A lawyers’ group called Kansas Appleseed recently sponsored a panel discussion on politics and the courts. Kansans, as you know, recently engaged in a costly and bitter argument over whether four judges on the state Supreme Court should be retained.
The judges won.
But the panelists — including a state Supreme Court judge from Kansas, and one from Iowa — said educating the public about the role of the courts is still a difficult task. Nearly half of all Americans, one pointed out, can’t name one branch of the federal government.
Complaints about the knowledge level of the voting public are as old as the Republic, of course. They’re especially loud just after an election, when the losing side insists “low information voters” swung the outcome.
Much of this is sour grapes. But some of it rings true: polls consistently show voters are confused about the cost of foreign aid, how Obamacare works, who controls Medicare and Social Security, who pays taxes. Basics of American government remain difficult concepts for wide portions of the public.
“Political ignorance in America is deep and widespread,” conservative columnist and law professor Ilya Somin wrote in 2013.
That sounds harsh, but Somin isn’t being critical of the public. Americans aren’t stupid or uninformed, they just have better things to do than study politics, a concept called “rational ignorance.”
It makes intuitive sense. We tend to pay the most attention to the things that affect us directly, like the choice of a new car or the best tree for the corner garden. Things of less immediate importance get less attention, which is why I failed miserably at trigonometry.
A single vote is highly unlikely to make a difference. As a result, voters spend little time thinking about how to cast their ballots, taking political information largely at face value.
That’s particularly true if the cost of error is low. “If I believed my car ran on sand, I wouldn’t be able to drive,” journalism professor Jay Hamilton recently explained to The Atlantic. “But if I believed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, I might not pay a price. In fact, I might get high-fived or even run for president.”
I think Donald Trump and his supporters understand this better than anyone. When they say Trump’s promises should not be taken literally, or Americans aren’t worried about his obvious conflicts of interest, they’re really betting on rational ignorance — voters who are more worried about their holiday budgets than the rules for a blind trust.
Trump’s theory worked brilliantly during the fall election. He could claim, as he did, that he had “heard” the nation’s unemployment rate is 42 percent, about 10 times what it actually is. Voters, he knew, had little reason to investigate the statement. That’s why fake news works.
Law professor Somin thinks rational ignorance is intractable and dangerous. He proposes voting with your feet: moving to cities and states whose politics mirror your own. There’s some evidence Americans are doing just that, sorting themselves into liberal cities and conservative rural areas.
There are problems with such an approach, however.
Some challenges are national in scope, and the cost of a mistake has gone up exponentially. It’s one thing to talk about Medicare, it’s quite another to actually dismantle it. Foreign relations are now real things for the Trump administration, not an abstraction. Immigration reform, tax cuts, the Supreme Court are all real decisions that will change the way people live.
Reporters looking frantically for relevance in Trump world will find it here. We can’t ignore Trump’s tweets, prevarications and unfilled promises — but we can keep an equally keen eye on what he does. Policy means more than polemics. Voting is the beginning of self-government, not the end.
All Americans, in short, are now passengers in the Trumpmobile. They’ll soon want to know if it’s running on sand, or something else.