A widely-discussed and reported new study shows that Bush supporters are pretty clueless about the Bush administration policies and, well, facts. [Univ. of Maryland, Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters, Oct. 21, 2004.] This has got the conservative intelligentsia tying themselves in knots to try to explain how, exactly, Americans could so misunderstand the Bush administration. I’ve got a tip for them: It could be because the Bush administration regularly lies, obfuscates, and denies problems and responsibility for those problems. And the major media until recently seems to have thought “journalism” meant “reporting the Bush administration’s gloss on a story as news.”
David Bernstein @ the Volokh Conspiracy is just tying himself in knots to explain the ignorance Bush supporters show of their candidate’s political positions.
Regarding Stuart Benjamin’s post below, the study he cites is just one example of the broader problem of political ignorance, well-documented by my colleague Ilya Somin. Since, as I recall, studies show that conservatives are overall better-informed than are liberals, I suspect that the study Stuart cites is an artifact of two factors: (1)Bush supporters are inclined to think well of Bush, Kerry supporters are not. Part of thinking well of Bush is to think that people around the world think well of him and his actions; part of disliking Bush is the opposite. So, when pollsters ask Americans whether they think most of the world supports Bush and his actions, most Bush supporters and most Kerry supporters, being politically ignorant, won’t know. The Bush supporters will guess “yes,” the Kerry supporters “no.” If I’m correct, this is not a reflection of greater ignorance on the part of Bush supporters, just worse guessing. (2) Most people have no idea what global climate treaties, land mine treaties, the International Criminal Court, etc., involve. But they all sound good to an ignorant voter. So, if an ignorant Bush supporter is asked whether Bush supports these treaties, he will likely say yes. That doesn’t mean that the Bush supporter has any idea of what these things are, or whether he would actually support these things if he knew about them. Rather, the average Bush voter is as (or perhaps more) rationally ignorant about the content of these international agreements as he is about whether his candidate supports them.
The fact that people tend to be much more knowledgeable about things that they can actually affect as individuals than they are about presidential politics is one good reason for limiting the size and scope of the federal government.
First, what are these studies that show that conservatives are better-informed than liberals? Because I haven’t seen them. (I guess I’m just not very well-informed.) The studies I’ve seen have tended to show the opposite. For example, a study of Fox viewers showed that they are confused about the state of the world compared with TV viewers as a whole, who are confused compared with non-TV viewers. (I’ll have to link to some of these studies I guess.) Should we compare the relative ignorance of the really ignorant from both sides, say, the young earthers and the New Agers? Because if forced to pick one as my child’s elementary teacher, I would pick the New Ager who is “open to the possibilities” over the anti-evolutionist who is only open to his own interpretation of God’s word.
Second, just an artifact, eh? A artificial result that doesn’t really mean what it says, huh? Prof. Bernstein really has to bend over backwards to get where he’s going with this one. I had to read it twice to get what he was saying. But I take two points: (1) Bush & Kerry supporters are equally ignorant and they both guessed, and it’s just that Kerry supporters, by some chance, happen to be right. (Bush supporters have “worse guessing”, not “greater ignorance.”) (2) Since Bush supporters are clearly ignorant of Bush’s views, (a) they must be generally ignorant; (b) the ignorant (or “rationally ignorant”) will just automatically think international agreements and international approval are good things; (c) ignorant people by default associate good things and things they like together. We could analyze each of those assumptions, but somehow I don’t think that would change the conclusion: Something must be wrong with this study, since Bush supporters can’t be more ignorant than Kerry supporters.
Or … the Bush administration lies and obfuscates the facts and uses deceptive language willfully and often. (Just off the top of my head: We have a coalition similar to the Gulf War coalition; Iraq is a central front on the war on terrorism; “Clean Skies”; “Healthy Forests.”) And so people who believe the Bush administration’s lies are … objectively wrong.
It’s always possible to read data that says “X” in a complex way so as to try to get it to say “Y” or “Z” by negative implication or negative-negative implication. But I think Occam would have a word or two to say about it.
Third, I love the conclusion: Because people who like Bush are ignorant … we should limit the size & scope of the federal government.
Meanwhile, Stuart Benjamin, also on the Volokh Conspiracy, wants to
Hold aside for a moment the implications of this poll for the Bush administration. Isn’t it disappointing for so many supporters of any presidential candidate to have such misperceptions on issues as central as these?
Why, yes, Stuart, it is. Any presidential candidate whose supporters show such ignorance is not doing a good job of communicating his values. Or he’s flip-flopping. Or something. But let’s hold aside the fact that Bush supporters don’t know what Bush is talking about, and let’s focus on the much less specific tragedy that is ignorance. How sad that some people somewhere don’t know something they should know.
Shrillblog, on the other hand, draws from this report neither the conclusion that we should have smaller federal government nor a deep depression at human ignorance. Instead, Shrillblog sees this report as an explanation of what enables Bush supporters to avoid a shrieking fall into shrill unholy madness at the mendacity, malevolence, incompetence, or simple disconnection from reality of the George W. Bush administration:
Bush Supporters Are Not Shrill
How, a correspondent asks, have Bush supporters avoided falling into shrill unholy madness and joining the Ancient and Hermetic Order of the Shrill?
Ron Suskind gave us the answer last weekend in the New York Times Magazine. They have done so by denying the very order of reality.
Update, 2004-10-26: D. Bernstein responded to readers who asked him to support his claim that “conservatives” are better informed than “liberals”, by citing to Ilya Somin’s work as posted on Volokh Conspiracy in February.
So, now we have Ms. Somin suggesting “conservatives” know more, and PIPA suggesting Bush supporters know less. That’s a draw, I guess. When I have a few more spare moments (like say after I MOVE this weekend, and deal with the election next week, and deal with an upcoming brief in the following weeks), then I want to dig around and see what other research has been done on this issue. It would be nice to break out of the competing experts mode …