Well, this is depressing.
We like to think that more informed voters are “better” voters–more likely to make reasoned decisions, more likely to base those decisions on evidence rather than emotion or prejudice.
We’d like to think that, but apparently we’d be wrong. Research increasingly confirms that more information does not necessarily translate into better judgment.
An informed voter is only as good as her information sources. And because we all get to choose which information sources to believe, voters with more information are not always more informed. Sometimes, they’re just more completely and profoundly misled.
Looking at the 1996 election, for instance, Achens and Bartels studied whether voters knew the budget deficit had dropped during President Clinton’s first term (it had, and sharply). What they found will shake anyone who believes more information leads to a smarter electorate: how much voters knew about politics mattered less than which party they supported. Republicans in the 80th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Democrats in the 20th percentile of political knowledge.
It gets worse: Republicans in the 60th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Republicans in the 10th percentile of political knowledge — which suggests that at least some of what we learn as we become more politically informed is how to mask our partisanship.
This is all part of what political scientists call “motivated reasoning”–the very human tendency to filter information through our personal worldviews.
Those of us who follow politics most closely do so because we care about issues of governance and have developed value structures and perspectives through which we analyze the information we acquire. The more invested we are in a particular approach to an issue, the more likely we are to apply our ideological “spin” to information about that issue.
It seems counter-intuitive, but it may be that voters who are less invested in partisan politics and political philosophy–who don’t have a dog in the fight, as the saying goes– are actually more likely to cast votes based upon more or less dispassionate evaluations of the candidates and their campaigns.
If so, the more people who vote, the better.