You Don’t Have to Know Everything About Politics

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Kevin Drum has a nice, short piece on misinformation. He was talking to a friend who had a lot of “facts” wrong, despite being a perfectly intelligent person and not being a crazed ideologue or hard partisan. Drum wonders whether this is some sort of media failure.

I suppose in a way it is, but mostly it’s just the normal conditions of politics. 

Most people just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about politics and public affairs. They sometimes focus in when something big is going on, but even then they aren’t going to be very systematic about it.

There’s nothing wrong with that! You can still make good voting decisions; for most elections, all that takes is a little self-awareness (What am I like? Which group or groups do I identify with?) and a little political awareness (Who do people like me vote for?). No need to know whether President Donald Trump’s North Korea policy is yielding results or whether a trade war is good or bad for the nation. All you need to know is, if you think of yourself as a small business owner, or a black man, or an evangelical Christian, or a feminist, then which party do people in that group vote for? 

If there ever is something you care passionately about or have a strong self-interest in and it drives you into a more active role in the public sphere, you can read up about it properly when you need to. But most of us, for most policy questions, don’t have that. And so we never need to learn much for political purposes.

But that doesn’t mean we know nothing. It’s just that what we know can be a weird and haphazard collection of truths, outdated truths, things that never were quite right to begin with, stuff we’ve misremembered so it started out true but has become sort of wacky, and even some flat-out wrong things that sounded accurate and seemed to come from a good source but didn’t. 

For those who are perhaps less educated or less interested, politics is just background noise most of the time. They still probably know enough to vote “correctly” — that is, to know how people like themselves vote. In that sense, there’s not really much of a difference. But they’re likely to know a lot less. They’re like I am when it comes to ballet and opera and auto racing: I know they exist, and I recognize some names and events, but even though I must have been exposed to plenty of stories about those things in my life, it’s all just a blur to me. 

Again: There’s nothing at all wrong with this. It may not be the fairy tale we tell ourselves about what democracy is supposed to be (what Chris Achen and Larry Bartels call the “folk theory” of democracy), but the combination of party voting and more intense and informed involvement when we choose is in fact a pretty good version of government of, by and for the people. Or at least it can be, when everything works right. 

1. Tricia Bacon at the Monkey Cage examines the case for Trump’s border policy.

2. Dan Nexon on dangers to U.S. democracy. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says here, but it’s well worth reading.

3. Josh Huder thinks the immigration discharge petition might not be completely dead yet. 

4. Matt Glassman on why Democrats won’t try to block the Supreme Court nomination with procedural tactics. Why? Because it ultimately wouldn’t work. 

6. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson on the Supreme Court fight and how liberals should react.

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