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Are Americans Too Stupid For Democracy?

How can we rationally pursue our self-interests when we don't know what's going on?

In 2011, Newsweek asked 1,000 Americans to take the standard U.S. Citizenship test, and 38 percent of them failed. One in three couldn't name the vice-president. A 2009 study in the European Journal of Communications looked at how informed citizens of the U.S., UK, Denmark and Finland were of the international news of the day, and the results weren't pretty ( PDF).

“Overall,” the scholars wrote, “the Scandinavians emerged as the best informed, averaging 62–67 percent correct responses, the British were relatively close behind with 59 percent, and the Americans lagging in the rear with 40 percent.” We didn't fare much better when it came to domestic stories.

Widespread ignorance of objective reality poses a genuine threat to democracy. The people of the United States have ignorance in abundance.

The way representative democracy is supposed to work is pretty simple: you protect the fundamental rights of the minority (so it doesn't become two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner), and then the majority of citizens, acting in their own rational self-interest, elect representatives who will pursue the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens.

That's the theory, but “rational” is a key word in that formulation. What happens when lots of citizens don't have a solid grasp of what's going on in the real world?

Consider some examples that are especially relevant to our current political scene.

People Don't Recognize Their Lack of Competence, Can't Judge the Competence of Politicians

Psychologists David Dunning of Cornell and Justin Kruger of NYU conducted a series of experiments showing that incompetent people vastly overrate their own abilities. "For people at the bottom who are really doing badly — those in the bottom 10th or 15th percentile — they think their work falls in the 60th or 55th percentile, so, above average," Dunning told the website Life's Little Mysteries.

They do just as badly evaluating the competence of others, which poses a problem in a representative democracy. Or, as the Daily Mail put it in typical tabloid fashion, “ the theory of democracy has an unfortunate flaw -- that most of the public are just too stupid to pick the right candidate.”

Dr Mato Nagel, a sociologist in Germany, recently implemented Prof. Dunning and Prof. Kruger's theories by computer-simulating a democratic election.

In his mathematical model of the election, he assumed that voters' own leadership skills were distributed on a bell curve — some were really good leaders, some, really bad, but most were mediocre — and that each voter was incapable of recognizing the leadership skills of a political candidate as being better than his or her own.

When such an election was simulated, candidates whose leadership skills were only slightly better than average always won.

Politicians Think Their Constituents Are Much Further to the Right Than Polls Suggest

It's not just citizens who are out of touch, according to research by David Broockman of the University of California and Christopher Skovron of the University of Michigan. They asked 2,000 state legislators – Republicans and Democrats – to estimate what percentage of their constituents favored same-sex marriage, efforts to combat global warming and universal healthcare. The two scholars found a huge gap between how conservative politicians thought their constituents were and what the polls actually showed. The divide was especially pronounced among Republicans, who overestimated their constituents' rightward tilt by an average of 20 percentage points.

"For perspective, 20 percentage points is roughly the difference in partisanship between California and Alabama," the scholars wrote. "Most politicians appear to believe they are representing constituents who are considerably different than their actual constituents."

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