Three reasons why voters are ignorant of policy facts

Posted on May 14, 2015

No doubt you have heard that the Governor of Texas has promised to monitor a U.S. military training exercise called “Jade Helm 15” because Tea Party websites have whipped millions of Americans into a state of hysteria.

“Jade Helm military exercise is not martial law” reads the headline of a newspaper Fact Check column.

“John McCain calls Jade Helm 15 hysteria ‘bizarre,’” says another headline, this one in the Dallas Morning News.

According to a nationwide Rasmussen poll, 45 percent of American voters “are concerned that the government will use U.S. military training operations to impose greater control over some states,” with 19 percent “very concerned.” Apparently, among Tea Party voters, 82 percent are “concerned that the federal government has greater control in mind.”

What in the world is going on?

Nothing unusual. We all know that average Americans are tremendously uninformed about a wide variety of issues, from Obamacare “death panels” to supposedly widespread “voter fraud.” Most Americans think crime is going up, immigrants are overrunning the country, and the U.S. spends huge sums on foreign aid.

There are three reasons why Americans are often painfully ignorant.

FIRST, average Americans just don’t pay attention to politics or policy. They don’t often read political news or like to watch it on TV. Immediately before the 2014 congressional elections, only 38 percent of voters knew that the Republican Party controlled the U.S. House of Representatives, according to the Annenberg Poll. When voters don’t know who controls Congress, they don’t know who to blame for congressional ineptitude. Put another way, to “throw the bums out,” you need to know which side has the bums.

When voters lack basic political information, they can be led to believe that a candidate who backs some of the most mean-spirited policy in American history is actually a “compassionate” conservative, that a massive invasion was launched because of hidden “WMDs,” that President Obama is a Muslim, or that climate change is a hoax.

SECOND, voters don’t recognize truth when it is presented to them. People seek out information that conforms to their preexisting beliefs and go out of their way to reject or ignore information that disproves those beliefs. This is called “confirmation bias” and scientists have known about it for years.

When you discuss politics with others, you may easily and often trigger the emotional part of their brains instead of the part that engages in calm, rational reasoning. When emotion is engaged, the brain will retrieve memories that have been stored up to reinforce pre-existing beliefs. So in the minds of the people you’re talking to, they not only emotionally feel you are wrong; based on cherry-picked stored information, they factually know you are wrong.

Everyone’s brain works this way. When we process information, we first assess it emotionally and then compare what’s coming in to memories of past experiences and beliefs. This is not partisan, it is human. In order to survive, our ancestors needed a strong “fight or flight” reflex—the ability to react immediately without really thinking. We still do that. The problem is, once voters get a belief in their heads—like people enjoy being on welfare—it is extremely hard to change their point of view.

THIRD, the right-wing media knowingly feeds false information to voters, and worse, the mainstream media does nothing about it. No need to convince you about the evils of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, The Drudge Report, or the Washington Times, am I right? Let’s focus on the mainstream media.

The real news media is supposed to deliver truthful information to the public and call out lies by officeholders and political actors. But over the past 20 years, the mainstream media has altered the “rules” of journalism to substitute balance for truth. In just about any political news story, the reporter will quote one side and then the other, making it seem like there is an honest difference of opinion. But this technique sacrifices the truth when just a modest amount of independent research would find that one side is fabricating “facts.”

Because of this reporting method, right wingers know there is no penalty for lying. Average Americans have no idea who’s telling the truth in a typical he-said-she-said political story. Reporters could remove the incentive to lie by ignoring those “stories” or by covering them with some version of “Smith said [whatever] today but it’s simply not true.” And yet, the mainstream news will almost never state an obvious truth or point out an obvious lie.

A corollary of the balance-the-story rule is that reporters feel they have to blame both parties nearly equally. Gridlock, therefore, is the fault of both parties even when one side’s obstruction tactics are unprecedented. Money in politics is a bipartisan problem, even when one side grabs the lion’s share. And both sides must be blamed for lying, even when that assertion is itself a lie. We complain about this “false equivalency” on progressive blogs, but average Americans have never heard of it.

Right wingers are not fools. They have adopted their tactics in large part because they know (1) lying often works since voters don’t know political facts, (2) confirmation bias makes it difficult to change minds after right-wing lies have become beliefs, and (3) the legitimate media will almost never tell Americans the truth in a way that could possibly sink in.

Yes, progressives can frame political messages in a way that persuades average voters. At the Public Leadership Institute we talk about it all the time. But there are many challenges, so realize, persuasion is hard.