© Josh Sager – June 2013
In the United States, the right wing has utilized a tactic which is extremely effective politically but an absolute disaster in terms of actual policy results: they have condensed the low-information voters in many areas of the country and used them to help elect a series of extremely partisan low-information legislators.
By tricking uninformed Americans into voting for ignorant candidates who are willing to toe the party line, the GOP has created a very strong partisan block that is now wreaking havoc in Washington. The GOP’s low-information legislators are elected to office, yet they have no real understanding of policy, economics, science, or the consequences of their decisions—this lack of knowledge leads them to vote for initiatives which damage the country and hold to the party line even when that line is directly contrary to the interests of their constituency.
A low-information voter is simply a voter who has little to no knowledge about issues of public policy or the real effects of their votes; they are, in effect, voters who have the power to elect officials, but who lack the ability to rationally assess the consequences of their vote. Rather than research the issues, the low-information voter relies primarily upon social factors (ex. what party they grew up supporting), single-issue voting (ex. abortion), gut-feelings about candidates (ex. who they would like to have a beer with) and uninformed judgments to decide who they will vote for.
Because they lack an ability to understand the consequences of the policies of their elected representatives, low-information voters are susceptible to propaganda and can be tricked into supporting politicians who don’t represent their interests. For example: a poor man can be tricked into supporting a reduction in the estate tax because he doesn’t understand that that tax only effects those who have million dollar estates and he has been led to believe that it will help his family.
It is important to note that the tactic of utilizing low-information voters is not new, nor is it limited to right wing politicians. Different political parties have always attempted to control low-information voters and convince them into voting for their politicians or agitating for their causes—we saw unions use this tactic in the 20th century and southern elites use it during the Civil War. Low-information voters are a persistent factor in democracy and the courting of such voters isn’t dangerous unless the politician doing the courting is attempting to take advantage of their voters’ ignorance to pass destructive policy.
The GOP’s Weaponization of Ignorance
In recent years, the GOP has become much more extreme in their policy goals and has relied upon low-information voters to elect their politicians and pass their policy priorities. By creating a unified block of low-information right wing voters, the GOP has created a party base that will support them even when they pass policies which are extremely damaging to the country—this base simply lacks an ability to see past the propaganda and understand that their elected officials are supporting their donors rather than their voters.
Here are a few examples of such situations:
- Tax cuts for wealthy people while imposing austerity on the poor
- Gun-ownership absolutism that leads to floods of unregulated firearms
- Supporting massive military spending while cutting infrastructure projects that create jobs
Due to the harmful nature of these GOP priorities, low-information voters are a very valuable resource for their political prospects. If a poor or middle class voter truly understands the consequences of voting for the average Republican, they would have to be a fool to cast such a vote; as such, ignorance of policy results is the current GOP’s best friend during an election.
While the GOP’s exploitation of low-information voters is disingenuous, if not a betrayal of the democratic process, their use of this tactic to elect low-information legislators is arguably a much greater threat to the health of our country.
While mobilizing low-information voters to elect politicians is not a new tactic, the current GOP has expanded it by using these low-information voters to elect large numbers of low-information legislators. These legislators primarily belong to the “Tea Party” wing of the GOP and represent district which have been heavily gerrymandered to contain large numbers of low-information right wing voters.
A low-information legislator can be useful to those in positions of authority in a party for the exact same reasons why low-information voters are useful during an election—they have little knowledge about policy and can be used to push a partisan agenda in a way that a politician who has their own opinions cannot. As low-information legislators lack an independent knowledge of policy issues, party elites and donors are able to use these legislators as voting proxies for their own opinions—they simply tell their caucus how to vote, and there is no need for the individuals to know anything but who to listen to.
For example: If you support deregulation of campaign finance laws, it is much easier to get a low-information politician like Louie Gohmert to support your legislation than it would be if you had to deal with politicians who actually know something about the consequences of such deregulation (ex. John McCain).
In electing blocks of low-information legislators, a party leadership gains control over a solid block of the legislature. Individual low-information legislators lack the ability to independently assess policy discussions, so political power becomes increasingly centralized in the hands of party leadership.
We saw a perfect example of this ignorance-led centralization of power during recent budget negotiations. During the 2013 budget negotiations, President Obama and the GOP party leaders (Boehner and McConnell) had been in negotiations for weeks when it became apparent that the rank-and-file GOP was opposing Obama’s deal without any actual understanding of what Obama was offering—specifically, the GOP rank-and-file had not been told by their leadership that Obama had put the chained CPI cut on the table. The rank-and-file GOP in this case relied entirely upon their leadership to tell them how to vote and didn’t even take the time to listen to Obama’s deal for themselves.
The Side Effects of Weaponizing Ignorance
The creation of a class of low-information legislators on one side of the political spectrum leads to numerous problems in the legislature as a whole. Politically, this tactic benefits the party leadership, but the insertion of ignorant people into the legislative process has the potential to disrupt the entire process. Put plainly, a legislature filled with people who have no real understanding of policy is unlikely to be able to create and pass good policy.
In the United States legislature, we see right wing politicians of absolute ignorance given very real power over committees that they have no business being involved in. Here are 3 examples of low-information right wing legislators who hold such positions:
- Michelle Bachmann is a member of the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence—she believes that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the US government and that the democratic “Arab Spring” movement turned the middle east into an “evil jihadist earthquake.”
- Paul Broun is a member of the House Science Subcommittee—he believes that “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”
- Chris Stewart is the head of the House Science Space and Technology Subcommittee—he is a climate change denier and believes that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax.
The inclusion of ignorant people in these important committees cripples them from actually taking serious action on the very important issues that they are supposed to deal with; after all, how can we expect science deniers to rationally discuss issues of science or conspiracy theorists to analyze complicated issues of intelligence? The GOP’s promoting of low-information legislators directly fuels this problem and is the reason why so many legislative subcommittees are filled with people who have no knowledge of the issues.
A second, but extremely important, problem with low-information legislators being elected is that they are highly susceptible to corporate influence. In recent years, we have seen numerous examples of right wing politicians giving corporate groups the power to actually write the legislation that would govern them. Groups like ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce have written legislation that would be given to low-information right wing politicians for them to suggest—oftentimes, these politicians don’t even read the bill that they are supporting (we know this because they sometimes forget to remove the interest group letterhead before they suggest the bill).
Low-information legislators, who have no ability to independently assess policy, often rely upon partisan and corporate assistance to craft their legislation. As such, they represent a way for corporations and interest groups to directly control legislation. In a worst case scenario, corporations would be suggesting legislation that would be voted on by legislators who have no policy knowledge and who are indebted to the corporations for campaign cash. Unfortunately, this scenario is very close to the reality of the current federal legislature.
At the end of the day, the weaponized ignorance of the current GOP is an expression of partisan policy taking precedence over good policy. In an attempt to gain political power and a unified conservative voting block, the GOP has created a public policy disaster—they let the crazy and ignorant members of their party into the legislature and now those people are preventing any realistic policy from getting passed.
Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to mitigate the damage of low-information legislators for the time being. The only way to remove such legislators from office is with elections, yet, as most of them are from gerrymandered districts, they are relatively safe from electoral challenge. Eventually, even the partisans and low-information voters in the districts that send us the low-information legislators will hit a breaking point where even they see how unqualified their elected officials are (ex. with Bachmann or Palin), but the damage will already have been done by this point.
In short, we, as a country, are in for a very long ignorance-induced period of bad public policy being passed on the federal level.