Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Political Ignorance

The survey from the Wilson Research Strategies folks was certainly gratifying to conservatives, showing that McCain voters had a wider, and more accurate fund of knowledge about the election than the Obama voters.

But let’s take it apart a little. McCain voters knew which party controls Congress 63-27, Obama voters 41-43. That seems a rather basic point, and that 27% of the McCain voters didn’t know it is hardly cause for celebration. While it is certainly even more distressing that 43% of Obama voters didn’t know it, 41% of them did. That’s what such statistics mean. They are an estimation of the knowledge of a collection of individuals, not an aspersion that the 41% are dumber people than the 63%. If it were closer, we might attribute the difference to race: blacks as a group often overestimate the control that Republicans have over congress. Perhaps that comes from a strong emotive impression that Republicans are the white-people’s party, and white people clearly control congress more than black people, leading to the false conclusion that Republicans control congress. New voters and low-information voters are particularly susceptible to such misinterpretations. That black voters would include a higher percentage of new and low-information voters is hardly surprising, given the cynical view many African-Americans have about national politics. People put their mental energy where they think there is some payoff, whatever their race. Involved African-Americans gravitate more to local politics.

But 63 and 41 aren’t that close, so race cannot be the main explanation for the difference. A whole lot of white people got that wrong to put up those numbers. Not so many new voters in that group, so low-information must be taking up the slack. Yet they got the salacious rumors knowledge down pretty accurately, so they had some sort of information. Unfortunately, they seemed to have the sexy, tabloid-through-People Magazine information. Obama cleaned house with that group. The survey doesn’t show that readers of Mother Jones and The Nation are less well-informed than readers of National Review or Weekly Standard (they may be, but this survey doesn’t tell us). It does show that people who read the popular culture voted overwhelmingly for Obama.

Those people are still gong to be around next election, and the election after that. Even when they vote for candidates I like, they are going to be voting for them for dumb reasons. Conservatives can dent that with a long education campaign, and we should. But even a brilliantly-organised and focused performance, we will only pick off a few of those votes. We will also solidify the reasoning of a few or our own meatheads, which is a good thing, but not nation-changing.

Ilya Somin has it right. The national political process is always going to include these pop-culture voters, and therefore will include elected officials who won their votes. The trick is to give government less power, so that fewer decisions are made by this crew.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Where do the pop-culture voters get their news? Late night talk shows, SNL, The View and the Daily Show. They're getting entertainment, not education. The closest the right comes is talk radio and O'Reily. We're (left and right) staying within our tribes.