Essay – The Role Ignorance Plays in US Politics

September 13, 2021

Grace Williamson-Beare, Final Year Student, Politics and International Relations BSc, University of Bristol




Levels of ignorance in the US are worrying. Frequently, citizens confuse the different policy preferences of the Democrats and the Republicans and only 50% of survey respondents knew who controlled the Senate before a recent election (Somin, 2004a: 1319; Somin, 2004b: 7). With ignorance evidently being common in the US it becomes important to explore the role this prevalent concept plays in politics. Ignorance, as a general topic of study, has not been neglected in academia. However, for the most part, the literature has focussed on either rational irrationality or ignorance’s impact on levels of democracy and the resulting implications for the ideal role of government (Bartels, 2008; Landauer, 2015; Somin, 1998).  This essay will look into a lesser-explored side of ignorance: its role in inequality. Inequality is still rife in the US. Hispanic and black citizens are more likely to suffer from unemployment and the poverty rates of these groups continue to be over double the rates of poverty of white citizens (BSL, 2019; Creamer 2020). Studying inequality remains crucial, allowing us to better understand it and tackle it from the roots. This essay will argue that ignorance prevents equality from prevailing, perpetuating inequality. Exploring how this occurs is the first stage to overcoming this obstacle to equality.


Ignorance exerts influence over many aspects of politics. Accordingly, it indirectly impacts equality through multiple routes. Four of these routes will be explored. Sections I and II will consider how ignorance has a damaging effect on tolerance levels and participation levels, respectively, which prevents equality from prevailing when it may have been able to. In section III the relationship between ignorance and decreasing levels of democratic accountability is examined, which not only prevents equality but also generates more inequality. Finally, the positive relationship between high levels of ignorance and more frequent use of information shortcuts is considered in section IV. Again, this prevents equality from being achieved. When studying these relationships this essay uses the Standard View of ignorance, which defines ignorance as a lack of knowledge (Kubyshkina and Petrolo, 2020: 247). In numerous instances, the knowledge being referred to is political. However, this is not always the case, particularly when considering tolerance in section I. Furthermore, at times, a lack of education is discussed in regards to a lack of knowledge, as correlations have been found between levels of schooling and ignorance (Pasek et al., 2014: 485; Bobo and Licari, 1989: 292). Using these definitions, this essay argues that ignorance has a variety of different roles in US politics that significantly change how political activity is conducted by citizens and government officials. These can be explored individually but when considered collectively ignorance has the overarching role of perpetuating inequalities in the US, and in some cases creating them.


I) Tolerance


Tolerance is an indispensable value for a healthy democratic public and is linked to both ignorance and equality. Through tolerance ignorance influences levels of equality in the US. Studies have found that decreasing ignorance causes citizen’s tolerance levels to increase (Carpini and Keeter, 1996: 211; Bobo and Licari, 1989: 285). Multiple theories attempt to explain this relationship. The first explanation is that knowledge increases exposure to diverse views, primarily through education (Carpini and Keeter, 1996: 221). As this exposure increases, citizens gain a better understanding and empathy for other groups, even if their views differ, resulting in increased levels of tolerance for those groups. The second explanation asserts that knowledge and education increases cognitive sophistication. Bobo and Licari’s regression analysis supported this claim, finding that education did increase tolerance levels and that cognitive sophistication accounted for a proportion of that increase (Bobo and Licari, 1989: 303). This is a result of cognitive sophistication promoting mental processes such as reasoning and commitment to values to develop which in turn leads to tolerance developing. With this relationship between lack of tolerance and ignorance being well established, ignorance in US citizens becomes problematic as it becomes an obstacle to tolerance. Therefore, one role ignorance plays in US politics is producing a less tolerant citizenry.


