Many years ago, I had the opportunity of spending a few days in a German village sheep farm. In the evening of the first day, for the first time in my life, I witnessed how the farmer rounded up his sheep. He had a lead ram with a bell around its neck. His working dog drove the lead ram into the corral and the rest of the flock automatically followed. After the last sheep was in the corral, he closed the gate. The farmer explained that the sheep have been trained to follow the ram with the bell and once the flock was trained, they blindly followed the ram wherever he led them.
The current political meetings and rallies for the Presidential election reminds me of this typical experience. Each major candidate (lead ram) has a large group voter base who blindly follow him, whatever he says or wherever he goes. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, they are prepared go with him even to the point of their own destruction. That is the type of dedication they have.
Some may be “paid” for that “service.” Some may be clueless of what they are doing but just following “orders” from above. Or even some may be genuinely misguided that they are doing the right thing. Whatever the reason, all of them are politically ignorant voters.
The obvious question: on what basis are these citizens voting? They know next to nothing about today’s policy debates among the candidates or even the basic workings of a Government. They are clueless of the economic and social changes that are taking place in the country. They don’t know the basic facts that might be needed to select the right candidate. What they do know is what was shown on TV or what was told to them by their leaders. Have we left the future of our nation in the hands of such ignorant voters?
Smart politician vs ignorant voter
While following the election campaigns so far, I have come into a conclusion that this Presidential election is a battle between ignorant voters and over-smart politicians. Now I also clearly understand why Sri Lanka voted the way it did during the past seven decades. The block of the ignorant voters decided the fate of the country at each election. Blatant lies and half-truths were spread by way of manipulation and political points were scored right throughout the election campaign. Same scenario is repeating in this election, too.
This voter ignorance is a blessing in disguise for major political party candidates. Of course, they have a soft corner in their hearts for them. To keep their attention intact they exploit inflammable topics like race and religion, grievances, empathy, and jealousy rather than policy. In addition, by maintaining the number of these “slaves” inside the corral, they have ready-made cheering squads at short notice.
"Political ignorance is often used by shrewd politicians to secure victory. If you look at the major issues that they stress on in their campaign, virtually all of them involve significant exploitation of political ignorance"
Although most politicians wouldn’t agree. political ignorance is one of the most hazardous features of the Sri Lankan public. Concerns raised by a politically ignorant public extend beyond the simple possibility that it will make bad choices when voting. Ignorant voters may be misled or manipulated by rhetorically impressive but factually unsound claims.
They may fall back upon sources of democratic advice that don’t quite measure up to more detailed understanding. They might be more prone to accept conspiracy theories, or fall into patterns where they accept overly complicated or extremely simplified versions of reality. Ignorant voters may also be more easily misguided by power-hungry politicians towards ethnic hatred and violence leading to disastrous results.
Between half to one-third of the voter base of each major party consist of politically ignorant people. They are dedicated party supporters and this wild dedication sometimes leads to fistfights, riots and even murders. This kind of bias is aggravated by the intense partisanship that has descended upon Sri Lankan political parties. Finally, politicians are the ones who fire up the partisan hatred, and put spin on all their actions to hide their true intent. The partisan hatred is widespread but, for some reason, has become socially acceptable, too.
Political ignorance is often used by shrewd politicians to secure victory. If you look at the major issues that they stress in their campaign, virtually all of them involve significant exploitation of political ignorance. For example, one of the candidates of the current Presidential election offered a long list of promises, including the following: reduce VAT from 15 % to 8%,remove PAYE, all taxes on agriculture to be slashed, university admission to be increased from 25,000 to 130,000. Any enlightened voter will realise that raising the staggering 520 billion to cover the cost of all these is a Herculean task, almost impossible. But the gullible politically-ignorant voter will swallow this promise lock stock and barrel. Therefore, ignorance of voters is blessing for the politician to “buy” the voters without any cost.
Fixing the problem
So, what can we do to fix the problem? I believe this may be the key question facing those of us, who are termed as “floating voters” or “swing voters”, and are alarmed by what we are witnessing. According to estimates we consist around five million voters and that is a good strength to make a loud voice.
Increasing knowledge through education
The most obvious way to overcome political ignorance is by increasing knowledge through education. Unfortunately, our voters’ political knowledge levels have increased very little over the last five decades, even though educational attainment has risen enormously. Rising IQ scores have also failed to increase political knowledge.
Perhaps the solution is a better school curriculum that puts more emphasis on practical civic education. The difficulty is that all successive governments have very little incentive to ensure that schools really do adopt curricula that increase civic and political knowledge.
The politicians must change their selfish attitude and begin to look at the broader picture and implement a broad civic education program from year 2 to year 8 in public schools. The curriculum must fit in to meet today’s social and political atmosphere.
"Ignorant voters may also be more easily misguided by power-hungry politicians towards ethnic hatred and violence leading to disastrous results"
Some scholars argue that voters don’t need to know much about politics and government because they can rely on a “retrospective voting” system. This means voters only need to know whether things are going well or badly. A voter can make a judgment by comparing the candidates’ achievement lists against the promised lists. And also, his integrity and honesty during his period should also be taken into account. If things are looking up, he can reward by re-electing him. Otherwise, out he goes.
However, effective retrospective voting requires some political knowledge to make decisions. Whether our average voter possesses that knowledge is debatable.
Another option for ignorant voters is to seek the support of “opinion leaders.” While listening to their political leaders, they can be encouraged to the directions of opinion leaders who share similar values but know more than the voters themselves do.
Unfortunately, most of these opinion leaders are not people notable for their impressive knowledge of public policy issues. Their main asset is their skill at entertaining their audience and validating their pre-existing biases. Some of them even have vested interests.
"Inadequate voter knowledge undercuts the intrinsic defence of democracy as a government that reflects the voluntary decisions of the people"
Vote with feet
Another way we can mitigate the effects of political ignorance by encouraging to take decisions by “voting with feet.”
Foot voting or voting with feet is expressing one’s preferences through one’s actions, by voluntarily participating in or withdrawing from an activity. If you vote with your feet, you show your disagreement of a major decision taken by the political leadership using certain mechanisms. In a democracy, we can show our displeasure by mobilizing around mass actions and disrupt the implementation of what we do not agree. Protest meetings, peaceful demonstrations, usage of print, TV and social media are some of the ways to fight with the feet. This system is more effective than the ballot box.
Common sense tells us that an informed electorate is a prerequisite for democracy. If voters do not know what is going on in politics, they cannot rationally exercise control over government policy. Large-scale voter ignorance poses a serious danger to our democracy. It is particularly troubling at a time like today when we face an election with major policy decisions at stake.
Inadequate voter knowledge undercuts the intrinsic defence of democracy as a government that reflects the voluntary decisions of the people. Voter ignorance also potentially opens the door for both narrow political manipulation of the public and gross policy errors caused by politicians’ need to appeal to an ignorant electorate in order to win office.
It’s time we begin to worry about political ignorance and do something (productively) about it.