I missed this a fortnight ago, but according to the latest report I can find on the public's knowledge of current affairs - from Pew in the US - the best-informed American news audiences are those watching satirical news reviews The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. (LostRemote points out how not to make the elementary cause-and-effect error here: people have to be at least reasonably well-informed before they can get Colbert's current affairs jokes.)
These findings make perfect sense - rational ignorance tells us that our votes can't possibly affect the outcome of an election. While democracy requires a collectively informed electorate, so tiny is the marginal impact of any one vote that it isn't rationally in the interests of any individual voter to commit their time to being informed. Unless you're actually a politician or a lobbyist, knowledge of current affairs is pure indulgence. It follows that the people who know about the news are following it for fun. (Entertainingly, Volokh Conspiracy facetiously claims a "rational ignorance" of pop culture - which in my view rather supports the point that we follow the news we find interesting not the news we find useful.)
Adrian Monck kindly pointed me to the work of Ilya Somin on rational ignorance. Somin's work explores some possible solutions to the problem that the electorate has little incentive to attain the knowledge of current affairs required for a functioning democracy, including smaller government in which "citizens may 'vote with their feet' by moving out of jurisdictions with policies they dislike and into those that have more favorable ones." I'm very happy to agree that a free market for governance would encourage people to make more informed choices. However I have a simpler solution that doesn't require legislative changes, just a willingness on the part of creative people to accept a greater burden of civic responsibility. We just need more popular culture to be incomprehensible without a working knowledge of current affairs.
We all hear a lot of rubbish about "dumbing down", including alleged dumbing down of the news (Telegraph) - as if, in a democracy, maintaining knowledge of current affairs as an elite preserve is anything other than an impediment to good government. Perhaps the most optimistic news for informed democracy in this country is therefore the imminent public flotation of the Daily and Sunday Sport (Yahoo! finance). These are two newspapers that have taken great strides in making an interest in current affairs, however tenuous, a pleasure rather than a duty for sections of the electorate who might otherwise have enjoyed far less exposure to that vital resource. Better informed voters benefit everyone: the two Sport titles, blurring the line between news reporting and satirical entertainment, perform a valuable public service that benefits everyone. (They were also responsible for the best pair of headlines in the history of news reporting - read Michael Bywater's incomparable Lost Worlds to appreciate the true genius of "World War II bomber found on moon vanishes".)
satirical news I've always loved the Onion. Their Our
Dumb Century retrospective is indeed, as it says on the back, "not
only the funniest book ever written...but also the true history of the
world". To overcome rational ignorance we need more Onions, more Daily Shows, more Sunday Sports - diverse cultural forms that treat the news as entertainment, reach every section of society and reward individuals for taking the trouble to keep themselves informed. If I had
no other reason at all to keep abreast of US politics (and - apart from the
electoral experiments - as a rational UK citizen I really don't) I would do
so just to keep making sense of the Onion every week. This week alone it was not only the first place I saw the important media news that sales for the US DVD porn industry was down
30% since 2005, but also the source of the best defence of free markets I've seen in a
while. Under the heading Health
Department Closes Perfectly Good Burrito Place:
"If those guys got a bad burrito, they should have just asked for another one instead of writing the place up like a bunch of little bitches," said Ohio State University sophomore Greg Hall, 19, who, like a lot of customers, didn't absolutely love the food, but found it more than serviceable, especially during lunch, after bar time, or when he was craving a burrito. "If they really want to help me out, here's an idea: They could open up another burrito place, keep it open until 4 a.m., and call it Burrito Max."
(As promised, these are some more thoughts on the myth of rational voters. If you haven't already you might want to read my original post on the subject, or take a look at Brian Caplan's book which sent my thinking off in this direction.)