerous thing to say: If there's one thing any aspirant for any office is reluctant to do, it's insult the electorate. He may need them again in two years.

Still, every once in a while a losing candidate has the guts and irreverence to try some variant of this jibe. The political gadfly Dick Tuck, defeated in a state Senate campaign in California in the 1950s, seems to have introduced it to modern campaigning. The equally witty Morris Udall used it on the night he lost the Wisconsin presidential primary to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

I don't know where the line originated, and I don't particularly care. What interests me is that this is about as far as any losing candidate is ever willing to go in taking on the voters. It's barely acceptable, on rare occasions, to make a joking reference to them as hostile ingrates. What you can't do is question their mental capacity. No candidate has ever begun a concession speech by saying, "The voters have spoken—the fools!"

That's in large part because it would be received almost universally as a gesture of tasteless arrogance. But there's another reason politicians carefully avoid questioning the intelligence of the electorate. They avoid it because they want desperately to believe that the American voters, whatever mistakes they may make, are at bottom rational and competent.

It's not just candidates and office-holders who feel need to believe this. Scholars who study voting behavior feel it, too. V. O. Key Jr., perhaps the most eminent American political scientist of the mid-20th century, wrote a book in the early 1960s called "The Responsible Electorate" and stated in the very beginning that its purpose was to convince readers that "voters are not fools." Thirty years later, another respected scholar, Samuel Popkin, made similar arguments at greater length in a book he chose to call "The Reasoning Voter."

Journalists generally concur. Cynical as they tend to be about candidates and office-holders, they rarely blame the failures of American democracy on deficiencies in the electorate. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have read an op-ed column by a political analyst declaring that, on one important issue or another, "the people are way ahead of the politicians." Often, what this means is that the voters happen to agree with the writer on that issue.

In the end, though, the practice of closing ranks in defense of the electorate is far more than a case of journalistic vanity or political self-protection. The American democratic system is rooted in the assumption of sensible political choices made by reasonable and fair-minded citizens. Challenge this assumption, and many, if not most, of the logical pillars of the system begin to show serious cracks. I understand all this, and I don't feel any more comfortable than most writers do blaming "the people" for the flaws in American government.

But in the closing weeks of a tumultuous national election year, it's worth spending a bit of time trying to figure out what it means to say that "the voters are not fools." When Key wrote those words, he was not claiming that the typical American was deeply familiar with candidates for a wide range of offices and well versed on the positions each candidate espoused. He couldn't claim that, because by the 1960s it had been documented in study after study that the vast majority of voters go to the polls with only the haziest of notions about what the candidates plan to do, and that the further down the ballot one went, the less likely they were to know much of anything.

What Key meant was that voters cast rational votes "retrospectively"—that is, they make judgments about how well things seem to be going for them, and then either reward or punish the party in power based on their conclusions. So when Ronald Reagan asked his audience in the 1980 presidential debates whether they were better off under President Jimmy Carter than they had been four years earlier, he was asking for a judgment that Key would have considered entirely proper and appropriate to democratic politics. Most people decided they were worse off, and Carter lost the election.

In a similar way, Popkin doesn't base his theory of the "reasoning voter" on claims that we go to the polls primed with information about the choices on the ballot. He says we practice "low-information rationality," piecing together scraps of knowledge gleaned from personal experience, historical events, media coverage and other sources to pull the lever based on what amounts to gut reasoning. But he believes that it works most of the time.

An electorate, in other words, is something like a jury. It's a panel of ordinary people, limited in their knowledge and training, who combine to produce a judgment of greater wisdom than any of them could make alone. The crowd, in some mysterious way, is wiser than the individual. The average voter may be no genius, but the electorate as a group is no fool. So the theory goes. It is a theory that allows candidates, scholars and journalists to get through the day without having to question the fundamental tenets of American government.

I don't contend that the theory is groundless. There is something in the wisdom of crowds. What seems to me inescapable is that the past few years have not been kind to those who accept the rational voter idea as an article of faith.

I don't know how many millions of people have thought about this privately. But one writer has taken the leap of producing a book that challenges all the orthodoxies of rational voting. Indeed, he has taken every possible opportunity to poke holes in them.

"Just How Stupid Are We?," by Rick Shenkman, has been on the shelves for nearly six months now. It has sold a lot of copies. I didn't bother to look at it for a long time because the title made me think it was either a piece of frivolous fluff or an ideological screed of the sort that pop up like weeds in presidential election years.

But it's a serious book, by a history professor who treats politics as serious business and is more interested in repairing the flaws of the political system than in whining about voters or politicians. Before any real repairs can be made, he believes, the flaws in the conventional theory of rational voting behavior have to be exposed. In particular, he believes it is fantasy to think one can establish any kind of rationality on a foundation of factual ignorance. Below some threshold of basic knowledge, he says, intelligent voting is simply not possible, no matter how finely tuned one's gut instincts may be. Below that threshold, the voter is, in many cases, just a fool.

Shenkman talks a great deal about the Iraq War, and I will try briefly to summarize what he says--not because I relish rehashing the Iraq debate, but because I think he makes some points that are hard to dismiss.

The crucial ones have to do with perceptions of Saddam Hussein. Polls consistently have shown that for most of the past seven years, a majority of Americans believed Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks. A larger majority believed him to be in league with Al Qaeda somehow. And even more were ready to brand him as an international terrorist.

Shenkman believes, and I think he is right, that the war never would have achieved popular support in this country had most voters known that all of these assertions were false. The truth—that Saddam was a brutal thug, but not an international terrorist—was available to anyone who wished to learn it. The bipartisan 9/11 commission declared definitively in early 2004 that Saddam had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. The presidential election was held that fall with roughly half the country utterly mistaken on an issue of vital importance.

None of this is to say that anyone who voted for George Bush in 2004 was a fool. But anyone who voted for him on the grounds that he had dethroned an international terrorist was, if not exactly a fool, at least badly fooled. And Shenkman's book provides a long list of other cases in which the same conclusion might be drawn.

Virtually no one, Shenkman says, has "explored what the public's approval of the war on the basis of misinformation says about the maturity of our democracy." He explores it. He believes that for a combination of reasons, spot TV ads prominent among them, the American electorate harbors more misconceptions about public life than it did a generation ago, or at almost any period in American history.

I wish I had some evidence from the current presidential campaign that the voters are finally beginning to pay attention and judge what they hear on the basis of real knowledge. Sadly, I don't. The electorate seems all too ready to accept Democratic arguments that John McCain wants the Iraq War to last 100 years, when McCain has said nothing of the sort. McCain keeps telling the electorate, and convincing a significant part of it, that Barack Obama's economic plan would raise taxes on the middle class, when every reputable analysis makes clear it wouldn't do that. This campaign provides Shenkman with almost as much ammunition as the last one.

What Shenkman does not do is chortle, Mencken-like, about stupidity. He offers plausible suggestions for how the knowledge level of the American electorate might be raised to a respectable threshold. He wants to return civics to the basic curriculum in both high school and college, and to test for it. He thinks that pollsters should ask questions that get at how much the voters know, not just what they think. If the pollsters won't do that, he says, foundations should do it and pay for it.

"We can have a smart electorate," Shenkman writes on the last page of his book. That is by far the most optimistic sentence anywhere in the volume. I think he's right. It won't require candidates to give stump speeches berating the voters as fools. But it will require some painful thinking about what a "rational voter" really is and how we might go about making more of them.

In Search of Rational Voters | News