Sunday, October 11, 2009

Political Apathy: Ignorance is Bliss

(This is a paper I turned in December 10, 2007, for the Philosophy-608: Machiavelli, Arendt, and Democratic Theory graduate class at Binghamton University. I have not yet taken the time to edit this work to correct any potential grammatical and spelling mistakes or to update my argument, but I still believe the main argument stands true. Participation in democracies can be detrimental if those participating are ignorant or have no respect for the rights of others, while the lack of egalitarianism in our sources of information is almost inevitable and likely beneficial to the masses. Unrestrained populism is a greater danger to this nation than the upper class's political or economic ambitions. In retrospect, I am glad to have had the opportunity to write this paper on political philosophy for a class of philosophy students not familiar with the literature in political science, as this required me to explain arguments I might have otherwise assumed the reader already knows.)


One of the great concerns of democratic theory in the United States is the perceived lack of political participation by the vast majority of citizens. This concern stems from fear that the elites in our society wield a disproportionate amount of power and influence, which they will use to further their own political, economic, and personal interests at the expense of the mass public. While it is certainly true that we desire not to be ruled by an oligarchy, I am not convinced that the apparent apathy shown by most citizens concerning politics is harmful either to the individual citizen or to society as a whole. Rather, the elites and the mass public form a symbiotic relationship where both groups stand to gain by this imbalance of power and influence within our democratic nation.

In order to make a normative judgment on what levels of political interests the mass public should take, an understanding of what they do know and care about concerning government is important. The field of political science has given scholars amazing empirical insights into the political behavior of citizens. Voting is one of the most important and common ways for Americans to participate in politics. During the 1950’s, the first empirically driven effort to understand voting behavior, called The American Voter, was published, revealing many important trends about how Americans think about politics. One of the greatest predictors of whether a citizen would vote or not was his or her sense of political efficacy, which is whether or not the citizen believes their vote will have much of an impact on the outcome and whether or not it matters which party gains political power. Not surprisingly, those with a high belief in the importance of the outcome of an election were very likely to vote, while those who were indifferent to the results stayed home.

What, then, determines whether a citizen will care? Two interrelated concepts seem to be the answer: the strength of party identification and the level of development of their political ideas. The stronger one’s attachment is to the party, the more one will want to see that party win (much like how intense fans of a particular sports team will be more likely to be at a ballgame than a less rabid fan). The more educated a person is about their own political beliefs, the more likely they will find a difference between the candidates running for office and identify which one holds policy preferences closest to that voter.

The authors of The American Voter were able to categorize Americans into four levels of political sophistication. Level A, or those with clear ideologies, includes those who are able to absorb “some of the ideological abstractions of our day, and are able to put them to use in their political evaluations” (227). Only 12.5% of the population possessed this level of political sophistication. Level B, while not employing political abstractions, could identify party position mainly by identifying which groups that party tended to support. For example, a respondent would be classified in level B if they charged the Republicans with supporting big business or Democrats with big labor. This group was by far the largest, containing 40% of the population. Level C based their political decisions on how the times felt to them at a gut level. These individuals escaped the bottom classification merely by making any vague reference to a political policy and constituted 24% of the population. The final category, level D, made political decisions without any reference to political issues and were largely basing their vote on the characteristics of a candidate. This final category contained a little more than 20% of the American public. Over 40% of Americans made their decision to support a candidate without a strong reference to ideology.

Philip Converse, one of the authors of The American Voter, conducted an independent study on the level of political sophistication in the general public and in the elites of society. The elites in society (in general, the well educated), have a high level of political sophistication and “constraint.” Constraint, as used by Converse, is using a person’s ideology to predict their likely position on a particular policy. For example, it might be expected that a pacifist who abhors all killing in war would be influenced by his or her hatred of killing when it comes to the death penalty debate. A conservative who openly despises judicial activism should oppose judicial activism even by conservative judges. This kind of ideological sophistication requires a high intelligence and time devoted to learning the issues thoroughly. Elites tend to be consistent in their political preferences, while the masses take their cues from the elites without considering the philosophical implications for other policy areas, leading to a greater level of contradiction in that individuals ideology.

