Essay – Ignorance: An Undemocratic Threat from Above

August 2, 2021

Nicola Fincham, Final Year Student, Politics and International Relations BSc, University of Bristol


Debate surrounding the role of ignorance in politics has long been prevalent, but since the Brexit vote of 2016 and President Trump’s election that same year, academics and the mainstream media have cited our entrance into a new, post-truth era of heightened societal ignorance (d’Ancona, 2017; Peters, 2017; McIntyre, 2018). In regard to the United States, questions have centred around how ignorant the demos really are, and the extent to which this threatens their ability to participate effectively in the democratic process (Held, 2006: 97). Conventionally, our progression into the post-truth era has been blamed on an ignorant middle class, whose political actions are inspired by emotion and opinion rather than factual understanding and debate (Hofstadter, 1964; Gilens, 2001; Bartels, 2008; Nelson, 2010; Bartels 2020). The demos have thus been scapegoated as a threat to democracy, which relies upon critical thinking and political understanding from all voters (Held, 2006: 85). However, this narrative is flawed in its ‘bottom-heavy’ understanding of the origins of societal ignorance, overlooking the active role played by elites (McGoey, 2019: 8). In this work I will address the question of who is to blame for rising political ignorance in the United States, demonstrating that it is those political and media elites condemning the ignorant masses who are in fact intentionally feeding ignorance into society for their own private gain. I will first demonstrate that ignorance stands as a strong force within the demos and analyse the threat that this poses to traditional democratic ideals. I will then assess how conventional understandings of education and societal hierarchy have allowed for the uneducated to be blamed as the root cause of societal ignorance, before finally embarking on an analysis of its true origins from political and media elites, challenging our traditional understanding of education as the key to fighting ignorance.



Ignorance as a Force Within the Demos

In academic literature, there has been ‘overwhelming evidence’ of the pervasive ignorance of ordinary American citizens, the majority of which are found to fall far below general criteria of adequate voter knowledge (Somin, 1998: 414). While I argue that the American middle-class are not to blame for this trend, it is a strong force nonetheless which must be recognised. The first opinion surveys on voter attitudes and actions in the 1950s – conducted by Paul Lazarsfeld at Colombia University – found that voting behaviour among ordinary citizens was driven largely by wishful thinking and emotional conviction as opposed to rational argument and political understanding (Bartels, 2008:45). More recent attempts have been made to undermine this theory of pervasive ignorance; in the 1970s The Changing American Voter conveyed the collective view of several academics that American voters were less ignorant than previous surveys had suggested (Nie et al., 2013). However, the studies cited in this work were understood to have produced skewed results by the nature of the questions being asked, and when the same respondents were presented with the questions employed in the earlier studies, similar results emerged (Bartels, 2008: 46). Decades on, there is well documented evidence that these trends have stood the test of time (Gilens, 2001: 379; Bartels, 2008: 46). For example, in 1998, only 28% of US citizens surveyed who had been ranked as ‘fully informed’ were aware that crime rates in the US were falling (Gilens, 2001: 380). In more recent events, the 2021 Storming of the Capitol was inspired by widespread belief that the presidential election results were fraudulent, despite all evidence suggesting otherwise (Chace, 2021). Nuanced analysis, therefore, is not necessary to recognise the existence of societal ignorance in the US, both historically and in contemporary times. What must be debated is the impact that this ignorance has on democracy, and the extent to which the demos can be blamed for their lack of political understanding.



