We just don’t know

I was struck by something I recently read. It seems that Democrats have a difficult time getting out the vote, although participation at the polls is universally trending down, with four out of five Snohomish county voters staying home for last month’s primary. And the number one reason cited for the low turnout? An overwhelming majority of citizens were not even aware that an election was taking place.

Seth Masket, writing for Pacific Standard, wonders why people don’t hold their state and local legislators accountable. After all, they pass laws that significantly impact our lives, for good or ill, depending on one’s perspective.

In his recent award-winning dissertation at Princeton, political scientist Steve Rogers examined voting patterns in state legislative elections. It turns out, for one thing, that people’s knowledge of their state legislature is rather paltry. Asked which party controls their state legislature, a majority of citizens either did not know or gave the wrong answer. This, as can be imagined, makes it rather difficult to hold legislators accountable; if you don’t know who’s in charge of the state, it’s hard to reward or punish them for the way things are going.

Why the ignorance? Masket suggests, with Ezra Klein, that financially-challenged newspapers have curtailed coverage of local politics.

Well, as Ezra Klein noted the other day, our media has a built-in bias against covering state and local politics. There’s still plenty of political coverage, of course, but it’s massively skewed in favor of national politics. As newspapers have trimmed their staffs in recent decades, state capitol reporters have usually been among the first on the chopping block. And this is based on the not-unrealistic assumption that people are just more interested in national than local politics. These factors feed back on each other, of course: voters don’t care about local politics, so the media doesn’t cover it, so voters learn even less about it, etc.

 

A nicer version of the libertarian dream is a world of strictly voluntary associations and commerce unfettered by government. Others long for a pure participatory democracy in which the people decide by vote pretty much everything without elected representatives.

Yet we seem to lack both the knowledge and the time to pay attention to much of anything beyond struggling to make ends meet and filling the remaining hours of the day with a bit of entertainment and sleep, no doubt all too brief and fretful.

Am I cynical or simply realistic?

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