Are We Inherently Politically Ignorant?

A woman casting her vote during the 2013 Malaysian National Elections.


2016 was filled with many unexpected yet exciting moments, starting with Brexit to the election of President Rodrigo Duterte and finally, Donald Trump leading the Free World. These events brought me to think of the flaws of democracy where Plato, around 2400 years ago, pondered upon the emotion and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians that easily swayed the people. When I was in university, my friends and I discussed ways to overcome such adversities. We thought of setting up written tests to filter those citizens who are not well-informed of the relevant parties’ manifestos. Yet this would not completely remedy the whole setting if we did not at least address the root cause of it, which I believe is the lack of political awareness or, in other words, the political ignorance of voters.

Some commentators suggest that political awareness is a key component of empathy under the umbrella of emotional intelligence. This is put in a very broad sense because political awareness here means understanding the current or hidden agendas in an organisation and particularly the power relationships. But I want to concentrate more in the sense of being sensitive to public policy and the government as well as the agendas that drive politicians forward.

A fundamental cause of ignorance resides in the collective action problem created by the insignificance of any individual vote in determining an electoral outcome. In other words, individual ignorance makes hardly any difference. The issue arises when a substantive number of voters are ill-informed. This is quite observable in areas where there are strong government or opposition bases in which a voter may not have a strong incentive to gather enough information to make an informed choice since whichever way he or she votes, the outcome of the election may not vary much from their expectations.

Now, if you were to throw a stone into a sea of Malaysians around KLCC, it will hit at least one person who is not aware of how many votes it takes to amend the Constitution in Parliament or who is the current president of Gerakan. I believe the same applies if the stone rebounded. Statistics based on a survey conducted in 2012 (I admit that this data is quite outdated but not entirely irrelevant) in Malaysia with around 120 respondents aged between 18 and 25 showed that 90 percent did not know how many seats there are in the Malaysian Parliament. What is surprising (or perhaps not really) is that 54 percent of the respondents received political information through the internet but a staggering 73 percent spent less than 20 percent of their web-browsing time reading the news. Although the sampling pool is relatively small, the results should not be taken lightly as it could be reflective of the overall youths’ understanding of political processes in this country.

On the other hand, the size and scope of today’s modern state are so great that it is often impossible for voters to be adequately informed about its operations. It is clear that the greater the size and scope of the government, the more voters have to know to control its policies through the ballot. But does a smaller government or a government with limited powers ease the informational burden on voters and enable them to exercise greater control over the ballots? Prima facie, yes, because smaller governments tend to decide lesser number of issues to a level that voters would find them manageable.

In addition to making little effort to educate themselves, most voters do not actively evaluate the political information they receive; rather, they tend to overvalue views that are in line with their existing beliefs and dismiss those that are not. This tendency is aggravated by the growth of partisan bias in recent times, which intensifies our already strong inclination to dismiss – almost on reflex – information propagated by opposing parties without giving it any careful deliberation. By human nature, a careful weighing of both extremes of political information might even create emotional discomfort for some of us because such an exercise necessitates one to question their own core beliefs. It is perhaps no surprise that many of us find it easier to seek only for information that conforms to our existing viewpoints.

I wouldn’t say that the decision to leave the European Union or electing Trump was a bad idea but it did at least provoke us to think about the rationales voters were considering in casting their choices. As innovative or maverick as we want to be, we should never allow ourselves to be driven to take risks that sacrifices the welfare of our fellow citizens without at least thinking through the consequences of our decisions. We can’t entirely eliminate political ignorance of the people – or even ourselves –but it is in fact possible for us to become politically aware if we so desire.

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