Ignorance as a Threat to Democracy

While the existence of societal ignorance has been identified, Bartels highlights the important question of whether this is such a bad thing (Bartels, 2008: 44). The answer is found in the impact that widespread ignorance has on the democratic process, a key example of which is the role that ignorance plays in preventing voters from expressing their true will in formal democratic processes. Political engagement is crucial to a liberal democracy, and America’s representative democracy is designed so that representatives can reflect the will of the electorate expressed in their votes (Held, 2006: 77). However, studies on voter ignorance have found evidence that some voters struggle to reflect their true will in elections as a result of political ignorance (Bartels, 2008: 46-49). In How Voters Decide, Richard Lau and David Redlawsk found that a large majority of voters could successfully vote ‘correctly’ – expressing their will in accordance with fully informed preferences (Lau and Redlawsk, 2006: 263). The decisions of those who did not vote correctly can be judged, as more political information is absorbed, to realign with the decisions of better-informed voters with similar interests, implying a lack of information was initially preventing these individuals from expressing their true will (Bartels, 2008: 47). These misinformed voters amount to approximately 3% of the popular vote, thus potentially having the power to swing close elections (Bartels, 2008: 47). Based on this evidence, one can conclude that the results of the 1980, 1982, 1988 and 1992 presidential elections may have been different had voters been better informed (Bartels, 2008: 47). Classical models of democracy reflect a commitment to enact the will of the people through government, and debate surrounds how best the government can serve the will of the people (Held, 2006: 159). However, this analysis shows that people’s ability to express their will in the first place is under threat from ignorance (Somin, 1998: 413-414). If the legitimacy of this core first step in the democratic process – voting – is under threat, therefore, it is clear that ignorance must be addressed as a crucial hurdle in the way of true democracy.


Ignorance also threatens key values which are associated with a democratic demos, and in turn, the commitment of the demos to democracy as a whole. The pluralist democracy which the US is committed to today is dependent on tolerance and reasoned debate (Held, 2006: 162). However, ignorance can impact the quality of political debate, inspiring the centrality of emotion – particularly fear – as opposed to reason and understanding. A key example of this can be identified in the right wing (although one must note that ignorance is experienced across the political spectrum); there is a feeling of dispossession within the modern right wing in the US, who believe that America and American virtues are being ‘lost’ to minorities (Hofstadter, 1964: np). This fear is identifiable in Samuel Huntington’s work, which expresses a core belief that American cultural values are under siege from Hispanic immigrants, whose population in the US are overwhelming cultural values and draining government funding (Citrin et al., 2007: np). Huntington’s conviction is reflective of wider ignorance about the number of immigrants in the US, the ‘foreign’ cultural values they impose, and the amount of state funding they are utilising (Hopkins et al., 2019: np). Statistics from 2020 find that immigrants (the US foreign-born population) make up only 13.7% of the US population – reflecting a recent increase but still falling below historical highs – and that the highest number of immigrants are coming in from China, as opposed to Latin America as popular rhetoric suggests (Budiman, 2020: np). Furthermore, evidence indicates an impressive speed of assimilation from Mexican immigrants in terms of cultural adoption, notably in the case of embracing the English language in place of Spanish (Citrin et al. 2007: np). The fears inspired by an overestimation of the number and power of immigrants in the US provoke notable intolerance in political discourse; Hofstadter describes American political debate as ‘an arena for angry minds’, where extreme fears from the ‘dispossessed’ modern right wing inspires prejudiced approaches to debate (Hofstadter, 1964: np). Taken further, these fears have provoked a rejection of democracy as a whole; in a 2020 survey, over 40% of Republicans believed that they needed to “take the law into their own hands” in order to protect the traditional American way of life from those minorities trying to steal it, understanding conventional democratic processes as being insufficient in the face of such a crisis (Bartels, 2020: np). One turns again to the example of the 2021 Capitol Riots, an undemocratic attack which was believed by its participants to be the only route left through which true democracy could be enacted. Interestingly, Bartels found in his survey that the issue most likely to spark these undemocratic sentiments was concern about the growing number of African American and Latino immigrants in the US (Bartels, 2020: np). One can identify ignorance, therefore, as a root causal factor in the diminishing of democratic values of tolerance in political debate within the demos and, in extreme circumstances, the mistrust and rejection of the whole democratic process.



