We the People . . .

aren't very smart.

Louis Menand has an enjoyable summary of some of the work on democratic choice in response to Phillip Converse's classic “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” Converse was the first systematically to point out that very few of us have any idea what we're talking about when it comes to politics. Menand highlights three theories about democracy in light of Converse.

The first is that electoral outcomes, as far as “the will of the people” is concerned, are essentially arbitrary. . .

A second theory is that although people may not be working with a full deck of information and beliefs, their preferences are dictated by something, and that something is élite opinion. . .

The third theory of democratic politics is the theory that the cues to which most voters respond are, in fact, adequate bases on which to form political preferences.

My own view is some combination of the first and second theories. However, I believe that the opinions of the elite are also “essentially arbitrary.”

Menand's penultimate paragraph is excellent:

Man may not be a political animal, but he is certainly a social animal. Voters do respond to the cues of commentators and campaigners, but only when they can match those cues up with the buzz of their own social group. Individual voters are not rational calculators of self-interest (nobody truly is), and may not be very consistent users of heuristic shortcuts, either. But they are not just random particles bouncing off the walls of the voting booth. Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.

All this raises the question of the moral legitimacy of democracy. For here we are imposing coercive sanctions on people solely due to the fact that some critical mass of essentially ignorant people have happened to decide to choose one way rather than another. Although I am inclined to shit on democracy when given the chance, I acknowledge that it is superior to the alternatives. My main argument for a broad franchise is that it tends to create the illusion of legitimacy, and the illusion of legitimacy lends itself to a kind of political stability that each of us has reason to desire.

In other “the people are stupid” news, the AP runs a story by Jerry Schwartz about voter ignorance. Samuel Popkin, doyen of the “gut rationality” school of political choice is featured here as well as in the Menand piece. Popkin's view about heuristics are not impressive. At best he establishes that our electoral preferences are not entirely arbitrary, but reflect some non-irrelevant information about candidates. This is not heartening.

After treating us to a fairly entertaining parade of voter incompetence Schwartz slinks back to civics class where Fishkin and Ackerman await to lecture us on the virtues of hanging out in elementary school gyms calmly “deliberating” about the commonweal as local chomskyites and christian evangelicals rip out each others' throats. My comments on deliberative democracy are here.