Me Vote for Pretty Candidate!

I sometimes get a bit of grief for not responding to comments more often. Let me say that I follow the comments on this blog closely. I’m often delighted or amused by what I find there. Also sometimes irritated, which is also a good thing. However, anyone who’s ever actually run a blog knows that the key to keeping up active readership is to post something new as often as possible — preferably every day. My day job often leaves me little time to tend to good old German Joys. Thus, when I have limited time, that time is better used, on blogalicious grounds, to post something new.

However, I would like to take up some comments Don made about my post of a few weeks ago on Bryan Caplan’s new book, in which Caplan concludes a lot of things (summary here), one of them that Northern European voters seem to be more rational than their counterparts in other democracies.

Don took issue with my description of European political discourse as more rational and well-informed than in the U.S.:

European discourse more politically sophisticated? What do you mean by discourse, Andrew? Conversations with your landlady, Stammtisch debates, German media discussions?

Let us consider U.S. media and blogs as an example of public discourse. One list of links can be found under http://aldaily.com/ on the left side. Many are international, but most are U.S. Now, compare that list to media and blogs under http://www.goethe.de/wis/med/lks/ enindex.htm#1734508. In terms of variety and depth, not to mention energetic creativity and breadth of scholarship, the U.S. is ahead IMHO.

Blogs aside, though, that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. I have now followed current affairs in Germany and France for a few years, in the original languages. The difference in quality and depth of information available to the average person in those countries and in the U.S. is sobering. That’s why I have no trouble accepting Caplan’s thesis. I haven’t read Caplan’s book yet, but I’d wager what he’s talking about is the fact that average Europeans generally have a more accurate idea of what their nations’ policies are, and what the various political parties stand for.

There is no debate among political scientists that the average American voter is incredibly ignorant. Ilya Somin recently brough a lot of the strands of research together in this readable Cato Institute policy analysis: "When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy."* He quotes political scientist John Ferejohn: “Nothing strikes the student of public opinion and democracy more forcefully than the paucity of information most people possess about politics.”

Somin brings together literally dozens of examples of the ignorance of the average American concerning basic facts relevant to American domestic and foreign policy. Some examples:

  • 70% of Americans, as of November 2004, did not know that Congress had recently expanded federal coverage for prescription drugs, the largest, and most highly-publicized domestic policy initiative of the Bush Administration.
  • Just after the hotly-contested 2002 Congressional elections, only 32% of voters knew that the Republicans controlled Congress before that election.
  • Just after the hugely-publicized takeover of Congress by the Republicans in 1994, 57% of American voters did not recognize the name of Newt Gingrich, the leader of the Republicans at that time.
  • In 1964, only 38% of American voters were aware that the Soviet Union was not a part of NATO.

"Majorities," summarizes Somin, "are ignorant of such basic aspects of the U.S. political system as who has the power to declare war, the respective functions of the three branches of government, and who controls monetary policy." (p. 4)

And his examples are just the tip of the iceberg. According to a 2001 PIPA study, Americans estimate that America spends 20% of its annual budget on foreign aid, overestimating the actual amount by about 40 times. As Bryan Caplan points out in the essay I linked to, 41% of Americans think foreign aid is one of the two biggest items in the American budget. Not surprisingly, many Americans want the allegedly "massive" foreign aid budget cut. PIPA ran a survey before the 2004 Presidential Election (unfortunately, the link I have no longer works, but I saved a copy of the syllabus on my computer) in which Bush supporters, by large majorities, stated their incorrect beliefs that President Bush had signed the Kyoto Treaty, supported the creation of an International Criminal Court, and favored the inclusion of labor and environmental standards in trade agreements. 56% percent of Republicans now favor referring Darfur war criminals to the International Criminal Court, even though the President they (presumably still) support opposes American participation in the court. 68% of Republicans believed, incorrectly, that President Bush actually favored American participation in the ICC in its present form.

The examples could go on and on. This isn’t a debate about which policies are wisest — it’s a debate about whether voters even know what the policies are. Huge numbers of Americans do not have basic information about the political process.

There are plenty of reasons for this, but I would chalk a large part of it up to American television, the main source of news for the average American. Except for a few channels, it’s all for-profit. These stations are competing for viewers, which means they are under pressure to package news in ways that attract viewers. This means heavy on the sex, violence, and scandal, and keep it short and snappy. Average length of a story on broadcast nightly news in the United States: 138 seconds, including the anchor’s introduction.

Does anyone really doubt this? It slaps every European visitor to the USA in the face as soon as they turn on an American television. It slaps me in the face every time I return to the U.S. When I traveled throughout the U.S. with European friends in the summer of 2001, they were amazed to see that every channel they switched to, in every hotel we stayed in (and in the waiting rooms and restaurants that had televisions blaring into them), the story was…Chandra Levy. Yes, Chandra Levy.

