Somin on the Uninformed Electorate

Political candidates face an electorate that is largely uninformed according to Professor Ilya Somin, who is quoted in a Providence Journal editorial as saying ignorance of even the most basic political facts is so widespread that 'voters not only cannot choose between specific competing policy programs, but also cannot accurately assign credit and blame for highly visible policy outcomes to the right office-holders.'"

America's out-to-lunch electorate, Providence Journal Bulletin (RI), October 29, 2006. By Froma Harrop.

"If ignorance is rife, what about all those detailed opinion surveys? Somin explains that people don't want to admit their ignorance to pollsters, so they tender an opinion based on nothing.

"When the voice on the phone asks, 'How well is the Bush administration handling port security?' people will answer 'very well' or 'very poorly' though they haven't the foggiest idea what the president has done on the matter.

"In a famous 1950s study, researchers made up a piece of legislation called the Metallic Metals Act and polled the public on it. Some 70 percent of the respondents offered an opinion about something that didn't exist.

"Some academics believe that as little as 3 percent of the population possesses a high degree of political knowledge. I asked Somin whether that pitiful number means that our democracy is but a futile stab at a utopian fantasy. He wouldn't go that far.

"'Even if it's 3 percent, it's still millions of people,' he said. 'That's enough to make a democracy better than a dictatorship,' though not enough to ensure the election of 'plausible' leaders."