For the past fifty years, public opinion research has converged on a common result: that “the public,” as one political scientist puts it, “is overwhelmingly ignorant about politics.”
The evidence suggests that this ignorance is wide-ranging. When voters are polled about politics, usually by means of multiple-choice questions, many seem to accept falsehoods regarding how political institutions work, which policies are in place, and who is responsible for enacting those policies.
To many, this ignorance is deeply troubling for democracy. Democracy empowers the people. But if the people are ignorant about politics, democracy seems destined to make bad decisions.
In recent years, some have drawn the lesson that democracy works best when most people don’t participate actively in politics. The important work, they suggest, should be left to more knowledgeable political elites. Others go further still: they conclude that we should give non-democratic systems a chance.
This pessimistic narrative is grounded in an intuitive premise: that the fact that voters accept falsehoods about politics shows that they are politically ignorant.
On closer inspection, however, this premise is false. Falsehoods can, and often do, impair people’s understanding of politics. But they can also facilitate political understanding. This simple insight has profound implications for how we should measure ignorance going forward; and, perhaps more importantly, for the value of democratic participation.
Falsehood and understanding
It may seem counterintuitive to think that falsehoods can facilitate understanding. But this insight is actually integral to scientific practice. Scientific models are typically riddled with falsehoods that simplify, idealise, or otherwise distort their subject matter. For example, although it is widely acknowledged that energy is not a fluid, physicists often model energy as a fluid streaming from object to object.
This is no accident. The presence of these simplifying, idealising, or distorting falsehoods helps to highlight, or render salient, important properties of the object being modelled. Representing energy as a fluid, for instance, helps us visualise the conservation of energy: the fact that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant.
Nor is this phenomenon unique to science. A subway map helps us understand the structure of a city’s public transit system. But it does so by distorting the physical distances between stations, and abstracting from streets and buildings.
Crucially, this phenomenon carries over to the political domain. For example, many rural voters in Wisconsin believe that rural areas receive fewer tax dollars per capita than urban areas. This, as it turns out, is false. Both receive about the same. Yet rural sociologists have argued that, for complex reasons—having to do, notably, with economies of scale—providing public goods such as broadband or schooling is often more expensive in rural areas.
The upshot is this. The claim that rural areas receive fewer tax dollars may be false. But it stands for, and helps to represent, a complex reality. In other words, this falsehood serves as a substitute for esoteric claims (about, say, economies of scale), which simplifies, and renders more accessible to non-experts, the real distributive disadvantage experienced by rural areas.
Measuring political ignorance
The first implication is that although voters accept falsehoods about politics, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they lack understanding.
This has lessons for measurement. When we measure political ignorance, we need to disentangle cases where falsehoods impair political understanding, from cases where they facilitate it. That, in turn, requires looking at falsehoods more holistically: going forward, we need to examine the specific role that falsehoods play within voters’ broader “models” of political reality.
This highlights the importance of combining quantitative public opinion research with more qualitative ethnographic methods. Ethnographic investigations invite voters to explain their perspectives in their own words. Thus, they reveal people’s broader models of politics, and the role of particular commitments—including falsehoods—within those models.
The importance of participatory democracy
The second implication concerns democratic participation. Models, and the useful falsehoods they contain, can help highlight important properties of the political environment. But these same falsehoods also come at a cost. Rural voters’ belief that they receive fewer taxes may help to highlight something real. But it also obscures something real: namely, facts about the distribution of tax spending.
What this shows is that no single model tells the whole story. To achieve comprehensive understanding of a domain (scientific or political), we need multiple models.
In politics, democratic participation is key to achieving this. The idea of participatory democracy promotes the active participation in public discourse of people from different walks of life. This wide-ranging participation allows the expression, within the same public arena, of different models of political reality.
Upon closer examination, therefore, the falsehoods that voters accept are not an argument against democratic participation. Rather, they highlight why such participation is so important to political understanding.
A longer version of this article was originally published in the British Journal of Political Science.