The Tyranny of the Low Information Voter

I believe it was Jim Geraghty that coined the headline of this post, but it keeps turning around in my mind. Tam highlights a particularly vacuous campaign video appearing this season in Indiana. The worst part about an election like this is that the partisans, on both sides, have already made up their minds. Studies have shown that partisans are generally the best informed voters, when it comes to the issues, no matter what side you’re on. The rest of this silly season is bringing the folks, who barely pay attention, over to your side so you can actually win the election. Whether anyone likes it or not, you need these people to actually win.

So you get politicians making these vacuous ads, because they want the low-information voters* to like and identify with them — I’m a great politician, you see. I care about our troops, and you care about our troops too, so don’t you think I’m a great guy to vote for? I not only care about our troops in general, but out troops from your very specific tribe! How wonderful! —  The low-information voter won’t know much in November, but politicians will be hoping ads like this strike an emotional chord, and stick strongly in the memories of people who barely pay attention. This is how elections are won and lost, unfortunately, when partisans can’t decisively win on the strength of their base. That’s the case for neither party today.

In parliamentary systems, partisans are more free to be loyal to parties that most closely match their beliefs, and leave the coalition building to the politicians in the government. In our system, coalition building happens outside the apparatus of government, and compromises are forged in civil society. Some argue the former is better, but I tend to think the latter is. I’d much rather trust civic entities to make compromises than state entities. But the unfortunate side effect of forging coalitions in civil society is having to persuade the low-information voter that your guy is really their guy, and the result are ads like Tam highlights. I wish I knew how to fix that problem, without putting more power in the hands of politicians, but I don’t really have a good answer.

* Before libertarians get offended that I’m suggesting they are low information voters, rather than partisans, they are not. Libertarians are among the most partisan and informed around. But not enough people don the wookie suit to be a real factor in elections. You have many people who are libertarianish, but  a strong ideology that doesn’t involve a deity is a rare breed, whether your deity is God or Government. Winning the unwashed masses will take some degree of pragmatism.

8 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the Low Information Voter”

  1. This is something I’ve been vaguely aware of for some time.

    However, I had not thought about the way that the American system affects coalition-building among political partisans. Those thoughts clarify a lot of things in my mind.

  2. I wasn’t thinking about Libertarians at all. I was thinking about “undecideds” and “moderates”. Those who like to say they “have an open mind”. :-)

  3. These subjects always remind me of Nock’s c. 1937 essay “Isaiah’s Job.” It is always dangerous to try to summarize in a few words, what a political philosopher said in a long essay, but one way I summarize it is, “Appeal to a mass audience and pretty soon your audience steers your message, not you.”

    What has been troubling me for many months is how, in search of allies and supporters for our RKBA efforts, we (the collective “we”) seem to be increasingly willing to embrace people that I, at least, find distasteful, and I see the possibility of our identity unavoidably becoming theirs, rather than our own. But, all of this will be done in the name of political pragmatism. We will become the people to whom we appeal — or at least tolerate — for support.

  4. Actually, I see how that video campaign ad was really good at not saying anything.

    Most of us are inclined to hear what we want to hear. The very last sentence was “All of our Indiana National Guardsmen are special, because they’re volunteers. . .”

    I thought to myself, “Oh good, he’s a supporter of the all-volunteer military.” Fortunately, I already had Mike Spence’s name on my second-string mental shitlist, though I couldn’t remember why. So, I checked back, to remind myself. But someone without a mental shitlist could very well have gone away with a positive impression.

  5. As the line attributed to Winston Churchill goes, the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter. I’d like to hope that education is the answer, and here we bloggers are, working to achieve that.

    1. Anyone who is reading blogs is, generally speaking, already informed. Low information voters don’t generally bother to seek out political information. If someone comes across something I wrote on a Google search, they are already a step ahead of your average low information voters.

  6. “here we bloggers are, working to achieve that.”

    The problem is, the problem associated with the whole internet — and I suppose of the world of periodicals and books, before that.

    People come seeking to be “educated” in what they want to hear. Tell them something they don’t want to hear, and they’re off to another blogger who’ll deliver that.

  7. I think fear of the tyranny of the uninformed is why we originally had the electoral college and why our senators were once elected by state legislatures. Since we changed those aspects, there’s no reason we couldn’t go to a parliamentary system as well–I think most Americans, whether right, left or center, are fed up with having to vote for individuals who pander to the exact part of our own “coalitions” that we can’t stand. For example, think about anti-abortion liberals (yes, there actually are many) or secular conservatives–both the very definition of frustrated.

Comments are closed.