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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Blasphemously elitist thoughts on the politically inattentive

What should a democrat think about the political participation of the politically inattentive? My immediate inspiration for this question comes from the Daily News , which reports that a voter stated as follows: "I'll be honest with you. Barack scares the hell out of me. He swore on the Koran." But the more general background for my question comes from at least 81 years of political science, from Walter Lippmann's 1927 classic, "The Phantom Public" to John Zaller's "Nature and Origin of Mass Opinion," the uniform gist of which is that the vast majority of voters have extraordinarily little information about the choices that they make when they cast a ballot.

The problem with such ignorance is not that the voters will make bad decisions but rather that they will make self-defeating ones: They will actually vote against their own views. Zaller provides a nice illustration of self-defeating tendency of public opinion: In polls taken during the 1980s, self-described "Hawks" and "Doves" gave statistically indistinguishable opinions about aid to the "Contras" because neither had any idea who the "Contras" were. Under these circumstances, mass suffrage is simply picking between Door One and Door Two on the game show with no idea what lies behind the curtain.

Putting aside indignant rhetoric against these blasphemous doubts about democracy, how is such a system defensible? It seems odd that the law distrusts the judgments of citizens in ordinary commercial transactions so much more than their judgments in political transactions. The law stringently regulates the quality of drugs, food, cars, and consumer products generally on the theory that consumers are not capable of accurately evaluating these products for themselves. But the First Amendment prohibits similar regulation of the political marketplace, apparently on the theory that ignorance can more easily be tolerated with matters like nuclear war and fiscal crisis than with matters like the purchase of a tube of toothpaste.

At the very least, should the law sanction blatantly misleading political statements more aggressively? Should there be an FTC of political ads?

Posted by Rick Hills on May 7, 2008 at 10:29 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Coase once asked the same question.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | May 7, 2008 4:45:28 PM

The parallel to market regulation is interesting, but it makes me wonder if your proposal isn't a bit too modest. All that these regulations do is keep out the products that will actually kill you (when they work, but see Riegel); they don't keep you from making tremendously stupid, wasteful, or against-your-interest purchases. Certain enlargement products come to mind. This leads me to suspect that prohibiting "blatantly misleading political statements" may help us vote on the basis of truthful information, but we'd need a whole nother level of state involvement to ensure that people vote non-ignorantly.

Posted by: Jonathan Swift | May 7, 2008 12:39:44 PM

Is the problem that political and electoral speech is underregulated or that commercial speech is overregulated? The arguments by the pro-commercial speech crowd (Marty Redish and Justice Thomas) is that everything you say about the harm and import of commercial speech places it on par with political speech, so both categories should be given equally high protection. We might have gotten further development here if the Court had decided Nike v. Kasky a few years ago.

As for an FTC for political speech: The State of Washington tried; the state Supreme Court struck the regulation down, on some combination of the inability of government to determine "truth" and reliance on the public to decide for itself.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 7, 2008 12:27:27 PM

No, there shouldn't be an FTC of political ads. Why? Because that's the same as the fairness doctrine, isn't it? Or it would very shortly lead to that same effect. What would be considered a "political ad?" I assume the very first thing to do would be to shut down talk radio as "advertising for Republicans." And who would decide the accuracy of the ads? Take the swiftboat people: I've yet to meet a left-leaning person who thinks they were accurate, yet the majority of people on the right believe them to be true--and as far as I know, the truth is probably in the middle. Kerry never has released his records.... and the swiftboat people brought up some great points, which weren't refuted. Did they exaggerate some? Probably.

But your FTC would have shut them down, right? Who would appoint the people on this FTC of ads? Would we get a situation like now, where we have Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann labled as "neutral", or people like Stephanopolus? These people worked for campaigns, or they are so blatantly in the tank for one candidate it's silly, yet they are supposedly neutral mainstream media. Would we get the same level of "neutrality" on your FTC? If so, we might as well dissolve the Republican party, which I'm sure would be the preferred solution here.

Posted by: Vanceone | May 7, 2008 12:23:41 PM

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