The Convenience of Political Ignorance

The Convenience of Political Ignorance March 19, 2012

Larry Bartels has a very interesting article at YouGov that documents how voter ignorance seems to fall in line with the political positions one takes. Republicans and Democrats alike tend to believe that the facts fit a pattern that is most convenient to their political identification, even when reality is entirely the opposite.

For instance, when asked whether unemployment had increased or decreased a lot or a little:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of this variation in beliefs is attributable to partisan biases. More than 60% of Republicans said that unemployment has increased a lot, while almost as many Democrats said that it has decreased. In both cases, their beliefs were conveniently consistent with their party loyalties.

However, even among the minority of survey respondents with no partisan axe to grind—so-called “pure” independents—there was substantial variation in beliefs, with 45% saying that unemployment has increased, 24% saying that it has decreased, and 31% saying that it has stayed the same. And those differing beliefs are politically consequential: 57% of the second group, but only 20% of the first group, said they approved of Obama’s performance as president.

The reality: Unemployment was 7.9% in January, 2009 and it is now 8.3%. It was also 8.3% in February, 2009, so one could reasonably believe that unemployment has either gone up a little or that there had been no change; any other belief is contrary to the facts.

On the question of whether taxes on the middle class had gone up or down a lot or a little or had stayed the same:

Here, too, people’s beliefs differ greatly, with more than 40% saying that taxes have increased, about 20% saying that they have decreased, and almost 40% saying that the middle-class tax burden has remained unchanged. Again, the disagreement is largely along partisan lines, with more than 70% of Republicans but less than 20% of Democrats saying that the tax burden has increased.

The correct answer to this question is that the tax burden on middle-class Americans has decreased during Obama’s presidency. More than one-third of the 2009 stimulus bill consisted of tax cuts, including expanded tax credits for workers, people with children, college students, homebuyers, and the unemployed. In 2010, Obama proposed and Congress accepted a substantial temporary reduction in the payroll tax, which was recently extended through 2012. Meanwhile, the Bush-era income tax cuts were also extended through 2012. While one might quibble about whether all of this amounts to decreasing the tax burden on middle-class Americans by “a little” or “a lot,” only 20% of the public gave either of those answers.

As with perceptions of unemployment, perceptions of how the tax burden has changed during Obama’s years in office have significant political ramifications. Among “pure” independents (those who do not lean toward either party), Obama’s job approval rating was 52% among those who recognized that the tax burden had decreased, but only 35% among those who thought it was unchanged—and only 17% among those who (wrongly) thought it had increased.

This is why political lies are effective. When conservatives rail about Obama raising taxes, even though he hasn’t, those of us who pay close attention to politics know they’re lying — but most voters don’t. Most voters will believe whatever is most convenient for their political beliefs.

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