This can be further explored as tolerance has a wide effect on US politics. Tolerance levels have repeatedly been linked to supporting practices of equality. White people have historically been ignorant and blind to issues of racism and colonialism (Jungkunz and White, 2013: 439). For example, white house members have weaker support for minority interests and spend less time advocating their interests and introducing related legislation than house members from racial minorities do (Minta and Sinclair-Chapman, 2012; 128). However, white people are more likely to support these policies when tolerance increases (Carpini and Keeter, 1996: 248). Moreover, Carpini and Keeter found that increasing knowledge increases tolerance and support for policies preventing bias against homosexual citizens (1996: 248). The consequence of these tolerant views would be significant. Support for these disadvantaged groups would translate into voting for candidates that would support and fight for these issues of inequality. Those candidates are consequently more likely to win their elections and take a governmental position where they can advocate for those policies to be enacted. Policies addressing inequality are therefore more likely to be passed when tolerance levels are higher. However, with levels of ignorance remaining high, tolerance levels are hampered, preventing this scenario of combatting inequality from transpiring. This highlights the severity of ignorance in the US: it is hindering these potential advancements in equality and therefore has a role in perpetuating inequality.


II) Participation                                         


Participation levels are another strong influence on equality in the US, making it worrying that ignorance negatively affects them. There has been overwhelming evidence, both historically and recently, that citizens who fall into the categorisation of ignorant are less likely to participate in political activities, such as voting or contacting a public official (Sondheimer and Green, 2010; Verba and Nie, 1972).  Carpini and Keeter (1996: 224) outline two explanations for this correlation. Firstly, knowledge promotes civic values and attitudes in citizens. Citizens gain a better understanding of why political participation is important and relevant to them, increasing the likelihood that they will participate. Secondly, those with more political knowledge are better informed about how to participate. They are more aware of participatory opportunities, such as local campaigns and groups, and the logistics of getting involved, such as how to register to vote or who to contact about local issues. It is simply easier for those who are more knowledgeable to participate. The prominent existence of ignorance in the citizenry discourages this. Instead, ignorance plays the role of creating a less active political population in the US.


Inequality can be strongly influenced by levels of participation; increasing participation brings the US closer to equality. For example, it is traditionally poorer citizens who do not participate in voting (Leighley and Nagler, 2013: 38). With citizens who vote being primarily wealthier citizens, there will be a disproportionate level of representation for their interests in government. This is increasingly problematic when one considers that those at the lower end of the income spectrum in the US are more likely to be people of colour and other groups who have historically faced many inequalities (Creamer, 2020). Consequently, it is not only support for the interests of poor people that is lacking but also for the interests of people of colour. With there being a lack of representation for these issues in government, it is less likely that policies to overcome these inequalities will be passed. Efforts towards equality are slowed. If ignorance had not played this role of decreasing participation and knowledge was greater poorer citizens would have been more likely to vote, increasing government support for their interests and issues. As a result of ignorance, participation is impeded and potential efforts towards equality are delayed.


The impact of participation on equality is not limited to voting; participating in local groups and events also influences levels of equality. Those who are more knowledgeable are also more likely to get involved through groups or local government (Carpini and Keeter, 1995: 224). This participation diversifies the people and views to which citizens are exposed. As discussed above, this increases tolerance which, more importantly, increases support for different groups and beliefs, bringing us closer to achieving equality. Moreover, the variety of backgrounds that citizens may be exposed to in new groups include differing economic backgrounds. As poorer people mix with richer people, the likelihood that they will vote increases (Bartle, Birch and Skirmuntt, 2017: 41). This mitigates some of the issues discussed above and would increase their representation in government. As a result of both of these scenarios, voting for candidates who support policies to address inequality will increase. Therefore, equality can be more easily accomplished when participation increases. Yet this cannot occur with the current levels of ignorance dragging down levels of participation. Again, ignorance has inhibited potential important improvements in equality, consolidating its role in perpetuating inequality in the US.