Traditional Scapegoating of the Middle Class

The demos have been historically scapegoated for the undemocratic ignorance that they convey, this blame stemming from traditional understandings of education and knowledge. A historical association between political ignorance and incompetence and the less educated can be identified in American political theory (Lippmann, 1946; Schumpeter, 1947; Converse, 2006); the model of representative democracy employed in the US is based upon the idea that political representatives, by nature of rising to their position, have the ability to best exercise informed judgement on behalf of their electorate (Held, 2006: 85). This is based on a utilitarian understanding that those better educated are by default more competent and less likely to express ignorance – an understanding which Linsey McGoey believes ‘over-values’ knowledge as a boundary to ignorance (McGoey, 2019: 8). This traditional mistrust of the electorate – expressed in Mill’s belief that the votes of those less educated should have a disproportionately low sway over election results (Held, 2006: 97) – has persisted throughout history. In discussing the ‘problem’ of ignorance, political scientists and the media have routinely concerned themselves with ill-informed citizens, believed to represent a failure of democracy, whilst disregarding the role of elites in this issue (Schudson, 2000; Brennan, 2016; Crain, 2016; Paul and Haddad, 2019). This approach has stemmed from a general consensus that higher levels of education and success equate to well informed and trustworthy political actors (Somin, 1998: 458). As will be exemplified below, however, the assumption that those highly educated and directly involved in politics are less likely to produce ignorance is flawed, and we should in fact approach the problem of ignorance with a ‘top-heavy’ analysis of its origins (McGoey, 2019: 8).



Strategic Ignorance from Political Elites

Employing Lisa McGoey’s concept of ‘strategic ignorance’, one can identify the extent to which those political elites trusted to be best informed are responsible for intentionally feeding ignorance into society (McGoey, 2019: 1) – their education, whilst lessening ignorance in the sense of lack of knowledge, provides the tools to intentionally employ ignorance for private and political gain, an arguably more dangerous prospect. Strategic ignorance can be employed either defensibly, as a deliberate claim of unknowing in order to avoid responsibility, or offensively, intentionally generating confusion or misleading information in order to facilitate the spread of ignorance (McGoey, 2019: 3). Donald Trump can be understood as the ‘embodiment of elite ignorance’ (McGoey, 2019: 90-91); despite being highly educated and politically successful, he has still openly supported anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, questioned the legitimacy of climate change, and claims he won the 2016 popular vote despite Hillary Clinton winning by almost 3 million votes (McIntyre, 2018: 2). These are but a few examples of the ignorance which characterised Trump’s 2016 election campaign and subsequent presidential rule – yet by traditional educational standards and measures of political knowledge he is deemed highly competent (McGoey, 2019: 93). Thus, one can assume that Trump is not ignorant in the sense of having a lack of knowledge, but rather is employing strategic ignorance to facilitate his political career. For example, despite overwhelming evidence of the existence and urgency of climate change, Trump has referred to it as ‘mythical’, ‘non-existent’, or ‘an expensive hoax’ (Cheung, 2020). Trump’s displays of climate ignorance can be linked to financial interests, particularly in the way of funding from friends in the energy business; in 2020, Kelcy Warren – CEO of Energy Transfer Partners – hosted a fundraiser for Trump’s election campaign raising over $10 million, praising Trump for his retention of the US as ‘as dominant energy-producing nation’ (Tindera, 2020: np). This is not an isolated example; during Trump’s 2020 election campaign, 11 energy billionaires and their spouses donated substantially to the cause (Tindera, 2020: np). The ability of donors to influence politician’s actions is by no means unknown, but what is interesting in this example is the extent to which these influences can inspire deliberate ignorance in the face of proven facts from the person holding the highest political platform in the country – one can identify a clear link between Trump’s displays of climate ignorance and his political and financial motivations.


