NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are Americans Too Dumb for Democracy?

June 21, 2012

Of late, there has been a spate of articles and op-ed pieces that suggest the answer to the question of whether Americans are too dumb for democracy is an emphatic yes: The majority of Americans are simply too hopelessly ignorant to make the kind of intelligent decisions that are necessary to preserve a healthy democratic system, says author Lee Harris.

A team of psychologists working under Dr. David Dunning of Cornell University concluded after researching the topic that "very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don't have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is."

  • For example, because it takes an expert in taxation to intelligently assess the worth of a proposed tax reform, the average person will obviously lack the competence to make a judgment on the reform in question.
  • Worse, he will lack the ability to recognize who the actual experts in the field are, leaving him vulnerable to political charlatans who will appeal to his emotions and not his reason.

There are a number of reasons, however, to believe that Americans' supposed ignorance will not spell the doom of democracy.

  • The research team presumes that the promotion of dumb ideas is the true danger to democracies.
  • Dumb ideas, however, are not the property solely of the ignorant.
  • Rather, numerous incredibly intelligent people have held incredibly dumb ideas, often influencing vast multitude to their point of view.
  • Therefore, an ignorant population in and of itself poses no direct danger.

The Cornell research team would likely be quick to respond that an ignorant population, nevertheless, is more susceptible to malicious manipulation by demagoguery and hyper-partisan characters.

  • It bears mention that this was once the case in American history, when the learned elite believed that Andrew Jackson's election by the ill-informed common man spelled the end for democracy.
  • However, despite his bully tactics as president, Jackson still stepped down after two terms and American democracy survived.

This speaks to the most important point contradicting the researchers' conclusion: our population is (arguably) no more ignorant now than at any time in our history.  That our democracy persists suggests that the ignorance of the population is not as fatal to democracy as the researchers suggest.

Source: Lee Harris, "Are Americans Too Dumb for Democracy?" The American, June 9, 2012.

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