Ignorant Voters

Steven Taylor has an interesting post about an idea espoused by a former professor of his to have Deliberation Day, a national holiday to help combat the ignorance of most Americans about their political system. We both agree that people are pretty ignorant about the political system but are skeptical as to the efficacy of a holiday to fix it.

While I’m not thrilled about how little interest most people have in politics, I’m not all that concerned, either. There is a concept in political science called “functional apathy” that posits that it’s actually good when citizens in a mature democracy aren’t too worked up about politics, because it shows their confidence in the system. While it makes a difference whether Bush or Kerry wins in November and whether the Republicans retain control of the Senate or the Democrats oust them, the policy changes will be marginal in the grand scheme of things. While that tends to sap the enthusiasm of the average citizen, it also means that having the other guy win isn’t going to create a massive upheaval in the system.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, US Politics, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mala says:

    I had a conversation about American apathy this morning with my cab driver. Apparently some important elections are scheduled to take place in Ghana and everyone is getting involved in the process – teens to seniors. They’re questioning their leaders, challenging the opponents, testing their future leaders. And he was amazed that most Americans know more about celebrities than they do about the people representing their interests in government.

    I tried to explain the “functional apathy” concept to him, but he wasn’t buying it.

    I guess it’s just the topic of the day. Great post!

  2. melvin toast says:

    Great post James!

    And I would add that this is the reason why the country didn’t fall apart after November of 2000.

    In the GRAND scheme of things dems and republicans aren’t as different as they seem. Look at Zimbabwe and Haiti and whatever country it is in South America where people were getting killed protesting the election.

    It’s a good thing when you trust your government to protect you and not exploit you. Okay it’s not exactly black and white but it’s somewhere in the middle.

  3. Beldar says:

    I agree that “having the other guy win isn’t going to create a massive upheaval in the system.” But that’s not equivalent to saying, “It doesn’t much matter which guy wins” — and I definitely wouldn’t agree with that statement. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 signaled a dramatic and positive change of course for the country and the world, for instance. It may not have caused a massive upheaval in the system, but it certainly changed the system in profound ways. The same could be said for both Roosevelt presidencies, and certainly Lincoln’s.