Friday, April 13, 2012

Do political labels make you stupid?

That's the question of this thread over at the Dish, where Andrew Sullivan is on a break. I wanted to highlight this response from a reader:

Matt Glassman’s analysis rests on a huge causal assumption that I think is difficult to defend. He believes that “no one has yet devised a better system of signals that allow low-information voters to make election choices that reflect their political beliefs and interest priorities.” I think you could reverse the causation here and argue that people are low information voters precisely because they make voting decisions in a tribal manner, rather than on an analysis of proposed policies or even their own self-interest. The fact that partisanship serves a social-identity function discourages carefully thinking or information seeking. Once I’ve decided I am going to vote republican (or democratic), there really isn’t any rational reason to become a high-information voter.

I would remind Matt, that most people’s party membership is extremely well predicted by social factors (i.e., the party affiliation of their peers and neighbors) and is NOT well predicted by objective measures of self-interests.

I won't dig up the original post that got the conversation started for the sake of space. But this boils it down pretty well. I think Glassman's argument is helped by adding the fact that most people just don't pay close attention to politics. They are much more concerned with their daily lives. And any break they get from that they spend looking for entertainment. So I think the better question is (which I think is what Glassman is getting at) would be "How informed can we expect a modern democratic citizenry to be?".

The reader is probably correct to assume that many people get their political identifications through social factors and not necessarily through a careful rational (self-interested) analysis. But while he is probably also correct that once that identity is formed they don't have much need to seek new information, I think the problem goes back to the question posed above. Just like for political identities, I think an interest in politics for many people starts early on. I'd argue that a person's likelihood to become a high-information citizen is helped determined by social factors, such as household income for instance.

So I guess I agree with Glassman that while political labels probably reinforce non-new information seeking behavior and make us stupid (ignorant is probably the better word), they have come about for a reason and thus have value. Perhaps if more people were instilled with a sense of civic duty or given more free time as adults they would tend to be more highly informed and thus not need labels. But if you can come up with a way to do that you would probably get a Nobel prize in political science.

No comments:

Post a Comment