The employment of strategic ignorance by political elites can be identified throughout history and across the political spectrum (Paul and Haddad, 2019: np). However, our entrance into the ‘post-truth’ era has seen unprecedented levels of political ignorance and a shift away from defensive ignorance towards offensive, blatant lying (McIntyre, 2018: 1). The number of lies told by Trump far exceeds those of previous presidents (Pfiffner, 2018: 1); David Leonhardt of the New York Times identified 103 deliberate lies told by Trump in his first 10 months in office (Leonhardt, 2017). And yet, his public support base is by no means insignificant. The fact that Trump feels comfortable lying on such a scale may be simply because he can get away with it; the sheer amount of political information available today makes impossible for every speech and tweet to be fact-checked in a way that ensures all who heard the original content are made aware of its misleading material (Owen, 2017: np). Thus, the threat posed by strategic ignorance from political elites is stronger now than ever before.



Strategic Ignorance from the Media

Strategic ignorance is additionally employed by media elites for financial gain. The rise of mass media has not only provided endless communication pathways through which political ignorance can reach the demos, but has inspired media corporations to manufacture strategic ignorance – what is known as ‘fake news’.  Academic literature has faced difficulty in defining what constitutes fake news (Berduygina et al., 2019: 123), and Linsey McGoey draws attention to the fact that it is not the fringe media outlets who report clear, provable lies which are dangerous, but the mainstream media who appear to be reporting with honesty and integrity while intentionally omitting key contextual information, who pose the greatest risk of spreading ignorance (McGoey, 2019: 88). New media has emerged since the late 1980s, giving rise to an age of ‘infotainment’ which merges news coverage and entertainment (Owen, 2017: np). Despite providing endless information for the reader, the competitive field of new media has seen a general trend away from fact-based, investigative journalism and towards brash, click-bate articles and ‘alternative facts’ (Owen, 2017: np). These reductionist styles of reporting are driven by economic incentives; now more than ever, news is an economic commodity, and thus seeks to answer questions of what will sell the most rather than what should be reported and how this reporting can be most informative (Hamilton, 2004: 15). Misleading information has been found to spread much more rapidly on social networks than real news (Dizikes, 2018: np), providing monetary incentive, particularly through advertising, for the employment of strategic ignorance in the media. Thus, contemporary politics and the mass media have been defined by a ‘consolidation of post-truth communication’ (Waisbord, 2018: np). Citizens are not only subjected to intentional information shortcuts and often misleading or misrepresentative ‘newsworthy’ reporting, but the extensive ways through which media outlets can reach the eyes of voters, and the ease through which news echo chambers can be formed, means that citizens are ever increasingly exposed to the strategic ignorance being manufactured by elites (Waisbord, 2018: np).



This piece has worked to identify the strong force of ignorance within the US demos, the threat that this force poses to democracy, and the extent to which its origins are top-heavy. Societal ignorance can be identified in the pervasive lack of political understanding that many American citizens convey. This stands as an important issue given the threats to democracy that ignorance can inspire, both in preventing voters from articulating their true will in elections and inspiring a rejection of core democratic values and at times democracy as a whole. Our entrance into the new age of ‘post-truth’ politics means that it is now more important than ever that we assign appropriate responsibility for the persistent ignorance which taints US politics. While ordinary, less educated American citizens certainly convey high levels of political ignorance, this lack of knowledge is inspired from above, and is disproportionately feared by academics and mainstream media. What stands as a larger threat is the intentional employment of strategic ignorance by political and media elites which seems to go largely unchecked. The contemporary emphasis on this issue may be reflective of new media developments, which allow endless routes for strategic ignorance to be fed into society through and inspire irresponsible media coverage. Based on traditional, utilitarian prioritising of knowledge and education in society, we have become complacent in assuming that highly educated elites are the embodiment of knowledge and understanding. It is in fact their education and deep political understanding which allows them to utilise ignorance in such a dangerous way, exploiting their influential roles in the minds of less educated citizens, and exacerbating societal ignorance for the purposes of monetary or political gain.







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