an unanticipated consequence of
Jack M. Balkin
Jack Balkin: jackbalkin at yahoo.com
Bruce Ackerman bruce.ackerman at yale.edu
Ian Ayres ian.ayres at yale.edu
Mary Dudziak mary.l.dudziak at emory.edu
Joey Fishkin joey.fishkin at gmail.com
Heather Gerken heather.gerken at yale.edu
Abbe Gluck abbe.gluck at yale.edu
Mark Graber mgraber at law.umaryland.edu
Stephen Griffin sgriffin at tulane.edu
Bernard Harcourt harcourt at uchicago.edu
Scott Horton shorto at law.columbia.edu
Andrew Koppelman akoppelman at law.northwestern.edu
Marty Lederman msl46 at law.georgetown.edu
Sanford Levinson slevinson at law.utexas.edu
David Luban david.luban at gmail.com
Gerard Magliocca gmaglioc at iupui.edu
Jason Mazzone mazzonej at illinois.edu
Linda McClain lmcclain at bu.edu
John Mikhail mikhail at law.georgetown.edu
Frank Pasquale pasquale.frank at gmail.com
Nate Persily npersily at gmail.com
Michael Stokes Paulsen michaelstokespaulsen at gmail.com
Deborah Pearlstein dpearlst at princeton.edu
Rick Pildes rick.pildes at nyu.edu
Alice Ristroph alice.ristroph at shu.edu
Neil Siegel siegel at law.duke.edu
Brian Tamanaha btamanaha at wulaw.wustl.edu
Mark Tushnet mtushnet at law.harvard.edu
Adam Winkler winkler at ucla.edu
This is part one of a two-part interview. Part Two will appear tomorrow.
JB: Why did you decide to do a second edition of your book?
IS: It is rare for an academic book to get a second edition, and
rarer still for it to happen just three years after the first edition. But I
thought a second edition was justified for several reasons.
Another factor in my decision was the widespread interest in
the subject of public ignorance that has arisen in the United States
and indeed around the world over the last few years. To my surprise, the book
was mentioned and discussed media as far afield as Indonesia
and the Philippines.
Democracy and Political Ignorance has
even been translated into Italian and Japanese. That’s far less a reflection on
me than an indication of the significance of the book’s subject. There is
growing recognition that public ignorance is a major challenge for modern
democracy, and that it is not limited to any one nation, to the supporters of
one party, or to one discrete set of political issues.
I addressed my reasons for writing a second edition in
greater detail here.
JB: Could you explain what is distinctive about political ignorance as opposed
to other kinds of ignorance? What are some of the consequences of that
distinction? How, if at all, is political ignorance related to people's
knowledge of other subjects closer to their lives?
IS: In some ways, political ignorance is just like any other
kind of ignorance. None of us can learn more than a tiny fraction of the
information out there. We must inevitably pick and choose. We are, in that,
sense all rationally ignorant about the vast majority of subjects.
The difference between political ignorance and most other types of ignorance
is the way in which rational ignorance by individuals leads to bad collective
outcomes. Because there is so little chance that any one vote will affect the
result of an election, it makes sense for any given voter to devote little or
no time to studying political issues. The chance that his or her ignorance will
make a difference is infinitesimally small. But when an entire electorate (or a
large part of it) acts that way, we end
up with a largely ignorant public, and a political system where public policy
is heavily influenced by that ignorance.
In addition to doing a poor job of acquiring information,
most voters also do a poor job of evaluating the limited information they do
learn. Instead of acting as objective truth-seekers, they routinely act as “political fans”
– overvaluing anything that reinforces their preexisting views and downplaying
or ignoring anything that cuts the other way.
It’s not just that public ignorance might help the “wrong”
side win an election. It’s that all the
major-party options before us are worse than they might otherwise be, because
politicians know that they must cater to a largely ignorant electorate in order
Political ignorance is similar to pollution. Individuals
have little incentive to refrain from polluting, because emissions from any one
car make only an infinitesimal difference; the collective impact of
gas-guzzlers, however, can inflict great harm on the environment. In the same
way, widespread public ignorance pollutes our political environment, even though
the ignorance of any one voter matters very little.
JB: How does political ignorance affect our standard conceptions of democracy?
IS: In Chapter 2 of the book, I go through several widely
accepted normative theories of democratic political participation. As I
explain, all of them have implicit knowledge prerequisites that voters need to
meet in order for the system to function in the way the theory suggests. Sadly,
the actual knowledge levels of voters fall well short of the requirements of
even the less-demanding theories.
It is not a great surprise that voters don’t do well by the
standards of, say, deliberative democracy – a theory that asks a great deal of
citizens. But it’s notable that they also fall short of the prerequisites
ofwhat most people think of as
relatively undemanding alternatives, such as “retrospective voting,” a theory
that says voters need only have enough knowledge to punish incumbents at the
ballot box if their performance in office is poor. It turns out that ignorance
often leads us to reward and punish incumbents for things they did not cause
(such as short-term economic trends, droughts, and even victories by local
sports teams), while letting them off the hook for some issues that they have
more control of.
JB: What are the most important public policy consequences of the current degree
of political ignorance in the United
IS: Survey data suggests that more knowledgeable voters have
systematically different views from more ignorant ones, even after controlling
for a wide range of other characteristics (race, gender, income, occupation, partisan
affiliation, etc.). On most issues, they are more economically conservative and
more socially liberal – though I hasten to add that does not mean most are
anywhere near as libertarian as I am. It is also worth noting that decades of
survey data indicates that more knowledgeable voters are less xenophobic and
more tolerant of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and of gays and
Overall, the forces that benefit most from political
ignorance are right-wing nationalists who combine xenophobia with support for a
large welfare and regulatory state: people like Donald Trump in the US, the
National Front in France, and others. However, conventional right- and
left-wing parties also often effectively exploit political ignorance, in
There is a lot of low-hanging fruit like this in public
policy, which political ignorance makes it hard for us to pick.
In fairness, I should note that there are rare cases where political ignorance
actually has beneficial effects; I discuss some in Chapter 2. But such
situations are very much the exception rather than the rule.