Working Paper No. 03-48:
Voter Knowledge and Constitutional Change: Assessing the New Deal Experience

Author(s):

Ilya Somin

Date Posted: 2003

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Abstract:

This Article is the first to empirically test the theory that voters' knowledge of politics increases during periods of major constitutional change, enabling them to exercise greater control over policy outcomes by disciplining political leaders. Previous research has repeatedly shown that most voters have very low political knowledge levels during times of "normal politics." It is therefore important to determine whether such dangerous ignorance persists even during periods when massive constitutional change is on the political agenda. Sadly, the evidence presented here shows that it does.

Scholars such as Bruce Ackerman and Akhil Amar have argued that the supermajority amendment requirements of Article V of the Constitution should be set aside because in periods of constitutional change, voters pay heightened attention to politics, increase their levels of political knowledge, and force politicians to conform to the popular will. Article V is seen as inhibiting the will of the majority. These arguments are the latest in a 200-year history of criticism of Article V's supermajority requirements. Ackerman's "heightened attention" hypothesis is opposed by the theory of rational ignorance, which predicts that voter knowledge of politics should remain low at virtually all times because the insignificance of any one vote to electoral outcomes makes it irrational to invest large amounts of time and effort in the acquisition of political knowledge for the purpose of becoming a better-informed voter.

"Voter Knowledge and Constitutional Change" uses evidence from the New Deal era of constitutional change to test the two theories against each other. The New Deal period was the most significant era of constitutional change in the last 100 years of American history, and is cited by Ackerman and other scholars as a key test of the heightened attention theory. I look at both survey evidence of voter knowledge and qualitative evidence of the degree of constraint from public opinion experienced by political leaders. Both types of evidence strongly support the rational ignorance hypothesis and contradict the heightened attention theory.

Survey data shows that voter knowledge increased very little or not at all during the 1930s. Qualitative evidence from three major New Deal policy initiatives that challenged existing constitutional constraints on federal government power show that these policies were developed by political leaders who perceived no increase in constraint by public opinion and in fact saw the voters as largely ignorant.

These results cast doubt on both the empirical validity of the heightened attention hypothesis and the normative validity of the major criticisms of Article V. If most of the electorate remains severely ignorant of politics even during periods of massive constitutional upheaval, Article V's supermajority requirements may be necessary to ensure that constitutional change is not enacted through the manipulation of voter ignorance. A supermajority requirement ensures that any constitutional change must get the support of the more knowledgeable minority within the electorate as well as the relatively ignorant majority.