Are most Americans unfit to govern themselves?

Some rare good news from political science: We are not cattle.

An enduring concern about democracies is that citizens conform too readily to the policy views of elites in their own parties, even to the point of ignoring other information about the policies in question.

This article presents two experiments that undermine this concern, at least under one important condition. People rarely possess even a modicum of information about policies; but when they do, their attitudes seem to be affected at least as much by that information as by cues from party elites.

The experiments also measure the extent to which people think about policy. Contrary to many accounts, they suggest that party cues do not inhibit such thinking.

This is not cause for unbridled optimism about citizens’ ability to make good decisions, but it is reason to be more sanguine about their ability to use information about policy when they have it.

That is my colleague John Bullock in the APSR. Paper here.

OK, so the “People rarely possess even a modicum of information about policies” bit is not entirely heartwarming news, but the situation is not as bad as I feared.

2 thoughts on “Are most Americans unfit to govern themselves?

  1. This is why there needs to be some vague regulation of the media — there is a huge positive externality associated with people being vaguely informed, but most people avoid information whenever possible. So it needs to first be ubiquitous, and second not be drowned out.