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Political Knowledge: What it is, and How to Measure It

Political Theory
Knowledge
Normative Theory
TS09

Room: General

Friday 11:15 - 12:30 (31/07/2020)


Abstract

Instructor: Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij Birkbeck College Abstract: It is well-established that most of us know very little when it comes to politically relevant facts (e.g., Delli Carpini and Keeter 1993 and 1996; Achen and Bartels 2016). It is less clear what normative implications follow from this fact. Some maintain it presents a major challenge for democracy (e.g., Brennan 2011 and 2016; Somin 2016). Others suggest that voters can make do by using a variety of ‘cues and heuristics’—perhaps by paying attention to endorsements by interest groups or to political party cues—and thereby acting in the political realm as if they were informed (e.g., Popkin 1991; Lupia 1994). The main challenge to this latter strand uses statistical modelling to show that people likely would have made different political choices, and reported different preferences, had they been more informed (e.g., Bartels 1996; Althaus 2003; Oscarsson 2007). However, at the core of these debates is a more foundational question about what political knowledge is, and how to measure it (including for purposes of modelling). One promising conception is Goldman’s (1999) notion of core voter knowledge, identifying political knowledge with what voters need to know in order to identify their preferred electoral option (e.g., candidate or party), given some set of goals. On this conception, there are many things you might know about politics that does not constitute political knowledge, because it does not play a role in guiding you towards your preferred choice. This also ties in nicely with one of the main objections to established measures of political knowledge: that they reflect an elitist bias in the political knowledge literature, in measuring competencies that are of little relevancy to the choices facing ordinary voters (Lupia 2006). This is the charge we will be looking at in detail in the session. Format for the session: This will be a seminar, not a lecture. Prior to the session, you will do the core reading below, and any additional reading you see fit. During the session, I will spend the first 15-20 minutes talking through that handout (distributed prior to the session), to give you an overview of the relevant literature as I see it. The remainder of the session will be taken up by discussion. Core Reading: • Lupia, A. (2006). ‘How Elitism Undermines the Study of Voter Competence,’ Critical Review 18(1-3): 217-232. Additionally, the following lists a few more sources that might be of interest to those who would like to dig deeper into this literature. I have starred the ones that are especially relevant, with a focus on journal articles over books. • Achen, C. H. and Bartels, L. (2016). Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; in particular Ch. 2. • Althaus S. (2003). Collective Preferences in Democratic Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. • Bartels L. (1996). ‘Uninformed Voters: Information Effects in Presidential Elections.’ American Journal of Political Science 40(1), 194-230.* • Brennan J. (2011). ‘The Right to a Competent Electorate.’ Philosophical Quarterly 61(245), 700–24. • Brennan J. (2016). Against Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. • Delli Carpini M. X. and Keeter S. (1993). ‘Measuring Political Knowledge: Putting First Things First.’ American Journal of Political Science 37(4), 1179-206.* • Delli Carpini M. X. and Keeter S. (1996). What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. • Goldman, A. (1999). Knowledge in a Social World, Oxford: Oxford University Press; in particular Section 10.4 of Chapter 10.* • Lupia, A. (1994). ‘Shortcuts Versus Encyclopedias: Information and Voting Behavior in California Insurance Reform Elections.’ The American Political Science Review 88(1): 63-76. • Oscarsson H. (2007). ‘A Matter of Fact? Knowledge Effects on the Vote in Swedish General Elections, 1985–2002.’ Scandinavian Political Studies 30(3), 301-22.* • Popkin, S. L. (1991). The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. • Somin, I. (2016). Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, Second Edition, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.