when voters just won’t care about the issues

March 23, 2012

It’s always been a common refrain in politics to call one’s opponents or detractors ignorant and we’re all quite aware that ignorance exists across the entire political spectrum, and that people who don’t have a solid grasp of the issues vote on a regular basis. Or as Politico put it bluntly, there are stupid people out there and they’re voting with their gut rather than their minds. Of course, many political news junkies would shout, voters do not understand what really goes on because they don’t pay attention to the news like we do. But there’s absolutely no indication that just paying attention to the news keeps one informed either and those obsessed with soap operas spun on Capitol Hill and in the White House aren’t necessarily all that knowledgeable either. The vast gap between knowing what issues do and don’t exist, and how they can or can’t be handled seems to exist on a much deeper level with voters believing that politicians have power over things out of their control. Just take something as simple as figuring out whether a president can do something about gas prices. For Politico, it’s just one of the numerous examples of how all too many voters are simply not researching issues…

The present furor over gas prices is a case in point: Obama’s job approval dropped 9 points over the last month according to a CBS/New York Times poll, as the cost of fuel has risen abruptly. The survey found that 54 percent of Americans believe that the president could do a lot to combat high gas prices. That’s not really true, but it’s the dynamic that’s shown up in other polls too: 26 percent of respondents told an ABC News/Washington Post poll that they approve of Obama’s handling of gas prices, versus 65 percent who disapprove. [...] To reassess a president’s performance in the context of a short-term increase in gas prices is more of a tantrum-like response to a new feeling of discomfort over which the president has relatively little control.

Certainly a president could have a direct effect on gas prices with things like, oh say, military actions in a very volatile and oil rich region, but other than that, he would have to start controlling the international commodities market which can a) infuriate fiscal conservatives around the world, b) trigger dangerous conflicts between oil exporters and consumers that could erupt into paroxysms of military threats, c) disrupt global trade leading to serious market convulsions, or d) all of the above and worse, which is why it will never happen. But the voters still expect him to do something because hey, he’s the president and we elected him to fix things so he better do his job and fix things. Remember the "will this be on the test" culture developed by many Americans? It’s also at play in politics. Understandably, if one wanted to be informed about everything happening in the world today as well as study it’s social and economic context and consequences, reading the news and volumes of books on the relevant subjects would quickly become this person’s predominant occupation. But this isn’t an issue of knowing exactly how trade between the U.S. and Azerbaijan breaks down to the dollar. This is a basic matter of knowing that the president’s power if far from unlimited and gas prices are set by the market, not an edict from one government, no matter how powerful this government is or how much oil it consumes.

The paradoxical thing at play here seems to be that Americans consider voting to be a right and an obligation, and see politicians as people who are chosen to fix problems, but they don’t really want to care about the real scope or nature of the problems, and don’t really want to educate themselves on how likely it is that what their chosen politicians are offering good solutions to current dilemmas. They’ll elect someone to fix Washington’s culture of political stagnation, create jobs, and lower healthcare costs, but woefully underestimate the level of entrenchment in the establishment, won’t realize that no politician can fix decades of mismanagement in both primary and secondary education with no resources and in one term, or change the multi-trillion dollar market for healthcare without insurance companies, lawyers, and medical equipment corporations playing ball for a common good rather than their bottom lines, or change the course of global trade. They don’t even know how much we spend and on what, assuming we devote more than ten times what we do to science and that as much as 25 times more foreign aid is given than actually is. And that’s pretty scary. Too many voters just don’t care, wanting a charismatic someone to solve complex problems while strictly adhering to a partisan dogma many of the most vocal voters take to be nothing short of holy writ, and just skip all the details…

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  • Russ Toelke

    What is the alternative? An IQ test to register to vote? A realignment or elimination of the Electoral College? Allowing only certain levels of intelligence to vote?

    No matter how intelligent anyone may think he is, especially if they’re running for or holding office, I defend the average Joe’s right to vote from the gut to tell him otherwise.

  • Greg Fish

    Russ, of course I’d never imply that someone shouldn’t vote for any reason. It would just be great if voters in the U.S. bothered to invest more time in the issues they’re trying to decide with elections…

  • Russ Toelke

    It would be nice, wouldn’t it?

