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A Good Example Of Rational Ignorance

Whenever political scientists want to demonstrate how little the public knows about politics, one of the statistics they're fond of pulling out is that more than half of Americans can't name any Supreme Court justice. For individual justices the numbers are even worse: Only 12 percent of Americans can name Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a justice, only 7 percent can name Anthony Kennedy, and only 3 percent can name Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens.

So at first it seems a bit surprising that when Rasmussen asked poll respondents this past week whether they view each justice favorably or unfavorably, most people were able to respond either in the affirmative or negative, rather than the "don't know" category. Ginsburg, for instance, rates 36 percent favorable and 35 percent unfavorable, even though only 12 percent of people could even identify her as a justice. (Interestingly, she's the only justice with a net favorable rating; most have net unfavorables in the 10-15 percent range, even though the Court as a whole is viewed very favorably.) 67 percent of voters were able to offer some opinion of Antonin Scalia (27 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable); only 13 percent could identify him as a justice in the first place.

What's going on here? Diane Amann thinks the public's apparent ignorance about the identity of justices is good reason to disregard the Rasmussen results, since it suggests people are just offering random, baseless opinions. But, in reality, the results demonstrate that the reverse is true: People can make reasonably well informed decisions even though their levels of political knowledge are very low. Rasmussen finds that 56 percent of liberals view Ginsburg favorably, while only 25 percent of conservatives do; 40 percent of Republicans view Scalia favorably, while only 17 percent of Democrats do. This is not at all consistent with the "randomness" hypothesis. It suggests that many people remember enough about what they've heard about justices to offer coherent responses; maybe, after being prompted, people can remember hearing Ginsburg being praised by a prominent Democratic politician, or Scalia by a Republican. Maybe they remember hearing something about an opinion one of them wrote in a high-profile case. Whatever the source, people seem able to make pretty good use of the limited political knowledge they do have, even on relatively obscure matters with little direct impact on their everyday lives.

And, keep in mind, that's all it takes for democracy to work. As long as the votes of genuinely clueless citizens aren't systematically biased in any ideological direction (and, by definition, they're unlikely to be), once votes are aggregated, the results are apt to reflect the real preferences of the populace.

--Josh Patashnik