I have long praised the Framers for their insight in not only putting checks on the government but also on the people through such things as the Electoral College and the indirect selection of Senators (which we unwisely eliminated during the so-called Progressive Era).
They had little faith in the people and understood that tyranny of the majority was no better than the monarchy they abandoned. It is the reason they eschewed the idea of a direct democracy in favor of a representative republic.
As Capt. Benjamin “The Ghost” Martin, the protagonist played by Mel Gibson in the 2000 Revolutionary War film “The Patriot,” put it, “Why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away? An elected legislature can trample a man’s rights as easily as a king can.”
That is a variation of the quotation from famed cleric and royalist Mather Byles (a man related to John Cotton, Richard Mather, Increase Mather and Cotton Mather, the last two of Salem Witch Trial fame) who famously said, “Which is better — to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?”
In the centuries since, the American electorate has demonstrated an amazing ability to do stupid things. Just look at this year’s primary elections for the two legacy parties in which we are now down to billionaire Donald Trump, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-avowed socialist … er, excuse me … “democratic socialist.”
So I was pleased to see Ilya Somin, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and a law professor at George Mason University proselytize on this very subject on CNN.com on May 12. If you have the chance, pick up his book “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter” (http://a.co/foepIf3).
“Trump is far from the only candidate to exploit ignorance this year, merely the most successful,” he wrote. “The problem of ill-informed voters is certainly not confined to Trump and Sanders, or to the 2016 election; more conventional politicians often manipulate ignorance, as well.”
Somin shares my belief that the American electorate often acts in an absurd fashion; however it is not because voters are stupid but rather they are ignorant of the basic structures of government and have no incentive to become better informed.
Somin’s answer, and it is probably better than any other, is that Americans have more incentive to be informed about things that directly affect them. In other words, the smaller and more local the government, the better informed voters will be and the more rationally they will act.
Of course, in this era of growing government and our burgeoning police state, that kind of reversal is not likely to happen anytime soon. Meanwhile we are stuck with a large percentage of voters who lack a basic understanding of government.
Perhaps it is time to stop encouraging everyone to vote. There is little value in driving people to the polls who are genuinely ignorant about the basic structure of government and lack even a fundamental understanding of the problems we face.
To illustrate that point, Fairleigh Dickinson University conducted a poll in October in which registered voters were asked three basic questions about American government. Only 34 percent could name all three branches of government, 69 percent knew the Republicans controlled Congress, and only 21 percent could name John Roberts as the chief justice of the United States.
Overall, only 12 percent were able to answer all three questions correctly and 25 percent couldn’t answer a single one correctly. Republicans, by the way, outscored Democrats and independents.
As the poll’s authors wrote: “Americans don’t know much about politics, but voters who have been paying attention to the news and are knowledgeable about government structure and processes are much less likely to support presidential frontrunners Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. … Clinton and Trump lead among voters who prefer to tune out from the news and are unable to answer basic questions about their government.”
Perhaps Trump expressed it best of all: “We won with the poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”