  • Darwyn V. Norris

    Fear springs eternal, for some folks anyway. No one wants to be the victim when all the warning signs were right there all over the news and Internet, right? You can make quiet a good living crying wolf. Heck, TV and cable news networks would go broke without a good dose of fear infused reporting. Not to mention all the Internet sites devoted to amping up your anxieties. And politicians would have practically nothing to say and no books to write. Everyone wants to believe they’re too smart to be bamboozled. Ad men, news media, con men and women, and politicians know they must evoke a gut response from you to sway you to buy their product, watch their news show, or vote for them, etc. Hyper-stimulation is the new norm. Back in the days of Cronkite, and Huntley and Brinkley the news was administered to us dryly, in a matter-of-fact tone and minimal analysis, that appealed to our rational mind. Now we self-administer via Internet or watch punsters ad nauseum on TV. And we only go for the stuff that puts fire in our bellies. I don’t know how many more self-inflicted political wounds it will take to bring back rationality, not to mention civility. It’s gonna be a while. I can feel it in my gut.

    @Russ. A persons I.Q. really isn’t a factor. Awareness and general knowledge of the subject being discussed without hyperbole is the problem. I know some very intelligent people that send me really dumb things that they believe to be true. Very smart people that believe dumb things are extremely hard to reach because they know they’re smart, so you’re the one that’s naive in their mind.

  • venqax

    There are a lot of problems with “issue” voting, as you point out, And popular ignorance is an inherent problem in democracies. But consider a couple of things. One, people expect govt to fix ever more complex and deep-rooted problems which in turn are in large part CREATED in the first place by government policies. The majority of problems we face today are the result of govt. actions. Second, while we can’t realistically assess whether a given politician has in fact fixed a given problem of this nature, we can assess whether he has moved or tried to move things in the right direction to at least reduce it somewhat. So, you may say a president can’t “do anything” about gas prices today (altho that is quite arguable), but you can address whether he has done the right things to address the long-term, overarching gas price ISSUE. E.g., pursuing policies that will affect supply a/o demand in the long run, etc. Such action could include movement to get the government out of the issue entirely, in favor of leaving it to market forces.

  • Greg Fish

    One, people expect gov’t to fix ever more complex and deep-rooted problems which in turn are in large part CREATED in the first place by government policies.

    Sure, the government doesn’t always do what’s best but this is a very general and very loaded blanket statement. You could argue that the deregulation of Wall Street and the subsequent lack of oversight of ratings agencies caused the Great Recession. And at the same time, you can inflate government efforts to clamp down on discrimination by mortgage lenders towards minority borrowers as a mandate for more sub-prime, one of the tactics tried by the GOP to turn their deregulation of the financial industry into the Democrat’s fault so they can just walk away from this problem. In either scenario, the government is an exacerbating factor, but not the direct cause.

    Such action could include movement to get the government out of the issue entirely, in favor of leaving it to market forces.

    But market forces already control the price of oil. The price of oil is set by commodities exchanges, not government edicts. But to assume that governments will not have any sway in the price of oil at any point in time essentially means that the government has to stop buying petroleum products or have a strategic reserve. Considering that it was tasked with things like delivering mail and maintaining a military to defend its territory from foreign aggressors, that’s highly unlikely. The plea for leaving everything up to the nebulous market forces is not a panacea. Markets crash. Markets create bubbles. The market is driven by greed, fear, hype, and rumor much of the time. It’s not the rational, practical, fair actor it’s portrayed in many libertarian fantasies.

  • Paul451

    On average, in large enough groups, people are… average. They will be of roughly average intelligence, have an average level of understanding, and have average motivations. In a democracy, that seems reasonable.

    So make voting compulsory and you guarantee people will pay attention, on average.

    Make voting voluntary, and you guarantee only those most motivated to vote will do so. That may be a representative sample, or even a superior sample, but I suspect it isn’t. So why take the risk? Just have them all vote. It’s not much harder than voluntary voting, and it guarantees a representative sample of society.

  • venqax

    I don’t think you could make a very strong case that market prices control the price of oil. The main source of oil, OPEC, is a cartel that would be flatly illegal in the US. And more govt regulation in many different areas warps the real market price of oil more than most any other commodity. OTOH, it is true that the govt does not control the price of oil. But is has a very, very strong influence on it. Anything from gasoline tax policies to access to reserves are enormous areas of pure politics that affect oil prices. When Bush Jr undid Bush Srs ban on offshore drilling, e.g., gas prices plummeted overnight, albeit not permanently. But they did remain much lower until the latest hike-over-nothing.