Tuesday, 13 January 2004

Now I know why I was going to complain

A few weeks ago, I promised a response to a Jonah Goldberg Townhall.com piece whining about ignorant voters. Now, as Brett Marston points out, Goldberg is advocating bringing back literacy tests on The Corner (just in case you needed another reason besides John Derbyshire not to send Bill Buckley any of your hard-earned cash). Quoth Goldberg, in typical cacophonous Corner fashion:

Hear, hear for Jon [Alder] on that score. But I’d go one better. I think it’s about time we toughened up the requirements for voting. Literacy tests, poll taxes and the like may have once been legitimately suspect because they were used to disciminate against blacks. But today, I simply see no principled reason we couldn’t apply some sort of test to everybody. Indeed, I would be more comfortable having newly naturlized immigrants decide the future of this country at the ballot box than leaving it up to, say, typical white 18-22 year-olds. I know that the immigrants can pass a civics test. I have no such confidence in the kids at my local malls.

Quoth Brett:

Democracy at the NRO. The poor and uneducated need not apply. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

Since I know nobody’s going to read my dissertation to find out what I think of the elitist line of argument, let me simply state that:

  1. Citizens have no “civic duty” to be informed about politics.
  2. Citizens have no “civic duty” to vote.

Not only is it irrational for voters to learn about politics, it’s downright immoral to insist that people participate in the political process, especially since, for J. Random Jackass working at the meatpacking plant, the marginal difference between Howard Dean and George W. Bush is zero—no matter how much Dean and Bush try to tell him otherwise.

You want to know why people say they don’t know enough about particular candidates? It’s because we (political scientists, media types, and what have you) insist that it’s important that they know the minutae of Howard Dean’s foreign policy views or Wes Clark’s tax plan or Dennis Kucinich’s DSM-IV diagnosis. The dirty little secret of politics is people don’t make decisions based on that stuff—even if they do know it. Ultimately, it’s more about “who do I trust more,” “whose politics seem closest to mine,” and “do I prefer people who look like thumbs over people who resemble chimps” than “Bush is going to give me $32.65 more take-home pay a week than Dean.” Which is as it should be. There are enough of us warped political junkies as it is; let’s not add to the population.

Update: Brett Marston has more thoughts on this topic. Incidentally, if you—like Brett—“still want to read [my] dissertation,” it's all online here, along with pretty much everything I’ve written for conferences (or otherwise had my name slapped on).