Recently I received an email from a member of my family about an article in the Washington Post called "5 Myths About Those Civic-Minded, Deeply Informed Voters". I was going to respond via email but thought that perhaps we could have a discussion here in public as well. The question raised in the article is that of voter ignorance and irrationality, and of the effect this has on our democratic system of government.
The link was accompanied in the email by a rather pessimistic comment, made by my family member:
Alas, I fear this article is right on. Not very promising news for the progress of the American nation, is it. But i've read several related articles from various sources and they report similar statistics. As a teacher, I must admit feeling some amount of shame - if teachers can't inspire students to take an interest in the world, who will? Maybe we should turn to the rock stars and sports heros. (But who will educate them?)
For starters I'd like to point out that back in 2006 there was an issue of Cato Unbound titled "Majority Fools? Irrationality and the Limits of Democracy". I think many interesting opinions are expressed there about the subject I'm going to talk about so check it out if you have the time.
To the point, I personally would take a more optimistic stance than my family member above. While the electorate is constantly being proven ignorant or unable to rationally pick between policies, it frequently can and will give different policies a chance to prove themselves. Even if electoral competition does not make politicians adopt the views of a supposed average rational voter, it is still the case that ideology and policies compete for adoption by the political or intellectual elite by proving their efficacy when they are "sworn into office", even if that happens "by accident" by a irrational electorate. The frequent changeover of government permits an evolutionary-style competition by giving differing policies a chance to be tried out, even if this chance is not given on the merits of each policy but on the emotional and irrational grounds that usually sway the average voter. In the end it's good enough™ that democracy gives an equal chance to the proponents of different policies, even if they compete via demagoguery to some extent (see also Friedrich Hayek's ideas on Cultural EvolutionPDF).
Perhaps an example could come from Great Britain, when after the war voters threw out the conservatism of the time in order to try the policies of labor governments, then later threw labor out in favor of Margaret Thatcher's style of conservatism with a liberal economic twist and then threw that out in favor of Labor with a liberal twist of Tony Blair etc (I'm using 'liberal' in the European sense, not the American). Even if these changes were not the result of rational choices made by the average voter I think that the failure and success of the different policies that were adopted, changed the kinds of policies amongst which the electorate would choose, because it changed the kinds of policies that the politicians and intellectuals considered worthy of adoption. Even if Thatcher was not chiefly elected because of a rational expectation on behalf of the average voter that her economic liberalism would outperform the socialist planning policies that preceded her, but because a certain type of majority voter sentimentally appreciated her steadfast social conservatism, nevertheless, her economic policies affected mostly everyone in the elite, including her political and intellectual opposition, since the Labor governments of today have remarkably liberal economic policies (at least in comparison to historical Labor governments).
So, yes, the average voter cannot be trusted to choose rationally, but in the end it is enough that he does get to choose between political opponents, who will differ at least somewhat in their political proposals (otherwise they would not be opponents), and also that he frequently chooses to oust the incumbents, since that will give an incentive to newcomers to enter the political market. There are grounds to believe that this frequent interchange and the evolutionary competition that it induces in the field of political ideas can perform as well as rule by Philosopher Kings, which we might call "Scientific Experts" today, and that it will be more stable, although probably much slower to bring about change. Experts always have an important role in interpreting and evaluating what has happened in the past and shaping the opinions of intellectuals in the future, but it is democracy that must choose from amongst the available proposals. It is not to either the expert or the intellectual who has authority to command changes because that would amount to a dictatorship and would frequently involve violence, aimed both at the average joe and towards the experts or intellectuals that happen to have differing opinions than of those in power. And, in the end, that is were the great advantage of Democracy lies, since, in the words of Karl Popper, Democracy is "the type of government which can be removed without violence".
(feel free to respond in Greek as well as English, I wrote the above in English because it is mainly a response to English-speaking members of my family)