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Oles on the Election

Make Voters Well-Informed Again (?)

By Samuel Pattinasarane October 10, 2016

Originally published on the Star Tribune Blog.

“There is nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate,” says the actress Emily Mortimer, playing the newsroom executive producer Mackenzie McHale in Aaron Sorkin’s 2012 television political drama series, The Newsroom. Nevertheless, if one tries to apply Mortimer’s words within the framework of this election, one cannot help but ask: “Are well-informed electorates still relevant within this election anymore? Do they even exist in the first place?”

At first, the experience of responding to calls and sorting out opinion letters from concerned Minnesotans when I interned at Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office on Capitol Hill this summer, managed to convinced Mortimer’s words into concrete action on the ground. As I see it then, one should not limit civic engagement to the euphoria of door-knocking, phone-banking and showing up at election rallies alone. Public should be as responsive when Congress avoided a second government shutdown two weeks ago when they passed the 2017 spending appropriations, or when President Obama signed the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act —the bill grants basic rights to survivors of sexual assault by protecting those who come forward to report and bring their cases to court, as well as amending the way rape kits are handled in sexual assault cases— into law last week. “If disgruntled voters can find the time to voice empty complains, why can’t well-informed electorates do the same?” I ask myself.

The reality on the field, however, does not fell in line with my conviction. A 2014 poll from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania discovers that, among other things:

36% of Americans could name all three branches of the U.S. government while 35% could not name a single one.
27% of Americans know that it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto,
and 21% incorrectly think that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.

This lack of understanding of the way government operates have been a consistent pattern. In 1996, researchers Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter summarized U.S. opinion surveys over the past 50 years in their book What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters. They found, among other things:

In 1952, only 44% of Americans could name at least one branch of government,
In 1972, only 22% know something about Watergate,
In 1985, only 59% knew whether their own state’s governor was a Democrat or a Republican,
and in 1986 only 49% knew which one nation in the world has used nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, this phenomenon is not entirely the fault of the electorates alone. In the book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, Prof. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argues that even the most informed of all electorates would not vote based on ideological stance or policy plans, and that well-informed voters’ “ideological” thinking simply reflects the way their defined circle and party officials have persuaded them to think. Both writers sees that social identities would be the voters’ sole guide when they enter the voting booth, since it shapes their train of thought which guide them to their position within the party system.

Based on this argument, it is not surprising to learn that Drumpf’s supporters still stood firmly behind him, despite the fact that he made vulgar comments about groping women back in 2005, or that he’s smart for not having to pay a $916 million worth of tax, or many other things that he have said during this election cycle. Why? They are united by the status of lacking higher education, feeling completely voiceless within the political discourse, or even living in parts of the country where racially charged Google searches are common. One can argue the same on Hillary’s staunchest supporters, who did not budge in the face of hearing her speech excerpts that Wikileaks posted this week, where she mentioned her convenience of negotiating with the elites on Wall Street, supporting international trade and getting behind a budget-balancing plan that would have required cuts to Social Security. To put it simply, hardline facts could not conquer the comforting feelings of knowing that you have been placed in a group that defines you as a whole.

Nevertheless, the importance to create greater transparency of important and relevant information to the voters is still not lost on me. The tool that society currently possesses should make it easier to inform the public on what kind of governing the government has been doing. From there, one can modify the information-providing framework by giving the facts, with giving particular adjustments when facing a different group.

The work of creating well-informed voters can seemed futile, especially in light of this election. Still, if no one sticks around to provide basic information at the very least, you’ll see the masses speaking on issues they do not fully understand and elect leaders that they do not fully recognize.

About the Author

Samuel Pattinasarane is a St. Olaf senior political science and Asian studies major from Jakarta, Indonesia