The Right Coast

September 15, 2004
Political Ignorance and the Presidential Election I: Bush, Kerry, and Vietnam
By Ilya Somin

Having blogged about terrorism and war, I will now turn to almost equally depressing (but also equally timely) topic: political ignorance. Many observers have pointed out how strange it is that the current presidential campaign is so focused on Bush and Kerry's actions during the Vietnam War, 30 years ago, rather than on the many pressing issues we face today. A possible explanation is the political ignorance of much of the electorate.

Decades of research show that most citizens know very little about politics and public policy. For my paper summarizing some of this evidence, see here. For example, most Americans don't know the name of their US representative, which branch of government is responsible for which issues, and the basic differences between liberal and conservative ideologies.

Most voters know little about the details of Bush's policies and Kerry's proposals, and might be unable to understand those details even if they did know them. Thus, candidates have an incentive to focus on symbolic issues that even ignorant voters can easily understand, such as Kerry's war hero status, or the charge that Bush was "AWOL" at the National Guard. A voter with little knowledge of specific issues could rationally conclude that a candidate with a good military record would, other things equal, make a better president than one with a bad one.

Unfortunately, while it may be rational for an individual voter to act this way, the ultimate result is a presidential campaign that focuses far more on tangential but easy to understand matters than on vital but complicated ones.

More to come!