Most Americans are currently enjoying the hiatus between elections, and while partisans are busily positioning themselves for the next round, it may be worth considering what sort of informed electorate democracy requires.
If electoral processes are to produce satisfactory results, voters need information—at a minimum, voters need to understand the responsibilities of the offices being sought, and the legal and ethical obligations imposed by our constitutional system. Unfortunately, it is impossible to sit through the avalanche of misleading 30-second spots, scurrilous Internet postings or negative direct-mail pieces and not conclude that the task is impossible, and the system is badly broken.
There is no dearth of theories about what ails us: too much money, too much rigid ideology, too much partisanship, too many lobbyists, too many pundits and too few real reporters….the list is extensive, and all of the items on that list undoubtedly contribute to the sorry state of today’s politics. But these things would matter much less if the electorate were better informed.
Let’s look at some of the spots run by recent candidates.
Tea Party activist Richard Mourdock, who defeated long-serving Senator Richard Lugar in Indiana’s GOP primary ran a spot blasting his opponent for voting to raise the debt ceiling. This attack ad—which ran frequently– depended for its effectiveness on public ignorance of the difference between a vote to raise the debt ceiling and a vote to add to the national debt.
The national debt is a real problem. Reasonable people can disagree about the mix of “revenue enhancements” (aka taxes) and spending cuts needed to address that problem, how much stimulus is needed to get the economy moving again, and what programs might be cut without harming our still-tenuous recovery from the Great Recession. But only someone with absolutely no understanding of the American economic system advocates a reckless act that would require the U.S. Government to default on its obligations—and only an uninformed voter would respond positively to such advocacy.
More typical political attacks are variations on the theme that “Congressman (or legislator) X has been in Washington (or the Statehouse) for Y years, but we still have problem Z.” No one who understands checks and balances and the limits on what any individual member of a legislative body can accomplish is going to take such a charge seriously. The fact that political candidates believe this to be an effective argument tells us a lot about that candidate’s respect for the intelligence of the average voter.
There is another possibility, of course. It may be that these and similar appeals are not simply cynical ploys based upon perceived public ignorance. It may be that the people who are running for office are the ones who are ignorant. They may actually believe their own arguments. In several races around the country, candidates solemnly promised to enact policies that are clearly unconstitutional. Others promised to achieve economic results that are mathematically impossible. Knowledgeable folks tend to discount these statements as political games candidates play, but in at least some cases, it’s clear the candidates themselves really don’t know any better.
Electing people to set policy in areas they don’t understand is a major barrier to public problem solving. If members of the House Science and Technology Committee reject evidence of global climate change (last year, one member reassured a panel of climate scientists that we don’t need to worry because after the flood, “God promised in Genesis that He would not destroy Earth again, and I believe God”), where will we find the human and fiscal resources necessary to combat global warming or reduce carbon emissions? If members of the Texas Board of Education reject evolution and choose creationist textbooks that are then adopted for use throughout the country, how do conscientious science teachers do their jobs? For that matter, where will we find the next generation of competent biologists and doctors?
There are a number of things we can do as individuals and working with others to help clean up the disaster that is our current electoral system. We can visit fact-checking sites to vet campaign pronouncements. We can work to reform the redistricting process. We can support measures making it easier to register and vote.
Nothing, however, is more important than working to raise the levels of civic literacy in this country. An informed electorate is our best defense against uninformed candidates and policymakers.
Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Director of the Center for Civic Literacy and Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include six books and numerous law review and journal articles. Professor Kennedy is a columnist for the Indianapolis Star and a frequent lecturer, public speaker and contributor to popular periodicals.