The average American, then, seems to fall into one of two groups: those who care enough to think about politics in a serious manner, and those who do not find politics worth their time to understand. The former tend to vote; the later are more apt to stay at home. Those who have the mental capacity and willingness to understand politics tend to be a very small portion of the population, however (only 1 in 10 reached Level A in The American Voter’s political sophistication scheme). While political theorists seem to wonder at the lack of voting participation in the United States, at least when compared to other Western liberal democracies, political scientists are puzzled why anyone would vote at all. John Ferejohn and Morris Fiorina (1974) explain the voter’s paradox and attempt to find a solution to it. Voting is not a costless action. In order to vote, a citizen must first take the time to get registered; that citizen must take at least the amount of time to flip a coin to decide between the candidates; that citizen must actually go the polling station and wait for their turn to vote, in whatever weather. These costs, admittedly, appear small, but what does the citizen gain that overcomes even this minuscule cost? Even most local elections are won by more than a hundred votes, while most state and national elections are determined by thousands or millions of votes. Adding one more vote has absolutely no impact.

This is the rational choice analysis of voting, where the rational decision is to stay home because the expected utility of voting is smaller than the expected utility of not voting. Ferejohn and Fiorina note that political scientists have been stumped by this question, because it implies that nobody should be voting (or that those who do are irrational, making a scientific inquiry into their actions impossible). In order to overcome this imbalance in favor of not voting, political scientists have tried to add a benefit to voting, mostly in the form of a good feeling for having done one’s civic duty. The authors rightly find that this explanation is not particularly good, and so they try to present a different explanation of the same paradox without the civic duty kicker. They argue that voter’s do not make their decision based on a rational choice of choosing the option with the highest utility, but rather that they apply a minimax strategy, whereby they vote because the cost of voting is smaller than the agony the citizen would feel if their preferred candidate lost by a single vote. How many American citizens actually think like this is unknown, but this explanation from over thirty years ago has not stymied debate on why voters vote. It is clear that the cost of voting is higher than the cost of not voting on average.

Most of our voters are not well informed about politics, but they still receive enough information to make a decision. This is where the role of elites comes in as a positive force for American democracy. Elites are in a position to send cues to the public about how to think on any particular issue. Since elites rarely work in harmony, but rather have conflicting political goals, the public will be able to take cues from the leaders it prefers and give their support (whether it be the vote or monetary contributions) for a cause they support without needing to become informed, preserving the legitimacy (or at very least the perceived legitimacy) of the system.

This process of elites cuing the populace has found significant support in both the game theoretic and empirical political science literature. In An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs points out that gaining political information is not a costless process. In terms of dollars and cents, the cost is small, flipping on the television, reading a newspaper purchased with a dollar, opening mail sent by political candidates, etc. The real cost comes in terms of time and energy. After working an eight hour shift, individuals feel tired and want to relax; they certainly don’t want to analyze the pros or cons to the Democrats or Republicans of whatever bills came before Congress and their state governments that day. This hypothetical worker certainly doesn’t have time to go out and do the investigative research. As we have already seen in terms of the voting paradox, the cost of gathering and analyzing information only increases the cost of voting for a benefit that is likely to equal zero. This leaves the citizen in a state where he or she gains information in a passive manner, where elites (such as the media, interest groups, political parties, etc.) select the most crucial information to them and present it in the clearest possible terms to their audience. There is a clear trade off here. The condensed news and information is subject to the biases of those doing the reporting and clarity comes at the expense of in depth knowledge. More detailed and harder to process information which may be important is left out, but if it was included the average citizen will likely ignore it altogether, leaving the masses even less informed than if the media had just presented the simplified version of events.

This process leaves citizens’ opinions remarkably easy to mold. John Zaller, in his book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, uses survey responses with the same respondents over a number of years to show that people’s opinion of any particular issue is not necessarily fixed but rather wobbles over time. These wobbles can be caused by a number of factors, most of which are cues given by various sources of authority believed by the individual. People spend remarkably little time thinking out their opinions on even salient issues, and when questioned about their opinion their response will be based on whatever happens to be salient to that individual at that particular time (77). While the most obvious source of cuing when determining peoples’ opinion is the poll itself, Zaller finds that media coverage also plays an important role (155). Not everyone is equally susceptible to political cuing, however. Those who have thought out their own political preferences are less likely to be swayed by cues, either because they already side with the cuing party or because they strongly belong to the opposing position. While moderates are more likely to be swayed by a message, they are also the group that follows politics the least and are therefore least likely to actually receive the cue in the first place (148).

