I see a number of proposals for inducing less well informed voters to make better choices:
1. Educating them better.
2. Boosting the rate of sustainable economic growth, which tends to persuade people to support better policies.
3. “Buying” voters with one-off transfers, in the hope they will show more support for the better sides of the system.
4. Shaming voters away from making mistakes.
5. Actually giving them control over electoral outcomes, say by having the elites copy the voting choices of the less informed.
Most of us prefer the first two options, but they are relatively hard to accomplish. What is striking is how much attention #3 gets relative to #4 and #5.
It all depends on the margin, but my view of human nature makes me relatively skeptical of #3. It is either ignored, or viewed as a kind of insult, or it induces people to simply up their demands and expectations. That is especially likely to happen for voters who express potentially “nasty” electoral preferences. I think it is less of a problem for say how a single mother responds to food stamps for her kids, but of course we could debate that. (By the way, if you are wondering, the main difference between Brazil and Denmark boils down to #2, not #3.)
I can’t recall anyone endorsing #5, yet of course the elites recommend an inverse version of #5 for the less informed voters, namely they should copy the elites. Hmm. The version of #3 we offer is actually more like “#3 but no way #5,” and I believe it is processed and understood as such, no matter how “under-informed” those voters may be. They’re not under-informed about that!
#4 is under-discussed. Take the less informed voters who voted for the better candidates in the 1960s. Why did they do that? Note that many of those people believed some pretty terrible things, including about race and about the suitability of George Wallace for higher office. I believe shame is part of the answer — they did not want to feel the shame of deviating from the preferences the elites wanted them to express.
Perhaps it is hard to re-bottle that genie, but there are plenty of historical examples where shame cultures go away and then return, consider for instance the United States after the 1920s.
There is a literature on shame and voting behavior, though from what I can tell most of it concerns participation per se rather than the quality of electoral choice. Here is one striking sentence:
Pride motivates compliance with voting norms only amongst high-propensity voters, while shame mobilizes both high- and low-propensity voters.
I believe in the last two years I have read at least five hundred times that elites should somehow do more for less informed voters, not only for efficiency or distribution reasons but also to improve the quality of our democracy. The efficiency and distribution claims are at least defensible, maybe more, but the electoral claims are remarkably unsupported. At the same time, shame barely comes up and I take that to be a reflection of the myopic nature of contemporary times.
Now, maybe elites think there is something wrong with shaming. But when I watch what elites do, including but not only on Twitter, they spend a great deal of time and effort trying to shame each other. If anything, that seems to drive them further apart and make a good solution less likely.
It might have been a better situation when the elites, acting with some joint collective force, directed more of their energies to shaming the less elite voters than to shaming each other.
And with that claim I am seeking to shame…the elites.
We should give more thought as to how we can get the advantages of shame cultures, without also taking on all of their disadvantages. Is it good or bad that shame, like many other aspects of American life, seems to be more income-segregated than before?