There was, of course, lively debate on American television. 30-minute shoutfests like Crossfire or Hannity & Colmes, which routinely degenerated into high-decibel crosstalk. Or Bill O’Reilly. My European friends asked me politely: when do we see the real debates? Where are the 90-minute documentaries about rise of China, or illegal immigration, or tax policy? They exist, I said, but you have to hunt for them. And they won’t be 90 minutes long. And they will almost always be interrupted by loud commercial breaks every 8 minutes, because almost every channel on mainstream American television is commercial.

Now let’s switch to Germany. Over half of the 30 stations on my cable package are publicly-funded, and even the private stations are subject to regulation on their content and the amount of advertising they can broadcast. This is because the German government regards the public airwaves as critical public resources. As in the United States, the overwhelming majority of Germans gets news and information mainly from television. Not from blogs, not from intellectual journals, but from TV. Because it’s so important, Germany takes care to ensure a substantial public presence on the airwaves. In fact, until 1983, there were no private broadcasters available in Germany whatsoever, and many people still lament the introduction of private television. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean Germans are spellbound every night by 4-hour interviews of Juergen Habermas. It does make a big difference, though. When is the last time you saw, on any American for-profit television station, a 90 60-minute [Correction courtesy of lurker] debate between politicians and experts — virtually uninterrupted by commercials — in which an important aspect of public policy was discussed?  And in which each of the participants was permitted to make points, uninterrupted, for 2 or 3 minutes? This happens every single week on German public television, on the Sabine Christiansen show. Germans love to malign the Sabine Christiansen show, which is, of course, far from perfect. However, in depth and sophistication, it easily surpasses anything on offer on American for-profit television. And about 3-4 million Germans watch it every single week. Plus, it has many imitators. The only comparable program on American television is the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the staid old public broadcasting news show, which is watched nightly by 2.7 million people, in a country of 300 million.

Or how about Das philosophische Quartett, which Marek recently linked to? Can you imagine any for-profit American television station routinely hosting a show in which a bunch of untelegenic writers talk for an hour about some complex aspect of public policy? Keep in mind that this show is broadcast on ordinary television (not some hifalutin’ intellectual channel), and has achieved an audience of up to 800,000 viewers.

Briefly put: the amount and ease of access to reasonably sophisticated, in-depth information and analysis about current events in Germany is much greater than it is in the U.S. This means there is a much broader dispersal of information to the entire population. Once again, let me emphasize I’m talking about broad-based, mass public education here. In any given country, including the U.S., only the educated elites use blogs. They have the leisure time, the desire, and often the financial incentive to inform themselves fully. But when it comes to broad-based political decisions, they don’t call the shots — a  majority of the voters does. And, in America, they’re ignorant of many critical facts. This wouldn’t matter so much in a smaller country, but in the world’s most powerful nation, the ignorance and shallowness of the average voter becomes a problem for the whole world.

* Note that Bryan Caplan, Ilya Somin, and Tyler Cowen (who provided the link to the Caplan book) are all American economics or law professors on the libertarian right wing of the political spectrum (I’ll call them the "Libertarian Economists"). Why are they all describing and lamenting the ignorance of the American voter? To put it bluntly, because they feel average voters endorse stupid economic policies. Policies such as heedless expansion of governement benefits, protectionism, punitive corporate regulations, crisis-driven policy-making. Things that, from their perspective, make little economic sense. Perhaps they’re right about some of this.

But I’d just like to note that the ignorance of the American voter also spells disaster from the left side of the spectrum. We’ve seen how easy it was for members of the Bush Administration to squelch or sideline opposition to the Iraq War. (Caplan, in his splendid essay, notes that "in foreign policy, similarly, we have the "rally round the flag" effect, the public’s tendency to support wars as soon as they have been declared."  But then, Libertarians tend to be anti-war…)

Further, if my theory holds, European voters are better-informed than American voters, and Caplan says they’re more rational. They also overwhelmingly support welfare-state policies. Perhaps nobody can prove whether there’s a connection between these two facts, but I think there is. Rational voters can certainly conclude that somewhat higher taxes, a bit less economic growth and a bit more bureaucracy is a reasonable trade-off for guaranteed health care, generous unemployment benefits, protection against firing, 6 weeks of paid vacation per year, and various other subsidies large and small.

In almost all European societies, voters endorse exactly such a trade-off. In my experience, you can find many Europeans who grumble about one or the other aspect of the welfare state. However, the number of Europeans who openly advocate dismantling it altogether is miniscule. Not even the ‘conservatives,’ not even the business leaders, not even the small entrepreneurs want this. There are no political parties that advocate a dismantling of the welfare state. Even the ones that advocate serious reform get no more than about 10% of the vote, max.

So, put another way, the question is: Can 50 million Frenchmen be wrong?

