Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Uninformed Voter Bias

This is an excerpt from the literature review of my undergraduate thesis. This section deals with the existence of certain anti-foreign biases among large swaths of the American Electorate.

The paper is still very much a work in progress that now stands at about 30 pages. I'm still engrossed in reading about the history of American Grand Strategy and finding examples of public pressure (presumably related to the findings in the literature that certain biases are widespread within the American electorate) hindering strategy.

Scott Althaus’s Collective Preferences in Democratic Politics: Opinion Surveys and the Will of the People picks up where Keeter and Caprini left off. While Keeter and Caprini sought to establish that there were a large number of Americans that lacked the information necessary to make an informed decision about policy, Althuas was generally concerned with examining ways in which the views of the informed and the uninformed diverged. Althaus looked deeper into Keeter and Caprini’s assertion that there was little consistency in the views of uninformed voters. Althaus’s conclusion was that, on certain issues, there was actually a great deal of consistency among the uninformed voters. Althaus concludes, “the opinions of ill informed respondents are often amplified in collective preferences because they tend to more like minded in their answers than knowledgeable respondents”(Althaus 23), to be precise, Althaus finds that at least 30 percent of the answers on the National Election Survey have a bimodal distribution with a large grouping at both the lowest and highest knowledge quartile; foreign policy is close to the average with 26 percent of the answers having a bimodal preference between the highest and lowest quartiles (Althaus 81).

When it comes to issues of foreign policy and globalization Althaus found that uninformed voters were less inclined towards intervention, less supportive of immigration and more hawkish on military matters(Althaus 129). For example, 29 percents of respondents agreed that the U.S. should stay out of problems in other parts of the world, but that number dropped to just 18 percent among the fully informed while at the same time 64 percent of all respondents favored deployment of U.S. troops in the Middle East (in 1988) while the informed opinion dropped to 57 percent(Althaus 130). A corollary to Althaus’s research may be a recent study from the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs, which looked at global opinions largely of trade and economic globalization. While the CCFA study did not test political knowledge, they did find that support for globalization in the U.S. increased from 40 percent among those who did not follow international news to 60 percent for those that did follow international news (Chicago Council of Foriegn Relations ). While not as scientific as Althaus’s findings, it seems consistent with the idea that people will be supportive of internationalism if they are better informed.

A logical question to these findings is: Could it be that people that are better informed also share other demographic factors that make them more likely to support globalization? For example, Keeter and Carpinni observe that “Much of this nations enduring political history has been defined by four critical struggles; between economically advantaged and the economically disadvantaged; between whites and blacks; between men and women; and (in a somewhat different way) between the generation in power and the generation that preceded and follows it”(Keeter and Deli Carprini 156). It is possible that wealthy people somehow benefit from globalization or certain foreign policies more than poorer people. Of course, differentiating between a person’s ‘interests’ and the effect of information can be difficult. For example, below is a chart that illustrates the difference in political knowledge between different demographics (Keeter and Deli Carprini 162).

So while on one hand it is not unreasonable to think that the poorest and wealthiest people in society may view globalization differently, it also stands to reason that, if an information effect exists independent of other factors, views may change if respondents were better informed. Indeed, Scott Althaus suggests, that by using his method of simulating informed opinion while controlling for the effects of demographics, it can be demonstrated that the information effect is indeed very real, fairly large, and would move policy preferences in any demographic group (Althaus 193).

Further evidence of this can be seen in the work of Bryan Caplan, as the chart below demonstrates(Caplan 26). The ‘average response’ is the respondent’s answers to questions about welfare reform, with lower numbers indicating a desire to cut benefits and higher numbers illustrating a desire to raise them. As the chart shows, the response of those with high income and high knowledge is closer to the response of those with low income and high knowledge than it is to those with high income and low knowledge.

Income ------Knowledge----- % Of Population------ Response
High -----------High -----------------25-------------------------- 3
High -----------Low ------------------25-------------------------- 5
Low ------------High -----------------25 --------------------------4
Low---------- --Low ------------------25-------------------------- 6

Unlike Althaus and Keeter and Caprini, who put a good deal of their focus on strictly domestic issues while occasionally looking at foreign policy questions, Caplan focuses much of his attention on issues related international trade, immigration and globalization. In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. , Caplan explores differences between the views of economists and laymen. He begins his research by looking at the findings of a Kaiser Foundation study that surveyed economists and lay people about their opinions on economic questions. Caplan looked at several of the questions and compared the views of economists with those of both the general public and a simulated fully informed public. The answer scale ran from 0 to 2, with zero representing ‘not a reason’ for something and 2 representing a ‘major reason’. For example, when asked if a given reason responsible for slowing growth of the U.S. economy the general public supported the answer “Foreign aid spending is too high” with a ranking of of 1.5, meaning between minor reason and major reason (Caplan 58) versus economist and the enlightened public who both answered less than ‘minor reason’. Other reasons cited heavily by the general public but very little by either economists of the informed public include “There are too many immigrants”(Caplan 59), and “Companies are sending jobs overseas” (Caplan 66). Caplan puts all of these misassumptions under a meta-category he calls the anti-foreign bias(Caplan 36), which means that many people are naturally opposed to interacting with those they perceive as ‘outsiders’.

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