Political Ignorance and Collective Policy Preferences

In contrast with the expectations of many analysts, I find that raw policy-specific facts, such as the direction of change in the crime rate or the amount of the federal budget devoted to foreign aid, have a significant influence on the public’s political judgments. Using both traditional survey methods and survey-based randomized experiments, I show that ignorance of policy-specific information leads many Americans to hold political views different from those they would hold otherwise. I also show that the effect of policy-specific information is not adequately captured by the measures of general political knowledge used in previous research. Finally, I show that the effect of policy-specific ignorance is greatest for Americans with the highest levels of political knowledge. Rather than serve to dilute the influence of new information, general knowledge (and the cognitive capacities it reflects) appears to facilitate the incorporation of new policy-specific information into political judgments.