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Rational Ignorance

How Rational Ignorance Impacts American Elections

2 min read
Rational Ignorance
Good Party Politics Team · Nov 27, 2023

Little-known but impactful is the effect of rational ignorance on voters. The term might seem like an oxymoron, but the results are felt after each election. 

Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University and Chair of Constitutional Law Studies at the Cato Institute, described the relationship between educated voters, uninformed or “rationally ignorant” voters, and voter turnout like this:

“The key difference between foot voting and ballot box voting is that foot voters don’t have the same incentive to be rationally ignorant as ballot box voters do. In fact, they have strong incentives to seek out useful information.” ~ Ilya Somin, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom

What Professor Somin meant by that comment was that fully informed individuals vote with their feet in the same manner that educated consumers vote with their wallets. An informed public boycotts inferior products or companies that act against their values and beliefs. “Foot voters” seek out information about candidates and policy issues before going to the polls. 

If they don’t like what they learn, they’ll walk away from a candidate. They understand that their votes, their voices, do matter within the larger context of governance, and they aren’t beholden to any specific candidate or party. 

They’re more independent

Ballot voters, by contrast, are more like sports fans. They’ll cheer for their favorite candidate if what they’re saying backs their preexisting views and beliefs, and they tend to place party or candidate loyalty above all else, so long as that adheres to policies and principles they agree with, regardless of whether those policies are in the public - or even their own - interest.

They rate new information by how much it supports their own beliefs and biases, undervaluing what doesn’t match their preconceived notions and overvaluing that which does. 

This type of rational ignorance stealthily influences the outcomes of elections to an astonishing degree, as we’ve witnessed over the past seven years

Read on as we discuss how two such seemingly incompatible concepts as “rationality” and “ignorance” interconnect within the context of elections, and what we, as voters, can do to mitigate its influence. 


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Understanding Rational Ignorance

To understand rational ignorance, we must first appreciate the individual voter's cost-benefit analysis. This theory, rooted in economics, suggests that the cost of becoming fully informed on every issue and candidate far outweighs the potential benefit, given that one vote is highly unlikely to sway a large election. 

In their minds, it’s 'rational' for voters to remain 'ignorant' about the specifics of many political intricacies.

This isn't to say that these voters don't care about the outcome of elections. It simply  acknowledges the limitations of time, resources, and the accessibility of digestible information. 

With the overabundance of political data, complicated policy issues, and the sometimes intentionally convoluted nature of political language, it’s hardly surprising that many choose to focus on their immediate lives rather than on the distant corridors of government, which they may feel powerless to influence. 

Rational Ignorance in American Elections

In the context of American elections, rational ignorance takes a prominent role. The United States, with its complex electoral system, multifaceted set of political issues, and two dominant political parties, presents a formidable challenge for any individual who’s trying to stay fully informed.

One key impact of rational ignorance is the oversimplification of complex issues. Candidates and parties, aware of the limited bandwidth of their constituencies, often reduce intricate policies to catchy slogans or sound bites and memes. 

While this makes information more accessible, it also strips the nuance and depth from critical discussions, leading to an electorate that makes decisions based on emotion and incomplete or superficial understandings of important issues.

Rational ignorance also creates an environment that’s ripe for misinformation and manipulation. When voters aren’t versed in the specifics of policy, they’re more easily swayed by emotional appeals or misleading information. 

The spread of misinformation can lead to electoral decisions that might not align with the voters' actual preferences or interests if they were fully informed.

The Role of Media and Information in Rational Ignorance

The modern media landscape, with its 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of online platforms, has a dual effect on rational ignorance. On one hand, information has never been more accessible. On the other hand, the sheer volume and often conflicting nature of this information can be overwhelming.

This leads to voter fatigue and disengagement, which adds fuel to the fire of rational ignorance.

Moreover, media outlets, driven by the need to capture attention in a highly competitive environment, often contribute to a skewed perception of what’s important. They’ll sensationalize certain issues while neglecting others or focus on irrelevant aspects of a campaign, like a candidate’s hair or what kind of tie they wore to an event.

This selective amplification can skew the electorate's perception of priorities and influence electoral outcomes in ways that don’t necessarily reflect the more nuanced reality.

