Uncharitable Descriptions And The Constraint Of 140 Characters

Last night, after reading Politico reporter Alexander Burns’ article on how wide swathes of voters often hold uninformed and/or inconsistent views, I noted that the article focused on the present day and quoted only pollsters and political consultants, so I tweeted that I wished the article had “referenced all the PoliSci research” on citizen knowledge and democratic competence. Wanting to be clear what area of the political science literature I was referring to, I followed up with a tweet containing a link to a summary of Philip Converse’s seminal article, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.

To connect the two tweets, I led my follow-up with the line, “@aburnspolitico makes it seem like inconsistent voters is unique to 2012.” Burns did not appreciate this line. A little while later, he replied that my claim was “just silly“:

As you can see, I backed off my claim a bit and replied that my contention was based on the references to the 2012 electorate and the fact that Burns never explicitly laid out the long-running history of findings of a poorly-informed electorate. Here are some of the passages that initially led me to say that he appeared to isolate the issue to 2012:

Add up that litany of contradictory, irrational or simply silly opinions, and it’s enough to make a political professional suspect the electorate is, well, not entirely sophisticated about the choices it’s facing in 2012. […]

But irrationality on policy issues transcends party lines and cuts across groups that feel differently about the president. Taken all together, the issue polling compiled so far in the 2012 cycle presents a sharp corrective to the candidates’ description of the race as a great debate placing two starkly different philosophies of government before an informed electorate. […]

And “fickle” is a nice way of describing the voters of 2012, who appear to be wandering, confused and Forrest Gump-like through the experience of a presidential campaign. It isn’t just unclear which party’s vision they’d rather embrace; it’s entirely questionable whether the great mass of voters has even the most basic grasp of the details – or for that matter, the most elementary factual components – of the national political debate.

I think it’s fair to suggest that these passages could leave someone with the impression that the 2012 electorate is different from history, but I also have come to think that my tweet was an uncharitable description of Burns’ article.

Though he didn’t include details about how voter inconsistency has been studied and debated for years, he did include quotes from Public Policy Polling pollster Tom Jensen that strongly imply that the finding is nothing new:

“The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid,” said Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm. “I tell a client trying to make sense of numbers on a poll that are inherently contradictory that at least once a week.”

Jensen, a Democrat, pointed to surveys showing that voters embraced individual elements of the Affordable Care Act, while rejecting the overall law, as an example of the political schizophrenia or simple ignorance that pollsters and politicians must contend with.

“We’re seeing that kind of thing more and more. I think it’s a function of increased political polarization and voters just digging in their heels and refusing to consider the opposing facts once they’ve formed an opinion about something,” said Jensen, who has generated eye-catching data showing many GOP primary voters still question the president’s religion and nationality. “I also think voters are showing a tendency to turn issues that should be factual or non-factual into opinions. If you show a Tennessee birther Obama’s birth certificate, they’re just going to say ‘well in my opinion he’s not a real American.’ It’s not about the birth certificate; it’s about expressing hatred for Obama in any form they can.”

Without a description of past trends, Jensen’s diagnosis of the claim that voter ignorance is getting worse and why is debatable, but it does at least suggest that this is not a new phenomenon. So, my tweet phrase, written quickly and constrained by fitting it all in 140 characters, was imprecise and somewhat unfair.

I still think Burns’ article would have benefited greatly from additional context about how large sections of the electorate have long been found to hold poorly-informed views. For instance, I later tweeted out a 2004 New Yorker article that examined how “skepticism about the competence of the masses to govern themselves is as old as mass self-government,” which was rooted in the political science literature. But, perhaps the expectation that a news article include what is essentially a literature review is asking too much. Maybe, in the same way that political elites like reporters and operatives can’t expect the electorate to know all that they know, academics (and those like me who are currently immersed in academia) can’t expect those political elites to know all that we know (or think we know).

In fact, despite its flaws, Burns’ article is actually a welcome development. Even though he didn’t acknowledge that he’s touching on the long-established political science debate on voter knowledge and democratic competence, he still highlighted the basic finding that has caused so much consternation since the days of Converse. That’s a positive journalistic contribution, especially considering that other prominent political reporters are unwilling to ever “suggest Americans are uninformed.”

Perhaps the next time I’m tempted to spout off on Twitter about how someone is wrong on the Internet by not including enough political science in their writing, I should first read John Sides and Brendan Nyhan’s essay (pdf) on “How Political Science Can Help Political Journalism (And Still Let Journalists Be Journalists)” so that I do it in a more constructive manner.

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