7 thoughts on “Me Vote for Pretty Candidate!

  1. I don’t really know enough about US political discourse, so I can’t give you an educated opinion about that (though the average German probably couldn’t tell you the design of our political system either, at least not in any detail). Just to offer a small correction: ‘Sabine Christiansen’ is not a 90-minute show, it’s 60 minutes (dito Thursday’s Illner, and Tuesday’s Maischberger lasts 75 minutes). There *is* a 90-minute debate show on German television, and it’s the best of them all, in my opinion: Frank Plasberg’s little talk. Unlike the truly somewhat light-weight ‘Christiansen’, ‘Hart aber fair’ is almost universally praised, too, by those that watch the thing. Last I checked Plasberg’s going to be punished for that by being pushed to 10pm before the year is out.

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  2. It wasn’t Don who wrote that post, but I, Paul.

    That there is a channeling of or obfuscation of political information in the U.S., as there is in other countries, including Germany, is beyond debate. I find the practices of the current Washington administration particularly blatant in this regard. The “rally-around-the-flag” effect, the implicit conditioning of public opinion in appeals to patriotism to assert illegitimate interests, should have been dismissed right from the beginning as what it is: demagoguery.

    The paucity of American television programming also “slaps me in the face” when I’m in the U.S. It is very worrying and, no question, it impacts American voting behavior.

    When I was residing in Connecticut in 2001-2002, I thought the country was entering very troubled waters. To call the general public response to 9/11 inappropriate is an understatement. Sure, there were lots of flags waving; stirring letters to the editor; public avowals of undying patriotism. But which portion of the population was sending its young to fight the Iraq War? And the other, wealthier, portion, what were they doing? Preparing their children for college, driving their SUVs, watching “24” in the security of their suburban homes, while uncritically applauding Bush’s every move? Did they have any inkling of the reality of warfare or were they all wrapped up in their media pseudo-reality? Kosinski’s “Being There” was more prophetic than anyone could ever have imagined.

    But I digress. “The difference in quality and depth of information available to the average person in those countries and in the U.S. is sobering.” If you mean the news rack at the local drugstore in Middletown America, I agree, with some qualification. But the larger-circulating media in Germany still include publications like “Bild” or “Stern,” and to call these and others like them “politically sophisticated” does seem a stretch. And, though there are excellent documentaries and news broadcasts on German television, I find its programming, in general, a wasteland. Or when was the last time you spent an entire evening watching German television, commercials included?

    I note that you distinguish in your recent post between mass and specialized media. I was writing about the latter, where there is a difference between the U.S. and Germany in quality and depth of information. After all, “discourse,” a “formal and orderly and usually extended expression of thought on a subject,” is not likely to occur in mass media.

    Even some of my German friends spend more time reading the “New York Times,” “Foreign Affairs,” the “Atlantic Monthly,” and the many other similar American fora of public political discourse than they do German ones. Such American media, though intended for a small audience (but not necessarily an elite), do offer more breadth and depth.

    Finally, that the average American is misinformed or badly informed in comparison to Europeans is a common trope of anti-Americanism. While there’s some truth to it, it does deserve critical qualification, unless the current, widespread, and abysmally bigoted view of Americans is to continue to reign unchallenged.

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  3. I’m not going to argue the fact that too many Americans don’t know enough about the way their federal government works or that American TV could be a whole lot better. However, I think you are being a bit optimistic about what your average German knows.

    First, let me note that most of your examples are from the federal level. As we all know, the Bundesregierung is far more important for everyday life in Germany than Washington is for Americans, so there is a slight smell of oranges among the apples: Sales tax is federal in Germany, state and local in the USA. Germans don’t even understand the concept of school districts, let alone have that sort of influence (I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is good or bad). Germany has little direct democracy and doesn’t elect very many officials. Ask them what percentage of their taxes is “school tax” or who the police chief of their city is, even in some big place like Berlin. The federal level is simply less important to John Doe than it is to Max Mustermann, so we can expect them to know less.

    However, even at the federal level there are lot of questions I think you will find are tricky. Ask a German how many seats his state has in the Bundesrat. How do those people get chosen? How long do they get to serve? Which laws exactly does the Bundesrat have a say on? Note that this has just changed dramatically as part of the Förderalismusreform, without any great public debate on the dangers of slowly moving towards a one-chamber system like Britain; most Germans don’t even seem to be aware what actually did change. Oh, and what parts of German democracy are dismantled during wartime, the Verteidigungsfall?

    But if you really want to see public education in action, ask them about the EU.