III) Democratic accountability


As stated earlier, much of the literature surrounding ignorance in the US concerns its impact on levels of democracy in the US. One aspect of these studies into democracy can be considered in relation to both ignorance and inequality. This is democratic accountability. The idea explored here is that ignorant citizens allow democratic accountability to fall which in turn decreases equality. For the last decade concerns that democratic accountability is decreasing have been expressed by scholars, with undemocratic practices becoming increasingly frequent in government (Bermeo, 2016: 13; Levitsky and Ziblatt, 2019). Part of this loss of accountability can be owed to the high level of ignorance. Citizens who suffer from a lack of political knowledge lose the ability to hold government and officials to account (Kennedy, 2019: 420). Due to being unaware of the different roles, responsibilities and processes involved in politics, they do not know, for example, how to begin the process to lodge a complaint or raise an issue. This reduces the possible routes for accountability, herby letting government officials get away with undemocratic practices with fewer repercussions. This lack of accountability becomes increasingly severe when the correlation between ignorance and abstaining from voting is considered. Elections are a simple method of holding officials to account. With officials being reliant on citizens votes to be re-elected into their role, it is rational for them to comply with citizens interests and act democratically. However, as ignorant citizens are less likely to vote, officials can get away with undemocratic practices without being held accountable by as many citizens in elections. Furthermore, ignorant citizens are less likely to be aware that an official’s actions were undemocratic due to their lack of political knowledge, so will not take this into account even if they do vote. Overall, ignorance makes routes for accountability less accessible for citizens, herby playing a role in restricting the level of democratic accountability in the US.


This loss of democratic accountability has ensuing ramifications on equality. Those who are unknowledgeable are disadvantaged compared to those who have a high level of political knowledge. They are more likely to be affected by undemocratic practices as officials can evade repercussions since these ignorant citizens are less likely to hold officials accountable. It must not be overlooked that those who have lower levels of political knowledge and are less likely to vote tend to be those who are already victims of inequality in the US, such as citizens in lower wealth percentiles and ethnic minorities (Leighley and Nagler, 2013: 38, Levinson, 2010: 322). This worsens inequality. For example, the implementation of ID laws for voter registration disproportionately affects citizens from a lower socio-economic background (Grimmer et al., 2018: 1045). This voter suppression is one of the most frequent forms of undemocratic processes in the US (Graham and Svolik, 2020: 394). Therefore, these already-disadvantaged groups are more at risk of having their civil rights taken away from them in practice, further exacerbating existing inequalities in the US. This supports Kennedy’s assertion that ignorance breeds civic inequality (Kennedy, 2019: 427). If levels of knowledge were higher, the government would have to be more accountable for their actions and would not take these civic liberties. Until this is the case, the role of ignorance in US politics extends from not only maintaining inequality but also causing more inequality.


IV) Information shortcuts


Ignorance promotes the use of information shortcuts, which has a damaging effect on equality in the US. Information shortcuts allow citizens to make quick judgements and are most frequently used by unknowledgeable citizens (McDermott, 1998: 895). With the abundance of information available to citizens, from news sources to elite’s opinions to government documents, it can take a long time to analyse it all and form opinions. Information shortcuts negate the need to do this. Shortcuts used by citizens include trusting the opinion of your preferred party’s leader or a knowledgeable friend, or an expert in that field (Christiano, 2015: 259-260). Voters with lower levels of knowledge benefit from information shortcuts in two ways. Firstly, shortcuts allow ignorant citizens to easily form opinions on issues despite their lack of political knowledge. Secondly, as previously discussed, education increases one’s cognitive sophistication. Therefore, ignorant citizens with lower levels of cognitive sophistication cannot analyse the large amounts of information as easily as a more educated citizen could. Overall, information shortcuts are a more accessible alternative for ignorant citizens. Consequently, ignorance plays a role in how citizens form opinions, including political opinions, and increases the use of information shortcuts in the US.