Combating Rational Ignorance: Becoming an Informed Voter

So, how do we push back against the tide of rational ignorance? It begins with acknowledging that being an informed voter is not an all-or-nothing proposition. 

Here are some strategies:

  1. Prioritize learning. Recognize that you can't know everything, but choose a few issues that are most important to you. Delve deeper into these topics and understand the various positions, implications, and consequences involved.

  2. Diversify your sources. Consume information from a variety of reputable sources and different editorial slants. This practice helps you develop a more well-rounded view of the issues at hand.

  3. Engage in political discussion. Talk about political issues with friends, family, and colleagues, including those with different views and political ideologies. Challenging your own viewpoints through discussion can provide new perspectives and insights.

  4. Develop critical thinking skills. Learn to discern between emotional appeals and factual arguments. Question the information presented to you and seek evidence to support its claims.

  5. Focus locally. Start with local politics, where your vote has more influence and the issues affect you more directly. This can serve as a gateway to understanding larger national or international issues.

  6. Support voter education initiatives. Support and advocate for civic education initiatives that aim to provide citizens with the tools to understand and engage with political issues more effectively.

The Imperative of Strong Civic Engagement

An engaged electorate is the cornerstone of a robust democracy. Civic engagement goes beyond just voting; it includes staying informed about the issues, participating in community discussions, and holding elected officials accountable. 

This kind of civic engagement is an antidote to rational ignorance because it encourages a more active and informed citizenry.

Strong civic engagement creates a political environment where elected officials are more responsive to an electorate's needs. They know that voters are up to date on important issues and the usual approach no longer works to secure their votes. 

It also supports a culture where the value of being informed is recognized and encouraged, further mitigating the effects of rational ignorance.

Keeping Up with Current Events

Staying informed about current events is a fundamental aspect of combatting rational ignorance. By being informed about what’s happening in the world, voters are better equipped to understand the stakes of electoral outcomes and how they might impact various issues.

However, staying informed doesn't mean reacting to every headline. It means developing an ongoing habit of consuming news with a critical eye, learning to identify and focus on the most important developments.

The Ripple Effects of Rational Ignorance

The impact of rational ignorance extends beyond the individual to society as a whole. When a significant portion of the electorate makes decisions without all of the necessary information, the policies that are enacted may not reflect the true will or interests of the people. 

This can lead to governance that is less effective and less representative, which has long-term implications for the health of the democratic system.

Strategies for the Future

We’ve seen, first-hand, the fallout from generations of voters who are increasingly tuned-out and apathetic. Looking ahead, the battle against rational ignorance requires a multi-pronged approach that includes:

  • Prioritizing Educational Reform: Emphasize the importance of civics in education, ensuring that from an early age individuals are equipped to understand and engage with political systems.

  • Promoting Transparency: Advocate for clear and transparent communication from government and candidates. Simplicity should not come at the expense of depth.

  • Innovating Engagement: Leverage technology to create more interactive and engaging ways for people to learn about political issues, including gamification and social media.

  • Incentivizing Informed Voting: Explore methods to encourage voters to become more informed, such as recognition or small rewards for demonstrating engagement with the issues.

Final Thoughts

Rational ignorance is not an indictment of the electorate's intelligence or willingness to engage, but rather a rational response to the overwhelming demands of modern life. By understanding and acknowledging its presence, we can begin to take steps to reduce its influence.

In the end, every small effort to become more informed and actively engage with the political process contributes to a more vibrant, responsive democracy. 

We must remember that democracy is not a spectator sport. It thrives only to the extent that citizens actively participate in the process. 

In an era where we have a wealth of information at our fingertips, we have the tools to become the most informed electorate in history. It’s up to us to harness this potential and ensure that our decisions at the ballot box are based on the best information possible.

Do Your Part to Support Good Information

The health of our democracy depends on our collective will to push back against the easy tide of rational ignorance and strive toward more enlightened civic engagement. It's a challenge that requires effort and persistence, but the rewards — a government that’s truly of, by, and for the people — are well worth it.

Good Party is doing its part by providing free resources to help voters like you become more informed, active citizens. Do your part by joining us in our mission to end the two-party system and create a government that works for all Americans. 


Tired of politics as usual?

Become part of the movement to end America's political dysfunction.
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Civic Engagement
Political Dysfunction
Voter Education
Rational Ignorance
By Good Party Politics Team
The politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.