Political Ignorance and the British Public

This is the draft of a piece whose definitive, considerably better final version has been published on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog as On the Complex Relationship Between Political Ignorance and Democracy.

Public ignorance is a central consideration in my academic work, which encourages the idea that politics, at least in part, is best understood as throwing up considerable ‘knowledge problems’; problems that are pervasive at every level of participation and administration in contemporary democratic states. The justification of democracy must, if it is to have meaning, take the political ignorance of democratic citizens seriously.

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The media occasionally pick up on and discuss the depth and significance of the most obvious kind of political ignorance – that displayed by would-be voters. Naturally enough, these concerns can make for attention-grabbing headlines as our minds are concentrated by the rapid approach of a general election. The Independent‘s buzzfeed-imitating ‘i100’ site recently pointed out some recently-accumulated evidence:

46% of respondents were unaware that a general election is taking place this year

57% of respondents were unaware of what a general election is

59% of respondents could not name the current British Prime Minister

How trustworthy is this evidence? Well – not very trustworthy at all, methodologically. As i100 noted, the 1900-odd respondents were an unweighted sample, quizzed via email by a voucher codes website. We’re learning a lot about the political ignorance of the savings-savvy with a bit of time on their hands, perhaps, but should be wary of extrapolating such information into a generalised indictment of the state of public political knowledge.

But are these statistics outliers? Do they fail to correspond with existing (more sound) empirics on similar questions? Would an expert on public opinion be surprised by these findings?

Absolutely not. While most research around public ignorances arises from surveys conducted in the USA, there’s a growing body of work concerned specifically with the UK context as well, and the majority of such evidence confirms the realism of the statistics set out above.

For example, Denver & Hands have found that 77% of British 18-year-olds cannot reliably differentiate between the policy platforms of mainstream political parties. When the survey is limited to those who are students or former students in politics, this figure only improves to 50%.

More recently, a survey for the Royal Statistical Society and KCL provided a widely-reported embarrassment of riches in this area, including:

  • the general belief that under-age pregnancies are  25x more common than they actually are
  • the over-estimation of the severity of benefit fraud by 24x
  • 29% of those surveyed thought that Jobseekers’ Allowance is more expensive to the taxpayer than pensions, when the latter costs about 15x more
  • The generalised belief that crime and violent crime rates were rising, when in fact they have been falling for decades
  • The systematic over-estimation of immigration rates

These findings are particularly interesting in that they seem to indicate a kind of pessimistic bias in British political ignorance. Is it possible that many of these areas imagine things to be worse than they actually are because of the media and cultural landscape in which we find ourselves? In a more balanced informational environment, would we cease to be wrong, or simply cease to be wrong in a systematically pessimistic way?

For now, we can at least say that there’s no need to turn to i100’s dodgy sources if we want to get a sense of the ‘knowledge problems’ at work in British democracy – but we needn’t dismiss those findings as unrealistic, either.

The next, fascinating challenge is to offer meaningful and relevant political theory in response to such evidence. Cynicism – or, at least, simplistic cynicism – need not be the only response available to us. Within the British context, the extent of public ignorance may even have the surprising effect of helping us to make peace with the various systemic and electoral features of our political establishment that make the public far less influential than they might imagine or prefer themselves to be. After all, what’s the value of a more responsive electoral system – of more democracy – if the wider citizenry is incapable of voting well?

My own research strikes a more positive note than this, and tries to offer a more encouraging justification of democracy. More on that in future posts.

Just as most empirical work on public ignorance comes from the USA, so too does most of the theoretical consideration of its implications. To those interested in reading a critical perspective on democracy due to the extent of political ignorance, I’d say that this (plentifully controversial) book by Ilya Somin is a really great starting point.

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