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Quotes and thoughts: Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance (Ilya Somin)
Very interesting two papers by Somin! I will definitely check out his other stuff when i have time. I just took the time off reading papers before i start reading book #2 on patents (Against Intellectual Monopoly).
ABSTRACT: Advocates of ‘‘deliberative democracy’’ want citizens to actively
participate in serious dialogue over political issues, not merely go to the polls every
few years. Unfortunately, these ideals don’t take into account widespread political
ignorance and irrationality. Most voters neither attain the level of knowledge
needed to make deliberative democracy work, nor do they rationally evaluate the
political information they do possess. The vast size and complexity of modern
government make it unlikely that most citizens can ever reach the levels of
knowledge and rationality required by deliberative democracy, even if they were
better informed than they are at present.
How very depressing in relation to liquid democracy/feedback!
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, not
merely voting for or against candidates put forward by political parties.
They hope that voters will not only develop a solid factual understanding
of political issues, but will also debate the moral principles at stake in a
rational and sophisticated fashion. Deliberative democrats expect more of
voters than merely acting to ‘‘throw the bums out’’ if things seem to be
These high aspirations are admirable and appealing. Unfortunately,
they run afoul of the reality of widespread voter ignorance and
irrationality. Moreover, even if voters were significantly better informed
and more rational than most are today, the vast size and complexity of
modern government would prevent them from acquiring enough
knowledge and sophistication to deliberate over more than a small
fraction of the full range of issues currently decided by government. Such
difficulties become even more acute in light of the fact that many
deliberative democrats want the political process to control even more of
society than is already the case. Previous scholarship has only tentatively
considered the implications of widespread voter ignorance and irration-
ality for deliberative democracy.1
This article is intended to close the gap
in the literature more fully. My analysis focuses on theories of
deliberative democracy that require deliberation by ordinary citizens. I
do not consider the distinct question of deliberation by legislators or
Parts IV#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. Finally, I will briefly
suggest that deliberative ideals might be more effectively advanced by
limiting the role of government in society.
Deliberative democracy is a normative ideal, not an attempt to explain
present-day reality. However, an attractive normative ideal must be
feasible. The problem of political ignorance casts serious doubt on the
feasibility of deliberative democracy. Moreover, some proposals put
forward by deliberative democrats, if implemented, may well cause more
harm than good.
The second proposal was my idea as well. It better work, otherwise liquid feedback might be very bad indeed.
Decades of public opinion research show that most voters are very far
from meeting the knowledge prerequisites of deliberative democracy. To
Somin • Political Ignorance & Deliberative Democracy 257the contrary, they are often ignorant even of very basic political information.
In 2009, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats put
forward ambitious plans to restructure the U.S. health-care system and
impose a ‘‘cap and trade’’ system to restrict carbon emissions and combat
global warming. Both plans were widely discussed in the media and
elsewhere. Yet a September 2009 survey found that only 37 percent of
Americans claimed to ‘‘understand’’ the health care plan, a figure that
likely overestimates the true level of understanding.7 A May 2009 poll
showed that only 24 percent of Americans realized that the important
‘‘cap and trade’’ proposal recently passed by the House of Representa-
tives as an effort to combat global warming addressed ‘‘environmental
issues.’’ Some 46 percent believed that it was either a ‘‘health-care
reform’’ or a ‘‘regulatory reform for Wall Street.’’8
Until the Obama health-care reform passed in March 2010, the largest
new federal domestic program enacted in the previous 40 years had been
the Bush Administration’s prescription-drug entitlement, enacted in
2003. Yet a December 2003 poll showed that almost 70 percent of
Americans did not even know that Congress had passed the law (Somin
Public ignorance is not limited to information about specific policies.
It also extends to knowledge of political parties, ideologies, and the basic
structure and institutions of government (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996;
Somin 1998 and 2004c). For example, a majority of voters are ignorant
of such fundamentals of the U.S. political system as who has the power
to declare war, the respective functions of the three branches of
government, and who controls monetary policy (Delli Carpini and
Keeter 1996, 70#71). A 2006 Zogby poll found that only 42 percent of
Americans could even name the three branches of the federal
government (Somin 2010, ch. 2). Another 2006 survey revealed that
only 28 percent could name two or more of the five rights guaranteed by
the First Amendment to the Constitution (ibid.). A 2002 Columbia
University study found that 35 percent believed that Karl Marx’s dictum
‘‘From each according to his ability to each according to his need’’ is
enshrined the Constitution; 34 percent said they did not know if it was,
and only 31 percent correctly answered that it was not (Dorf 2002).
