I don’t mind that elections are largely determined by people who don’t know anything about policy. Democracy isn’t pretty, but it is the best way I know for governance to muddle along. But what I most definitely do mind is when these ignorant people are held up as the best, most open-minded voters. They aren’t. They are just ignorant. As should be clear, I am not talking about conservatives. I may disagree with them and consider them intensely confused. But in general, they at least follow politics. I’m talking about the vaunted “moderate” or “independent” voters.
Back in May, my favorite political scientist, Lynn Vavreck, wrote, The Power of Political Ignorance. In the article, she reported on some research she had done. She gave voters a quiz to see what was going on in politics. It was nothing hard. It consisted of multiple-choice questions like, “What jobs does Joe Biden have?” She found that the less people knew, the more likely they were to split their votes between President and Senator. People in the bottom third of knowledge split their tickets three times as much as people in the top third of knowledge.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Why would people vote for two different candidates who are pushing opposing policies? In general, it is because they don’t know this. They are just voting for personalities or other whimsical criteria. The only world in which splitting a ticket makes sense is one in which political parties aren’t ideological. And that really has never been true. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Democrats had bizarre regional coalitions. But it was still the case that a Democrat in any given area was a Democrat.
As I indicated, I don’t have a problem with ignorant voters. For one thing, ignorance is a relative thing. Certainly someone could have great insights and not know that John Boehner is Speaker of the House. My problem is elevating such people to the status of the good. And this is done by those in the pundit class who fancy themselves as independent truth tellers. This would, of course, require that the candidates running have random policy positions, which is absolutely not true.
My favorite example of this kind of pundit is William Saletan. Two years ago, I wrote, Serious Centrist Saletan’s Selfishness. In that article, I discussed how Saletan, who considers himself a “moderate Republican,” is actually not a moderate. Just like almost all those professionals who use that moniker, he is a liberal on social issues and a conservative on economic issues. What’s more, the social issues are secondary to the economic issues — as they are with most people. So these professional moderates are really just conservatives.
So what we have are regular ignorant voters who truly are independent because they just don’t know any better. And we have professional “independent” writers who trump up the split ticket voters as a way of giving their own nefarious machinations the sound of reasonableness. In the end, the call for “open-mindedness” is just a call for more conservative economic policy, or at very least the same status quo that works great for the oligarchs. We’ve seen how great divided government works in the United States these last four years.