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We Have Representative Government


Do you believe Sarah Palin said she, “could see Russia from her house?” If so, you’re in agreement with 86.9% of Obama voters. But Palin never said it. It was a line from Tina Fey in a Saturday Night Live sketch.*

The stat is from a poll posted at The site, using legitimate polling data, makes an argument that Barry’s backers were magnificently ignorant. Ilya Somin, at the Volokh Conspiracy, looks deeper:

The "How Obama Got Elected" authors argue that this shows that political ignorance was a major factor in Obama's victory. To an extent, it probably was. However, Democrats can easily point to comparable ignorance by Republican voters. For example, in 2004, a high proportion of Bush voters believed that large-scale WMD caches or programs had been found in Iraq, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

More generally, it is not surprising that voters on both sides are often ignorant about a wide range of issues. As I have often pointed out in my scholarship (e.g. here), it is in fact rational for most voters to be ignorant about politics because of the very low probability that any individual vote will change electoral outcomes. In addition, voters have little incentive to do an unbiased evaluation of the information they do have. As a result, "political fans" often act like sports fans, overvaluing information that supports their preferred "team" and ignoring or downplaying anything that makes the team look bad.

We get the government we have because we’re not really paying attention. Voters act out of tradition and stereotype more than reflection and analysis. This may be inescapable. Somin is not alone is his assessment that it just isn’t worth a voter’s time to work past such tribal inclinations.

A democratic government is fated to be a crappy government. Our Founding Fathers were wary of the problem. They Constituted a government with limits, so the tentacles of political mediocrity and corruption would not strangle the society.

Somin’s conclusion fits that vision:

The true lesson of political knowledge polls is not that either Democrats or Republicans are uniquely ignorant, but that we should reduce the power of government. That way, fewer important decisions will be made under the influence of electoral processes where ignorance, bias, and irrationality play such an enormous role.

*Palin did talk about Russia with Katie Couric.