Democracy and Misinformation

Joe Keonhane did a good piece over the weekend in The Boston Globe about how difficult it is to dislodge misinformation from the public imagination. Digby reads it and worries about the future of democracy.

The good news and bad news is that democracy has never involved a well-informed citizenry reflecting on the issues of the day. I think the misinformation literature needs to be read in tandem with the research indicating that overall levels of political information are extremely low. Two thirds of Americans can’t name any Supreme Court justices and only one perent can name all nine. The reason the system functions is that democratic accountability doesn’t depend on voters knowing what they’re talking about. Most people have strong partisan identities, and just vote for the same team. And swing voters’ views are driven overwhelmingly by economic performance.

This isn’t fantastic—it means politicians have incentive to neglect long-term issues. But it’s better than it might be. And certainly I think quality of life in America would go up if Presidents paid more attention to delivering the goods in terms of economic growth and less attention to spin and media manipulation and the occasional (though not all that common) effort to pander to public opinion. This, however, is a reason our political institutions need to be reformed. Democratic accountability is based on the idea of holding incumbents responsible for their performance. But for that to work, election winners need to have the chance to implement their agenda. If the losers get to block a sound agenda, and then reap the rewards for having done so the system will be perennially off-kilter.