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?