    Ask a German, any German, to draw a model of how the EU government works. What is the difference between the Rat der Europäischen Union, the Europäischer Rat, the Europäische Kommission and the Europarat? If you can actually find somebody who knows which one of these is not connected to the others, and why, ask them why they use the same flag then. And just what is the difference between the Vertreter für Außenpolitik (Solana) and the Außenkommissarin (Ferrero-Waldner)? Do they do the same thing? Who gets sent where? Why? Describe how Europe makes all those laws that affect every single German every day. How does their representative in the European parliament initiate a bill (yes, that is a trick question).

    And for real fun, ask them to explain the new European constitution. Can the elected members of parliament now finally initiate bills? If they don’t, who does?

    You can have all kind of fun and games with these questions. Ask a German to go around the map: Who is the prime minister of Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Austria, the Czeck – Czek – Tzeck – (okay, skip that one), and Poland?

    So yes, Americans could and should know a whole lot more about their political system. However, so should Germans. American media could be better, but then so could German media — and lets not forget that you don’t have to know a foreign language as an American for alternative sources like the BBC or the Times of India.

    Depressing, yes. But then there is that saying about democracy not being a good system, just better than all the others.

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  4. @ Tim

    That you wouldn’t want to spend an entire evening watching German television is precisely the point.

    Critique shouldn’t be anti, you’re quite right. Not my intention to call Andrew anti-American, but the naive American, victim of corporate media–as opposed to the politically sophisticated European, benefactor of an unbiased press–is in fact a cliché often encountered in anti-Americanism.

    I still haven’t lost my faith in the American democratic process. Nor in the common sense of voting Americans.

    By the way, the politically sophisticated Germans in Bremen have just given their vote of confidence to the Left Party, a vehicle of former East German communists.”We are now a federal German force, and Bremen proves that,” says one of the Left Party’s leaders, Gregor Gysi, who is said to have been a Stasi collaborator from 1978 to 1989.

    “The average American voter is incredibly ignorant.” On verra.

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  5. “It wasn’t Don who wrote that post, but I, Paul.”

    Indeed it was. I read the older post but discoverd I had little to say because of lack of data. Had the post alledged the average German was more rational than the average American I might have differed (based upon my own limited experiences) but I read the piece carefully and it seemed to be referring to the Nordic countries – where I have never lived. I visited Norway once for a week. So I wouldn’t know.

    I often find stereotypes like these questionable – particularly self-congratulatory stereotypes – but this seems to be something else.

    There is a movement to build up something called the ‘Nordic model’ in economics as an alternative to the ‘US model’ (in lieu to the ‘Continental model’ which is often considered to have large failings. There may be good evidence that the ‘Nordic model’ may have worked well in the past but present evidence is not quite so compelling. Norway (with it’s oil revenues) is an outlier. I would argue that Sweden is a better test of the model. One thing about the Nordic model – these are very small countries with highly cohesive populations during the periods being measured. Recent data from these countries are more mixed as the populations have become more diverse. This could be a statistical aberation or it could be significant – it’s not yet certain.

    I recall a discussion several years ago in which Swedish per-capita incomes were found comparable to those in the US state of Mississippi, either a little ahead or a little behind depending on the source. All very good for Sweden – except that Mississippi is not generally regarded as an economic leader in the US. It may be the bottom state, certainly among the bottom 3 or 4 among the 50 states along with Alabama and Arkansas. Is this what continental Europe is aiming for – Mississippi-level average living standards? 😉

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  6. “Further, if my theory holds, European voters are better-informed than American voters, and Caplan says they’re more rational. They also overwhelmingly support welfare-state policies.”

    Hmmmm. You are propounding a theory of absolutes here, Andrew. The absolute in this being that European-style welfare state is an absolute good and that European acceptance of this obvious fact makes them somehow better informed.

    Hmmm. I have two objections to this interesting assumption.

    A) Better for whom? Better for everyone everywhere (including the whole of Asia, Latin America, and Africa (or at least the bits that can afford it)? That would be a rather sweeping assertion to make given that much or most of Asia would qualify (certainly all of the affluent countries and arguably China and India), Lating America (certainly Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Chile and possibly others), and some portions of Africa (South Africa and Libya certainly).

    Or are we merely asserting that it would be better for the US and if the US citizenry weren’t such an ignorant bunch of rednecks we would clearly recognize it. Overlooking that US per-capita incomes are perhaps 40% higher than all European countries with the possible exception of outliers like Switzerland and Luxemborg. Could not a strong case be made that Americans know American conditions better than most Europeans do?

    B) The second objection I might raise is whether the average Northern European voter is better-informed about the rational choices.

    Might they merely be better informed about the advantages of the European model welfare state – and less informed about the disadvantages of this model? As in the US might there be a whole lot more gut feeling logic (as in the ‘American’ model being ‘unthinkable’ or ‘evil’) and less rational thought here? The generous benefits in Europe seem less well-funded than the benefits in the US. Although US benefits are scarcely a model of suatainability – the figures I see for the continental welfare systems make the US look rational and restrained in comparison. Only in that sense however.

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