We are now in an election cycle with elections next week for municipal officeholders and school board members, and next year for president and Congress. How well are citizens prepared to play the role democracy assigns to them in making considered judgments when casting a vote?
Walter Lippman, a long-time columnist and author of books on public opinion and governing, worried most citizens are unprepared. His view was that people live in the real world, but think in an imagined one. People are willing to admit there are two sides to a question, but they do not believe there are two sides to what they regard as “fact.” As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, you are entitled to your opinions but not to your own facts.
In a political system such as ours, people can be expected to act on behalf of themselves and others, but how can that be if they are out of touch with reality? We know from decades of public opinion research that the general public’s ignorance of political matters and government is high.
It is good to have an opinion about something, but is it an informed opinion? We know uninformed citizens do have opinions, and some speak more loudly than those who are informed, but their view of the world is often at odds with reality.
Political thinking should precede a voter’s decision, and political thinking involves becoming knowledgeable about an issue. People should know something about how the government operates. We need to do this in casting a vote and in forming an opinion about public policy.
Thoughtful individuals can reach different conclusions about the same issue. But recent research indicates faulty perceptions may be multiplying, which is a danger for our democracy.