By increasing the usage of information shortcuts, ignorance prevents equality from prevailing in the US. One frequently used information shortcut is that female and black electoral candidates are perceived as liberal, regardless of their political positioning (McDermott, 1998: 895). Consequently, it was found that conservative voters are less likely to prefer female and black candidates (McDermott, 1998: 911). This becomes concerning for equality when considering that more educated citizens are liberal-leaning and ignorant voters are conservative-leaning (Pew Research Center, 2016). If citizens were more knowledgeable instead of relying on information shortcuts, conservative black and female candidates may perform better as they would be judged on their views and not be stereotyped. However, while ignorance persists in the US, black and female candidates will receive fewer votes due to information shortcuts alienating conservative voters. As a result, ignorance is perpetuating the already-existing gap in gender and racial representation in government (Rodgers, 2020; Schoen and Dzhanova, 2020). This not only prevents equality in representation but also will influence the policies that are passed through Congress. Minority officials are louder advocates of policies addressing minorities issues and female officials are more likely to support policies addressing issues considered to be women’s issues (Minta and Sinclair-Chapman, 2012: 128; Barnella and Bratton, 2007: 23). Without the representation of these groups in government, support for these policies will decrease and it becomes less likely that they are enacted. The issues of inequality that they targeted will no longer be addressed and the inequality will persist. This is simply one way in which using information shortcuts prevents equality being achieved. Due to promoting the use of information shortcuts, ignorance gives rise to another obstacle to the realisation of equality. Its role in maintaining inequality in the US is reinforced.




The role of ignorance is not limited to one aspect of US politics; it has an extensive impact on how citizens perceive and treat others, their political activity and democratic processes in government. These impacts alone are sizeable and can completely change a citizen’s relationship with politics. These different roles of ignorance in politics are not unfailingly independent; there are many connections between them. Whilst participation can be explored on its own, it is then interesting to note that participation has an ensuing effect on tolerance and democratic accountability. If citizens were more politically active, either in voting or groups such as interest groups, they would be more tolerant and the government would be held more accountable. Ignorance is simultaneously directly affecting tolerance and democratic accountability and indirectly affecting them through its direct effect on participation. Therefore, the role of ignorance cannot be limited to one aspect of politics. However, it is the cumulative effect of these roles that provides the most interesting insight into the role of ignorance in US politics: ignorance perpetuates inequality. Inequality is pervasive in the US and it is unreasonable to claim that ignorance is responsible for all of this. However, through the four different pathways explored, it does have a role in continuing some of this inequality. In some of these routes the existence of ignorance in US politics simply prevents equality from being achieved; it does not actively cause more inequality. This is the case for ignorance in relation to tolerance, participation and information shortcuts. On the other hand, the relationship between ignorance and democratic accountability actively increases inequality as it encourages civic inequalities to develop.


Despite the effect of ignorance on equality being invariably indirect – it always requires the medium of the other concepts explored – the relationship between ignorance and inequality has significant ramifications for US politics. It raises some implications for researching and tackling inequality. If ignorance is a factor in the continuation of inequality then increasing education and knowledge should allow equality to improve. This relies on the assumption that civic education, such as in schools, does work to tackle ignorance. However, studies have found a relationship between increasing the levels of political education a citizen receives and decreasing levels of ignorance (Pasek et al., 2014: 485; Bobo and Licari, 1989: 292). Therefore, policies introducing more political education into the schooling system should be explored as a way to combat ignorance and remove it as an obstacle to equality. Until this happens, or levels of ignorance decrease through an alternative means, ignorance will continue to play the harmful role of perpetuating inequality in the US.




Barnello, Michelle A. and Bratton, Kathleen A. (2007) ‘Bridging the Gender Gap in Bill Sponsorship’, Legislative Studies Quarterly, 32 (3): 449-74.

Bartels, Larry. (2008) ‘The Irrational Electorate’, Wilson Quarterly, 32 (4): 44-50.

Bartle, John, Birch, Sarah and Skirtmutt, Mariana. (2017) ‘The Local Roots of the

Participation Gap: Inequality and Voter Turnout’, Electoral Studies, 48 (1): 30-44.

Bermeo, Nancy. (2016) ‘On Democratic Backsliding’, Journal of Democracy, 27 (1): 5-19.

Bobo, Lawrence and Licari, Frederick C. (1989) ‘Educational and Political Tolerance: Testing the Effects of Cognitive Sophistication and Target Group Affect’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 53 (3): 285-308.