Similarly, years of survey data show that most of the public has little
understanding of the basic differences between liberalism and con-
servatism (RePass 2008; Somin 2010, ch. 2). They are often also
confused about the differences between the policy positions of the two
major parties (e.g., Somin 2004a).
Widespread political ignorance has persisted over time, despite
massive increases in education and the availability of information through
new technologies such as the internet.9 It seems unlikely to diminish
substantially in the foreseeable future.
Holy shit. Wud be very interesting to see cross-national data on some of these things. One cud use something like the separation of power as a question. Even tho the countries differ in how they do that, most of them do it in some way, and it is thus possible to ask and see whether people know how their country does it.
There is nothing inherently objectionable about people who acquire
political information for reasons other than becoming a better voter. It is
perfectly understandable if people wish to follow politics for any number
of reasons. Problems arise, however, when these motives conflict with
the goal of rational evaluation of information for the purpose of making
informed political decisions. To take one such case, people who acquire
information for the purpose of cheering on their political ‘‘team’’ or
confirming their existing views are likely to overvalue information that
confirms those views and undervalue or ignore anything that cuts against
them. Extensive evidence suggests that this is in fact the way most
committed partisans evaluate political information.14 Experiments show
that political partisans not only reject new information casting doubt on
their beliefs, but sometimes actually respond by believing in them even
more fervently (Bullock 2006; Nyhan and Reifler 2009). Thus, a recent
study found that conservatives presented with evidence showing that
U.S. forces failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were
actually strengthened in their pre-existing view thatWMDs were present
(Nyhan and Reifler 2009, 11#15). Similarly, liberals confronted with
evidence that 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had
incorrectly claimed that the Bush Administration had ‘‘banned’’ stem-
cell research persisted in their pre-existing view that the charge was
accurate (ibid., 23#24). Similarly, most people discuss political issues only
with those who agree with them (Mutz 2006, 29#41). This tendency is
most pronounced among ‘‘those most knowledgeable about and
interested in politics’’ (ibid., 37), which implies that those who seek
out political knowledge the most are not motivated primarily by truth-
seeking. If they were, it would make sense to sample a wide variety of
sources, possibly placing particular emphasis on those with viewpoints
opposed to one’s own. The latter are more likely to expose the truth-
seeker to facts and analysis that he has not already considered. As John
Stuart Mill ( 1975, 35#51) famously emphasized in On Liberty, we
are more likely to discover the truth if we consider opposing viewpoints,
not merely those that we already agree with.
Wow. Good thing im primarily a filosofer with truth as the goal, and not party politics. Impartial truth-seekers are perhaps the best politicians then? If so, then thats sad since they are the ones least likely to become politicians in todays system.
In addition to processing information in ways that provide internal
psychological gratification, people also often try to express opinions that
conform to social expectations and seek to avoid negative reactions from
other members of the community (Kuran 1995; Sunstein 2003). For
example, people in a socially conservative community may hesitate to
express approval of gay marriage for fear of alienating antigay friends,
family members, and neighbors. Those in politically liberal settings such
as university campuses often hesitate to criticize liberal policies such as
affirmative action (Kuran 1995, 310#25). Even in a relatively tolerant
liberal democratic society, dissenters often hesitate to openly endorse
unpopular views; they instead find it easier to pretend to agree with the
majority. Such ‘‘preference falsification’’16 can easily lead people to reject
powerful arguments against socially approved positions, or even to
refrain from voicing them in the first place.
Preference falsification can infect many kinds of political processes.
But it is an especially serious danger in a deliberative democracy, where
citizens have to engage in open dialogue on political issues and therefore
take positions (or refrain from doing so) in a setting where other
members of the community can observe them. Under ‘‘aggregative’’
democracy, by contrast, voters usually make decisions and access
information in more private settings and therefore may face less pressure
To combat this problem, liquid feedback systems shud have anonymization in various ways. Perhaps by allowing users to go under many different names, but only allow them to vote once.
IV. CAN EDUCATION SAVE DEMOCRACY?
Is it possible not to love this guy? :D