American Idiots: Our Own Political Ignorance is Destroying Our Political System


Much of what we know or believe about politics is flawed. Every one of us suffers from the same basic cognitive flaws, the same limits to knowledge and understanding. (Indeed, it appears that what we believe and the strength of our conviction in those beliefs can be a result of font style.) These impediments can be mitigated to some degree, but never completely corrected.

And yet much of the public discourse concerning politics is characterized by those who are certain that they are correct — or that those who disagree with an opinion are not correct. Bryan Caplan remarks in his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, that, “Despite their lack of knowledge, voters are not humble agnostics; instead, they confidently embrace a long list of misconceptions.” This lack of epistemic modesty, or recognizing one’s fallibility, is one of the many features of our political culture that has gradually undermined our political system.

Public opinion polling suggests that Americans are ignorant and hold flawed impressions of various aspects of the political system, the economy, and the federal budget. For instance, Larry Bartels, a political scientist, argues that Americans don't know where deficits come from, while other surveys suggest that Americans don't know what is in the Constitution or the recent history of the U.S. economy.

This reality, that of general ignorance of underlying institutions, functions, and actions that amount to the substance of politics today, supports the suggestion that Americans respond to political questions in a way that more closely mirrors theology than empiricism. Andrew Gelman, a political science professor who blogs at The Monkey Cage, writes that perhaps the feedback that we are getting from public opinion polling is improperly understood:

"Perhaps the problem here is that we're analogizing political facts to actual facts. Maybe the correct analogy is to religion. Lots of people believe in heaven and hell but none of them have ever been there. This fits in with the idea of survey responses as expressive acts rather than statements of belief."

This kind of thinking can be problematic in a democratic system where policy action is often determined, in one way or another, by public opinion. Also, one must consider that in order for policy action to be effective it must address problems as they are, not as we would like them to be.

Links between public opinion and political action suggest that a deterioration of political culture could be responsible for what many perceive as a general decline in our political system. “It’s possible,” David Brooks writes, “that some of the current political problems are influenced by fundamental shifts in culture, involving things as fundamental as how we appraise ourselves. Addressing them would require a more comprehensive shift in values.”

What must be stressed here is not merely the fact that Americans are ignorant or misinformed. The problems that we face are complex and the implications of policy action are often unintuitive and require extensive training and education to properly evaluate. Even today, basic elements of economics are unknown to economists, let alone the lay observer. Rather, the main issue is that we often implicitly deny our general ignorance, which results in the advancement of ideologies or philosophies that claim to have all of the answers.

As national politics becomes more partisan and the rhetoric more rigid and extreme, we must be more cognizant of our own fallibility and vigilant in our assessments of the underlying facts and methodologies. We can identify and embrace a passionate response to politics, but we must recognize such a response as incomplete when it comes to forming our views on issues and proper policy action. This might provide the common ground necessary to come to a consensus on how to address the issues facing our country. Or at least create an environment where we can once again make progress toward that goal.