Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance


Deliberative democracy is one of the most influential ideas in modern political thought. Advocates want citizens to actively participate in the democratic process by seriously deliberating over important issues. Deliberative democrats expect more of voters than merely acting to ‘‘throw the bums out’’ if things seem to be going badly. These high aspirations are admirable. Unfortunately, they run afoul of the reality of widespread voter ignorance and irrationality.

Part I briefly summarizes the key principles of deliberative democracy, emphasizing the high degree of voter knowledge and sophistication required for the theory to work. In Part II, I explain why the ‘‘rational ignorance’’ of voters poses a serious obstacle to deliberative democracy.  Most voters have relatively little or no knowledge of public policy. The problem of political ignorance is exacerbated by the enormous size and complexity of the modern state. Even a substantial increase in political knowledge would not be enough to give most voters a more than minimal understanding of the many functions of government.

Part III considers the closely related challenge of “rational irrationality”. Not only do voters have only a limited incentive to acquire knowledge about politics, they also have little reason to rationally evaluate the information they do possess. This further undercuts prospects for rational public deliberation.

Parts IV to VI consider three proposals to increase political knowledge that have been advanced by deliberative democrats. These include using education to raise the level of political knowledge, increasing knowledge by having voters engage in structured deliberation, and transferring authority to lower levels of government where individual voters might have stronger incentives to acquire information. The Conclusion suggests that deliberative ideals might be more effectively advanced by limiting the role of government in society.

This article is part of the Critical Review Symposium on Deliberative Democracy.