Democracy and Ignorance

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Man-yelling-1Citizens in the United States generally cannot explain the fundamental workings of the Constitution, and cannot explicate the American jurisprudential tradition regarding the freedom of expression. Few citizens can recite the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. Indeed, research routinely reveals stunningly high levels of ignorance regarding even the most basic facts about our government; citizens generally cannot distinguish the branches of government and cannot describe the division of power among them. Many of us would prove unable to pass the Civics Test required for naturalization. If there’s anything that one can know for sure about US citizens, it’s this: our political ignorance is nearly boundless.

We see an increase of concern about public ignorance around, and especially after, elections. From the losing party, the complaint is all too regularly that the voting populace was misled by a campaign, failed to appreciate an important fact, or was simply ignorant of what democracy is all about. Witness the Republican post-mortems this year in the United States in the wake of President Obama’s re-election. Mark Steyn at National Review Online darkly intones, “If this is the way America wants to go off the cliff, so be it.” Robert Stacy-McCain at The American Spectator puts it in the clearest terms by declaring, “The cretins and dimwits have become an effective governing majority.”

Public ignorance is disconcerting. But it also poses a serious challenge to democracy. According to the most popular theories of democracy, the government’s legitimacy depends upon the freely given and informed consent of its people. So democracy requires there to be regular free elections; such episodes are supposed to reveal the Popular Will, which provides government with clear directives for the exercise of power, thereby ensuring political legitimacy.

But if ignorance is as extensive as the data suggest (and losing parties comlain), elections could not possibly serve the function of expressing informed consent. Lacking adequate knowledge of how government works, citizens are unable correctly to assign responsibility to particular office holders for public policies enacted in their name, and consequently are unable to provide the necessary directives. That is, under conditions of widespread citizen ignorance, elections do not express the Popular Will; rather, they simply place some in office and remove others, willy-nilly. Elections, then, are exceedingly costly public events that achieve nothing more than what could be accomplished by a coin-toss.

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