ballot initiative, democracy, elected representation, elections, electorate, misinformation, political knowledge, political sophistication, proportional representation, public knowledge, public opinion, redistricting
The research on political knowledge and opinion stability reveal critical information for democratic institutions. Upon initial examination the data shows that overall public knowledge of politics is rather poor and that political opinions can be quite fickle. Elite democratic theorists argue that most people can function in a democratic society with very little political knowledge which is true but it is far from an ideal situation. Those with low levels of political knowledge tend to utilize social cues and mental heuristics as short cuts to determine their political positions and voting behavior. Reliance on social cues and mental heuristics has been ingrained in the human psyche for thousands of years. Normally they can provide adequate information for survival with very little investment of time or energy. The problem is that social cues and mental heuristics are error prone and open to manipulation. Over the past 40 years a great deal of research and information about mental heuristics has been developed showing the conditions when heuristics function well and when they don’t function well. This information has been appropriated into marketing, advertising and politics where it serves as the basis for manipulating the public for monetary and political gain. Thus those with low levels of political knowledge are most open to manipulation through the use of social cues and mental heuristics which politicians can take advantage of for their own gain.
On the other hand research by Carpini and Keeter show that those with high levels of political knowledge hold more stable political opinions and they participate in politics at a higher rate. The more stable opinions are less open to manipulation especially using the peripheral route to persuasion such as social cues and mental heuristics. Instead people with more stable opinions are persuaded best through direct argumentation and facts. That means politicians cannot easily manipulate the political position of well-informed voters. But the benefit of political knowledge goes beyond that; since well-informed voters participate at a higher rate they have a greater influence over political outcomes. When stable political opinions are combined with higher participation rates the result could be more stable electoral politics. That is because less of the electorate could be easily manipulated by advertising campaigns and sound bites, instead more of the electorate would vote based on the issues and policies being presented in the campaign.
Despite that fact that much of the electorate is uninformed it might be possible to cultivate a more informed electorate. First Kull, Ramsay & Lewis demonstrated that an individual’s primary new source impacted the likelihood of that individual holding misperceptions. In particular NPR and PBS showed substantially lower rates of misperceptions than all of the other news outlets measured. Thus it would make sense to increase public funding for news so that additional public new sources are available. That could increase access to news from PBS and NPR and thereby it could potentially reduce misperceptions in the public. Though, access to public news does not necessitate that individuals would be motivated to use those news sources, so it is likely that there is a saturation point at which investment into public news would lead to diminishing returns. But it might be possible to improve the public’s knowledge of politics through public investment into NPR and PBS.
Next, Burns et al. has shown that females have greater political knowledge when there are women holding Senate seats or running for the Senate. Though current there are only 17 female Senators (17%) and 78 female Representatives (17.9%). If the proportion of female elected officials were to increase then female knowledge of politics may increase as well. It is possible that moving away from single district plurality voting for Representatives toward a proportional representation system may increase political knowledge by increasing diversity in Congress. This effect could impact women but it could also impact minorities which are under-represented in Congress. While proportional representation could improve diversity in the House it is unlikely to affect the Senate significantly since many state elect Senators with statewide elections.
Another possible improvement to political knowledge could be obtained by altering the redistricting process. Frequently redistricting is done in a manner that benefits the party in power at that time and creates a great deal of ‘safe’ seats. That is redistricting can make elections less competitive yet Gordon and Segura point out that in countries with more competitive elections the electorate is better informed. It is possible to create Congressional districts in a neutral manner with a computational redistricting methodology which does not take into account political factors in creating districts. Two examples of such methods would be Warren Smith’s Split-line method and Brian Olson’s method of minimizing the distance to the center of each district. Both methods are neutral in terms of politics and only operate using population statistics to develop Congressional districts. That could remove politics from redistricting and create more competitive elections thereby increasing public political knowledge.
Finally Mark Smith showed that states with ballot initiatives have higher levels of political knowledge. Thus it would be reasonable to assume that implementing a national ballot system could improve knowledge of politics nationwide. The people could then play a role in the creation of federal law which would make them may feel more invested in the system and spend more time keeping up on politics. Furthermore it could be used to deal with controversies such as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). If there was a national ballot system then the Affordable Care Act would have already come up for a popular vote by the people. That could end all the challenges to the Affordable Care Act in Congress which may lead to a government shutdown in a matter of weeks. The voice of the people would be able to give it a yes or no vote and that could defuse the whole issue.
Thus it could be possible to improve the political knowledge of the public in a number of ways. Increased funding to NPR and PBS has the potential of reducing misperceptions in the public. Proportional representation for Representatives could increase diversity in Congress and thereby increase political knowledge of females and minorities. Computational redistricting could create more competitive elections and thus motivate more people to follow elections. Finally a national ballot system could get more of the electorate involved in the creation of federal law and motivate more people to pay attention to politics. Therefore it could be possible to cultivate a more knowledge electorate which would hold more stable opinions and be less susceptible to manipulation.
Disclaimer: This was written for my public opinion class and citations were not required since they were from our reading. But if you would like citations feel free to ask and I can provide them.