Political ignorance is a threat to our democracy

Political ignorance is a threat to our democracy

Josh Shumate

The famously witty Winston Churchill is credited with saying that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” I regularly read public opinion data, and I have to say that on this, I can’t help but to agree with Churchill. You can get 10 percent of the population to say just about anything in a survey.

Public Policy Polling, a left of center polling outlet out of North Carolina, has proven this on multiple occasions. In February they released a poll showing that 38 percent of Florida Republican Primary voters thought that Ted Cruz might actually be the Zodiac Killer; Cruz was born 2 years after the first Zodiac killing. A December 2015 poll showed that an astonishing 41 percent of likely Trump primary voters supported bombing a fictional city from Disney’s Aladdin, presumably because it had a middle eastern sounding name.

While I have admittedly enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of the average voter from time to time, this is more than a fringe group of ill informed Americans. It is a case of rampant political ignorance. I can’t help to wonder how our democracy is supposed to survive when 66 percent of voters can’t name a single Supreme Court Justice (10 percent of college graduates think Judge Judy serves on the court).

Last week this epidemic of ignorance hit a new and rather jarring low. The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation released its “Annual Report on U.S. Attitudes Towards Socialism” and found that millennials have an affinity for authoritarian dictators despite having very limited knowledge of what they actually did. The report found that a quarter of millennials have a favorable view of Vladimir Lenin, a Soviet leader who killed tens of thousands of dissidents and sent many more to concentration camps. Nearly a third of millennials (32 percent) believe that George W. Bush killed more people than Joseph Stalin.

I am certainly no fan of Bush, and I am happy to see so many in my generation aware of the effects of our foreign policy, but Joseph Stalin orchestrated the mass murder of an estimated 40 million. The only leader in world history who is responsible for more deaths is the late Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. George Bush is no saint, but even his worst critic wouldn’t dare claim that he is a villain worthy of mention in the same sentence as likes of Stalin.

Whether you are “with Her,” want to “Make America Great Again” or are like me and are repulsed by the idea of either of the frontrunners becoming president, you must agree that political ignorance is a real threat to our democracy. It is certainly a problem that founding fathers had the wisdom to foresee. It is one of the very reasons that they created such a small and constrained government. George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin argues in his book “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter” that this problem will not ever really be solved. It is rational for voters to be ignorant on political issues because the benefit of being informed is far outweighed by the cost of becoming educated.

Somin goes on to argue that the only solution to political ignorance is a return to limited and constitutional government, and I certainly agree. The less that is left up to vote of a ill-informed majority the better. We simply cannot make good decisions or hold elected officials accountable when the average voter doesn’t understand the issues. 

Josh Shumate is a graduate student studying public administration. His column runs biweekly.