Are American Voters Actually Just Stupid? A New Poll Suggests the Answer May Be Yes

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Political scientists and other researchers have repeatedly documented that the American public does not have a sophisticated knowledge of political matters. The average American also does not use a coherent and consistent political ideology to make voting decisions. As Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen demonstrate in their new book “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” Americans have identities and values that elites manipulate, which voters in turn use to process information — however incorrectly.

While some groups of voters may apply decision-rules based on either single issues or concerns about their community and its progress (African-Americans fit this model, for instance), American voters en masse are not rational actors who seriously consider the available information, develop knowledge and expertise about their own specific political concerns, and then make political choices that would maximize those goals.

These matters are further complicated when considering right-wing voters. While Trump may have failed in most of his policy goals, he has succeeded symbolically in terms of his racist and nativist crusade against people of color and Muslims. Given the centrality of racism and white supremacy in today’s Republican Party specifically, and movement conservatism more generally, Trump’s hostility to people of color can be counted as a type of “success” by his racially resentful white voters.

American conservatives and right-leaning independents are also ensconced in an alternative news media universe that rejects empirical reality. A combination of disinformation and outright lies from the right-wing media, in combination with “fake news” circulated online by Russian operatives and others, has conditioned Trump voters and other Republicans to make decisions with no basis in fact. American conservatives do however possess a surplus of incorrect information. In that context, their political decisions may actually make sense to them: This is a version of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Republican voters also tend to have more authoritarian views than the general public. As a type of motivated social cognition], conservatism is typified by deference to authority, group-think, conformity, social dominance behavior, and hostility to new experiences and new information. These attributes combine to make Trump voters less likely to regret supporting him and in some cases — because of a phenomenon known as “information backfire” — to become more recalcitrant when shown that Trump’s policies have failed in practice.

This ABC News/Washington Post poll also signals a deeper problem. In different ways, both Trump and Clinton voters appear unable to connect their personal political decisions to questions of institutional power and political outcomes. This is a crisis of civic literacy that threatens the foundations of American democracy.

For example, many of Trump’s voters know that his policies will hurt people like them. Yet they still support Trump anyway. The Clinton supporters who reported that they either would not participate or would choose a third candidate if they were able to vote again are making a decision that would make matters worse, by effectively guaranteeing that Trump — the candidate they claim to reject — would be elected.

This is but one more reminder that Donald Trump’s victory was not a sudden crisis or unexpected surprise. The neofascist movement that Trump represents was an iceberg of sorts — one that was a long time in the making. If this new poll is correct, many millions of Americans would make choices that would steer the ship of state into that same iceberg all over again. Such an outcome is ominous. The thought process that would rationalize such a decision is deranged.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder has argued that a democracy has approximately one year to reverse course if it has succumbed to fascism and authoritarianism. America’s civic literacy crisis may mean that the country has even less time than Snyder’s prediction suggests.
(From Chauncey DeVega, salon.com, 4/26/17)