Political cues come from sources outside of the media as well. One important source of cues is interest groups. Interest groups tend to get a bad rap due to their overt partisanship and their inordinate amount of influence compared to the average citizen. However, interest groups are an important aspect of the political process. David-Austen Smith and John R. Wright (1994) find that lobbying by interest groups is an important part of informing representatives in state governments and Congress about the public’s assessment of an issue. Political issues that are salient enough to generate an interest group almost always generate groups both in favor and opposed to that interest. Groups will be forced to be truthful (or at least not blatantly lie) if there is another, opposing interest group that will point out the falsehoods to the representative. In this way, information is provided to the representative at the cost of the interest groups.

A possible objection to interest groups from a democratic point of view is that they generally are composed of large numbers of people who support that interest groups policy, but the group itself is run by a small number of highly influential people. However, Mancur Olson in his book, The Logic of Collective Action, shows that egalitarianism is not conducive to an effective interest group. Interestingly, group members tend to be less interested in the conduct and less willing to make sacrifices for large groups rather than of small groups (48). In the large group, members can enjoy the benefits brought by the group without having to make a contribution, while the survival of small groups requires everyone’s participation. Only the most motivated (those with the most at stake, generally the well to do) will be willing to sacrifice their time to the advancement of the large interest group, and so their personal interests will be reflected more than the more numerous, less active population.

Another important, though much maligned, group with a disproportionate amount of influence is political parties. Elections would prove incredibly difficult without the existence of political parties. As noted in the review of The American Voter, voter identification plays an enormous role in determining who a citizen will vote for. Voter identification is very similar to the idea of a brand name: even if a citizen cannot name their representative in Congress, if they know which party their representative belongs to, they can make an accurate assessment of what the representative stands for on a variety of issues. Parties, therefore, find it extremely important to maintain a measure of unity on salient issues and to keep their party image as positive as possible.

This need to maintain the issues which define party identification leads parties to reward and punish their members in government as they feel is needed. In order to keep members of a party voting for an issue the individual might not want to comply with (whether because the representative is personally opposed or believes it will hurt their chances of reelection), the party must provide incentives that overcome the individual’s desire to defect. John Aldrich, in his book Why Parties, argues that parties provide important resources for reelection that a candidate cannot live without, such as party identification, money, access to community leaders, and the time and energy of the party’s workers. Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins, in Legislative Leviathan, show that Congressmen have personal and political reasons for wanting positions on the various committees of Congress. Committees have the power to forge or prohibit legislation that passes their jurisdiction, making the score of Congressmen on that particular committee as powerful as the whole House. Positions on committees are determined by party leadership, which strongly encourages its members to tow the party line.

These committee posts are important to Congressmen as they must be able to convince their constituency that reelecting the Congressman is in their interest. David Mayhew, in Congress: The Electoral Connection, argues that the behavior of Congressmen can be explained by their strong desire to be reelected. Placement on a committee allows a Congressman the opportunity to initiate legislation that will be beneficial to the constituents back home. The Congressman can claim credit for that legislation which he or she could not do for bills that the Congressman plays no role until he or she becomes one of 435 votes on the floor (52).

As we have seen, voting, one of the least costly forms of political participation requires not insignificant amount of time and energy that proves too costly for a great many citizens. Other more active forms of participation, such as writing letters to the editor and actively taking part in elections, political parties, and interest groups, requires an even higher investment of time, energy, and money, which predictably lowers the percentage of the population who are willing to take part in these activities. In a study on resources impact on political participation, Henry Brady, Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schilozman (1995) find that individuals with more money, time, and civic skills participate more in these higher forms of participation. Lack of time and money are well known detriments to political participation, but the novel result of this study was that those who have experience and skill in areas like writing, public speaking, and organization tend to be more active. While the upper class tends to gain more of these skills in the workplace than the less advantaged in terms of socioeconomics, those in the lower strata are still able to gain these skills by participating in church related functions.