BSL (2019) ‘Labour Force characteristics by race and ethnicity’ [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 5 May 2021].

Carpini, Michael and Keeter, Scott. (1996) What Americans Know about Politics and Why it Matters, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Christiano, Thomas. (2015) ‘Voter Ignorance is not Necessarily a Problem’, A Journal of Politics and Society, 27 (3): 253-69.

Creamer, John (2020) ‘Poverty Rates for Blacks and Hispanics Reached Historic Lows in 2019’, [online] The United States Census Bureau. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 May 2021].

Graham, Matthew H. and Svolik Milan W. (2020) ‘Democracy in America? ‘Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States’, American Political Science Review, 114 (2): 392-409.

Grimmer, Justin, Hersh, Eitan, Meredith, Marc, Mummolo, Jonathan and Nall, Clayton. (2018) ‘Obstacles to Estimating Voter ID Laws’ Effect on Turnout’, The Journal of Politics, 80 (3): 1045-51.

Jungkunz, Vincent and White, Julie. (2013) ‘Ignorance, Innocence, and Democratic Responsibility: Seeing Race, Hearing Racism’, The Journal of Politics, 75 (2): 436-50.

Kennedy, Sheila. (2019) ‘Civic Ignorance and Democratic Accountability’, Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, 51 (2): 419-30.

Kubyshkina, Ekaterina and Petrolo, Mattia (2020) ‘What Ignorance Could Not Be’, Principia, 24 (2): 274-54.

Landaurer, Matthew. (2015) ‘Democracy, Voter Ignorance and the Limits of Foot Voting’, Critical Review, 27 (3): 338-49.

Leighley, Jan E. and Nagler, Jonathan (2014) Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Levinson, Meira. (2010) ‘The Civic Empowerment Gap: Defining the Problem and Locating Solutions’, in Lonnie Sherrod, Judith Torney-Purta, and Constance A. Flanagan (eds) In Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement, Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Levitsky, Steven and Ziblatt, Daniel (2019) How Democracies Die, London: Penguin Books.

Minta, Michael D. and Sinclair-Chapman, Valeria. (2012) ‘Diversity in Political Institutions and Congressional Responsiveness to Minority Interests’, Political Research Quarterly, 66 (1): 127-40.

Monika, McDermott L. (1998) ‘Race and Gender Cues in Low-Information Elections’, Political Research Quarterly, 51 (4): 895-918.

Pasek, Josh, Stark, Tobias, Krosnick, Jon A. and Tompson, Trevor. (2015) ‘What Motivates a Conspiracy Theory? Birther Beliefs, Partisanship, Liberal-Conservative Ideology, and Anti-Black Attitudes’, Electoral Studies, 40 (1): 482-89.

Pew Research Center (2016) ‘A Wider Ideological Gap Between More and Less Educated Adults’, [online] Available at <> [Assessed 11th May 2020].

Rodgers, Lucy. (2020) ‘Women Continue to Change the Face of Politics’, BBC News, 10 November, [online] Available at <> [Accessed 14th May 2020].

Schoen, John W. and Dzhanova, Yelena. (2020) ‘These Two Charts Show the Lack of Diversity in the House and Senate’, CNCB, 2 June, [Online], Available at <> [Accessed 14th May 2020].

Somin, Ilya. (1998) ‘Voter Ignorance and the Democratic Ideal’, Critical Review, 12 (4): 413-58.

Somin, Ilya. (2004a) ‘Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty: A New Perspective on the Central Obsession of Constitutional Theory’, Iowa Law Review, 89 (4): 1287-372.

Somin, Ilya. (2004b) ‘When Ignorance isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy’, Cato Institute Policy Analysis, 525 (1): 1-28.

Sondheimer, Rachel M. and Green, Donald P. (2010) ‘Using Experiments to Estimate the Effects of Education on Voter Turnout’, American Journal of Political Science, 54 (1): 174-189.

Verba, Sidney and Nie, Norman. (1972) Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality, New York: Harper and Row.

%d bloggers like this: