The Corner

Is More Democracy Dumb? And Is That Even the Right Question?

I was pleasantly surprised at the number of responses to my little 200-word post on why universal voter registration is such a bad idea. So I wanted to respond to some of my interlocutors, though I admit the fact I now have a day job prevents me from doing so with greater care (if not at greater length).

First, let’s dispatch with the obvious. The Jonathan Chait Award for Willful Misreading goes to Jonathan Chait. He has me advocating some “additional registration requirement” (emphasis added), which is his way of saying the status quo. He then deploys his usual bag of selective elision and bad-faith to make me look like a monster who thinks “voting should be restricted to a better class of people.”

His shtick does suggest that I should have been clearer on one point: I hypothesize that those who can’t bothered to register are usually “civic idiots.” I don’t necessarily think they are idiots full stop. I know quite a few people personally — I’m thinking of a banker or two, a scientist, a computer geek — who are quite intelligent, but utterly uninterested in civic discourse.

But onto a “better class” of interlocutors. Jamelle Bouie is initially sympathetic with my point, but concludes from America’s gradual expansion of the franchise that initially “uninformed” voters become better informed over time, as they acclimate to life in the electorate. That would be a heartening argument if true, but it relies on an illicit conceptual shift. Remember, we’re not talking about expanding the franchise. We already have near-universal franchise. We’re talking about expanding participation among the enfranchised. And it’s not clear to me that folks who can’t be bothered to spend one lunch break at the town hall are incentivized to learn about politics in the same way that the Selma marchers were.

Even then, the argument also depends on buying Bouie’s premise that the American electorate as a whole has not become less informed over time. But I’m highly skeptical that that’s true, either.

When the franchise was limited to landed white males, American democracy had two distinct advantages: One, government was a much simpler affair, and so the realm of facts one had to command to count as “informed,” under some reasonable definition, was much smaller. Two, the voting base shared educations, incomes, cultural assumptions, and political norms not only with each other but, definitionally, with their candidates for office. We know that part of the problem with the present question is that what counts as “informed” is itself essentially contested. But just as homogeneous populations have a much easier time agreeing on policy than heterogeneous ones, it stands to reason that homogeneous voting populations will be better informed, almost by default, since they will share a conception of what’s important to know. (And no, I don’t want to go back to the days when only landed white men could vote — I’m a renter.)

Which brings me to Ezra Klein, who enters the debate with some neat political science:

In 2006, the political scientists Christopher Achens and Larry Bartels presented a paper titled “It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy.” In it, Achens and Bartels make a point that is so obvious we often forget its implications: “Very few politically consequential facts are subject to direct, personal verification.”

In other words, an informed voter rarely knows anything firsthand, the way we know the sky is blue and the sun rose this morning. Everything she knows is taken on trust; an informed voter is only as good as her information sources. And because we all get to choose which information sources to believe, voters with more information are not always more informed. Sometimes, they’re just more completely and profoundly misled.

Klein goes on to point out that many who thought George W. Bush would declare martial law before the 2004 election, or that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya, are civic devotees who would test off-the-charts in political knowledge. Leading him to conclude that:

Hurdles to voting don’t primarily select for intelligence; they select for interest in American politics. . . . Universal voter registration won’t necessarily mean that dumber Americans heads to the polls; it will mean that less politically attached Americans head to the polls. And in an age as polarized as this one, that’s probably a good thing.

My fear about universal registration is that it would so thoroughly lower the bar to participation that it would make our political discourse look like the comments section under an “Ow My Balls!” YouTube video. Here as above, the sheer modesty of the current “hurdles” to voting is relevant. Klein seems to think — or at least hope — that there is a great reservoir of thoughtful, dispassionate, evidence-based independent voters who are eager to temper our politics but who just can’t figure out the paperwork. My view is that the population who would benefit from universal registration is probably less impressive.

But — and this should really be its own piece — Klein is on to something when he suggests that the distorting effects of partisan “knowledge” makes less politically attached Americans vital to the functioning of our democracy. And here there is a real asymmetry between left and right. On almost any issue you could name, the left favors complex policies that require specialized knowledge to comprehend, and armies of technocrats — who stand at multiple removes from voters — to administer. Their favored policies, in other words, create more room for distorted “knowledge” (on climate change, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and the like) to operate, and require more blind faith from partisans to sustain or oppose, further balkanizing our political discourse and stupefying our electorate.

It’s good that progressives like Klein see this as a problem. But might I humbly suggest that they take a look at the supply side?

Daniel FosterDaniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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