Empirically, it has been shown that elites play an important role in keeping the American populace involved in the political process, even if not to the extent that many political theorists would like to see. Information is not cheap and most Americans do not see the results of elections, petition drives, or protests as worth the cost of participating in these events. The normative question we must now ask is whether either the citizens as individuals or the society as a whole stands to gain anything by having a better informed citizenry and how this could be achieved. It is my position that society does not stand to be significantly improved by a more politically active society and that therefore it is not in the interest of the apathetic citizen to become more politically aware.

An important distinction must be made between the concepts of actual influence and potential influence. These concepts come from Robert Dahl’s classic work, Who Governs?, a case study on the rule of power and government in New Haven, Connecticut. By and large, the citizenry of this country is, while maybe not enthusiastic about our government, at least content enough with the situation not to bother making an effort to change it. Should the government abuse its powers to the extent that it negatively affects the lives of many people, they will make their objection known in the next election. Those in government can use that position to further their own ends but they also must make efforts to placate the hoi polloi. Failure to do so leads to electoral defeat and the loss of all special power invested in the office.

Unless the actions of the government are severely and adversely affecting the life of a citizen who otherwise is apathetic, that citizen gains little by becoming more active in politics. A thorough understanding of the various elements of politics requires knowledge of a vast number of areas, from understanding the formal institutions; the relationship between those institutions; the political theory behind why our government is designed the way it is; understanding the policy preferences of various political figures; following the votes of political actors at the national, state, and local level; and critically evaluating one’s own political ideology to insure a measure of consistency. In order to gain this kind of understanding of politics, a citizen would need to dedicate hours every single day gathering and analyzing political information in addition to the other aspects of their lives that require attention. Most people who already have such an understanding of politics find, for whatever reason, politics to be a field of interest, much like how a Boston Red Sox fan finds baseball worth following whereas another person could not muster enough willpower to follow a single baseball season. For most people, politics is just not a subject that can hold their attention for more than a half hour of news coverage. So long as the average apathetic citizen continues to enjoy the benefits provided by government (protection from outside powers, protection from criminals, courts to settle disputes, infrastructure, etc.) without grievous loss, they will remain blissfully ignorant.

The apathetic citizen gains little by adding the burden of understanding politics to his or her already hectic lifestyle, but does society as a whole stand to gain enough from more political participation to offset the loss to the individual? The answer is likely no. To date, there is no evidence that a significant portion of apathetic citizens would belong either to the right or left of the political spectrum. In terms of voting, less apathy would lead to a higher turnout rate but not necessarily a change in who would be elected or by what margin. While some may see a higher turnout rate as increasing the legitimacy of the new government, this is not necessarily the case. The legitimacy of government at almost all levels in this nation is not seriously questioned by the population. Non voters understand that their apathy is not a vote against the system but a quiet acquiescence to the choice made by the more politically cognizant portion of the nation.

Legitimate democratic government does not require an egalitarian system. There is no doubt that political power and influence are not spread evenly throughout the population of this country, but the less politically active still have an open door to changing the policies of this nation if they should see fit to do so. That they do not, that they are content not to participate, is not an indictment against the system or its claim to be democratic. Elites play an important role by providing information cheaply to those who want to participate but do not have the resources to investigate the political world themselves. While theorists may desire to see a more egalitarian system, the average citizen is content to have a stable world providing a high quality of life, real effects that heavily outweigh academic abstract concepts.


Alrich, John H. 1995. Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Austen-Smith, David and John R. Wright. 1994. “Counteractive Lobbying” in American Journal of Political Science, 38 (1), 25-44.

Brady, Henry E., Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schlozman. 1995. “Beyond SES: A Resource Model of Political Participation” in American Political Science Review, 89 (2), 271-294.

Campbell, Angus, and Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Converse, Philip E. 1964. “The Nature of Mass Belief Systems” in Ideology and Discontent, ed. David E. Apter. London: Free Press of Glencoe.

Cox, Gary W., and Mathew D. McCubbins. 1993. Legislative Leviathan: Party Government in the House. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1961. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper Collins.

Ferejohn, John A. and Morris P. Fiorina. 1974. “The Paradox of Not Voting: A Decision Theoretic Analysis” in American Political Science Review, 68 (2), 526-536.

Mayhew, David H. 1974. Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Olson, Mancur. 1971. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Zaller, R. John. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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