Democracy involves representing the interests of the majority. In a democratic ideal, all citizens would act in the best interest of society when casting their votes. Reaching this ideal, however, requires knowledge and the will to engage. The democratic dilemma is where ordinary citizens lack the necessary political expertise to cast votes in the best interest of society, and efforts to create a better-informed electorate directly address this predicament. However, if a voter, upon gaining expertise regarding political issues (through television, town halls, or social media), also learns that there are many other similarly minded and knowledgeable voters, will she necessarily have an increased incentive to act according to the democratic ideal?
In a recent article “The concreteness of social knowledge and the quality of democratic choice,” published at Political Science Research and Methods, my coauthor (Scott Tyson, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Rochester) and I present a novel experimental design that investigates the importance of concretely knowing who is politically knowledgeable (i.e., social knowledge) and how this social knowledge affects voters’ willingness to vote. We isolate how the way political knowledge is obtained affects voters’ participation and the probability that the majority preferred alternative is achieved through democratic decision-making. Our experimental treatment varies whether voters have concrete (as opposed to hypothetical) knowledge about the expertise of other voters. Specifically, in our Treatment Group, we reveal the number of expert voters (who are exogenously endowed with political expertise) among the electorate, whereas in our Control Group, this information remains hidden. Both in the Control and Treatment groups, the average number of expert voters are exogenously set identical (at 70%) at the aggregate level, and voters in the Control Group can use this information to form a hypothetical belief about the probability that voters in their group have political expertise.
Our main result shows that when voters have concrete (as opposed to hypothetical) knowledge about how many other similarly minded and knowledgeable voters there are, their average willingness to vote is decreased. The declined willingness to vote causes fewer voters with expertise to engage in the collective decision-making process, which reduces the likelihood democracy chooses the majority preferred alternative. Our results suggest that the democratic dilemma cannot be directly addressed without first considering the behavioral and strategic effects engendered in improving political expertise.
Dr. Kai Ou is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at FSU. Dr. Ou’s research covers institutional effects on economic and political behavior, voting and elections, religion, and competition and coordination between social and ethnic groups. You can learn more about Dr. Ou here.