Dumb and Dumber

Liberal pundits think they can swing "low-information voters" by throwing facts at them. But not only do they misunderstand this key demographic of the 2012 presidential election -- they're doing their party a disservice.

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

As the U.S. presidential campaign heats up, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are piling up money and shoring up their political bases. But they’re also going after a few million voters in a handful of swing states — voters who are considered critical to winning the election. And within this block of voters is a special camp: "low-information voters," or LIVs, a term that keeps popping up in magazines and political blogs.

The term is mainly used by liberals to refer to those who vote conservative against their interests and the best interests of the nation. It assumes they vote that way because they lack sufficient information about issues. The assumption being, of course, that if only they had the real facts, they would vote differently — for both their own best interests and those of the nation. They’re the kind of folks Thomas Frank wrote about in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, folks who vote on the basis of their sense of what is right — the moral views they identify with — rather than material interests, either theirs or those of their fellow citizens.

The problem is that, as neutral as the term "low-information voters" may sound, it’s pejorative and used to express frustration with these voters, who (we’re told) act against their own best interests. Liberals tend to attribute the problem in large part to conscious Republican efforts at misinformation — say, on Fox News or talk radio — and in part to faulty information gleaned from friends, family, and random sources.

Interestingly, I have yet to run across a liberal castigating low-information voters who happen to vote Democrat on the basis of information from liberal media, friends, or family. It’s a term that goes one way: left to right.

I have seen two attitudes toward LIVs. The first is that they are reclaimable, if only somebody — the president, the Democrats, the media — can get the right information to them. The second attitude is a hand-wringing sense of cynical hopelessness on the part of liberals who see LIVs as having an inherent character flaw. In their minds, LIVs are either too lazy to seek out relevant information, too dumb to act in a way that would maximize their own interests, too apathetic or selfish to care about what’s best for their fellow citizens, or simply brainwashed automatons who vote the way they’re told.

The implicit assumption is that everyone can be a high-information voter — that everyone is capable of learning, understanding, reasoning about, and voting on the basis of relevant facts, which are objectively true, independent of worldview. What is "best" — for the voter, the nation, or the world — is also assumed to be objectively true and not a matter of values. It is further assumed that everyone is capable of rationality — taken as the correct mode of reasoning. From this it follows that, if everyone just had the relevant facts, they would reason to the right conclusion, the one that is objectively best. Furthermore, it is assumed that they would vote on the basis of such conclusions and that their elected representatives would act effectively on those conclusions.

This, of course, leads to the idea that low-information voters can be blamed for many of the world’s ills and that those ills would be healed if they were just high-information voters.

It should be clear that the assumptions behind the use of the term "low-information voters" are problematic at best. These assumptions come in the form of what cognitive linguists call "frames." And if one looks closely at these frames and at what we know from the cognitive and brain sciences, the use of "low-information voters" becomes even more problematic.

Frame analysis was developed by my colleague at the University of California, Berkeley, the great linguist Charles Fillmore. In the mid-1970s, Fillmore observed that every word, or fixed linguistic expression, is defined relative to a mental structure called a "frame," which is characterized by a fixed neural circuit in the brain. Every time you think or talk about anything at all, you use neural frame-circuitry. Anything you understand, you understand using those frame-circuits. Conversely, ideas that don’t fit those frame-circuits cannot be understood — they will most likely be ignored or thought to be ridiculous and rejected.

This is not just about politics. Imagine telling a Midwestern farmhand who has never heard of acupuncture that his chronic pain can be alleviated by having a Chinese doctor stick needles in him. That would probably make about as much sense to him as saying that the best way for the government to deal with a huge budget deficit is to spend more money — assuming he isn’t reading Paul Krugman’s column regularly.

In particular, facts must fit existing frame-circuits fixed in the brain if they are to be comprehended. Even when you negate a frame, that frame is still activated. For example, when President Richard Nixon told the American people "I am not a crook," they all thought of him as a crook. He activated the "crook frame," with himself in the role of the crook. This is why attack works a whole lot better than denial. Frames don’t work by formal logic. In logic, negation wipes out what is negated. With frames, negation strengthens what is negated. If you come up to a friend and whisper in his ear out of the blue, "Your wife is not having an affair," you’re raising the issue of whether his wife is having an affair. Likewise, in saying, "I’m against tax relief," one is still framing taxation as an affliction to be relieved.

As much as we might like to think that policy drives politics, in my own research for the book Moral Politics, I found that moral frames were at the top of the political frame hierarchy. The activation of a political frame activates, and strengthens, its moral framing.

The reason is simple. All politics rests on morality. Political leaders propose policies — whether regulating large banks or loosening deportation laws– because they believe them to be right. The problem, of course, is that conservatives and liberals have different ideas of what is right: from same-sex marriage to machine-gun ownership. They have different moral systems, each characterized by neural circuitry in the brain. And it’s exactly this difference in moral systems that explains why liberals tend to speak of "low-information voters" while conservatives don’t.

Progressives believe that democracy starts with caring about one’s fellow citizens and acting responsibly for both oneself and other citizens. Government is seen as a means for the public to provide things crucial for a decent private life and private enterprise: roads, bridges, infrastructure of many kinds, public education, public health, public transportation, publicly funded research, a judicial system, police, firefighters, a patent agency, public parks, and so on. Conservatives, especially the extreme conservatives now in office, aren’t necessarily against many of these things, but they see government as preserving the liberty to act as one wishes and as secondary to individual responsibility; moreover, they see public services for individuals as better run by minimally restricted, profit-maximizing private enterprise.

Yet liberals believe that if conservative voters only had more information, they would recognize liberal values as objective and universal — they would turn off Fox News and unite to end global warming, support universal health care, back unions and women’s rights, and so on. Obviously, they don’t. And this means to liberals that conservative populists have character flaws that lead them to become low-information voters who screw things up for everyone. Unsurprisingly, conservatives see this as elitism, just the kind of coastal snobbery that they hate.

Many conservatives have a view of democracy diametrically opposed to that of liberals. They see democracy as giving them the liberty to pursue their own interests without necessarily being responsible for the interests of others. They believe in personal, not social, responsibility. They are therefore unlikely to argue that a lack of factual information leads to the material harm of others. Instead, they court LIVs with a conservative moral argument: Their liberty must be protected, and liberals are trying to take it away by going after their gun rights, private property rights, rights to run their businesses as they choose, and so on.

Voters who understand democracy in these moral terms have very different frame-circuits in their brains than liberals do. If LIVs among conservatives define their very identity morally by conservative values, those values may well override material concerns — and the very real benefits that may accrue to them by, say, taxing the wealthy or by getting cleaner water or universal health care. For many conservatives, this idea of liberty is more important than anything else. And so the liberal assumption that information about individual material gains would get poor conservatives to vote for liberal policies is mostly false.

The liberal use of the term "low-information voters" reveals where liberals need to get real. First, liberals need to recognize that conservatives have a moral system that is different from theirs and that they vote on the basis of it. They need to understand the conservative moral system and how it works, if they are to defeat it. And they need to understand the power of their own moral system and make use of it.

Second, they need to notice that many liberal Democrats vote on the basis of as little information as the Republicans they are calling LIVs. It is not at all unusual for people to get their political opinions secondhand from sources they trust: their friends, neighbors, relatives, churches, commercials, and the TV shows they watch. We may wish democratic decisions had a firmer basis, but this holds for Democrats as well as Republicans.

Third, they need to understand how brains work: If the facts don’t fit morally based frame-circuits, it’s the frame-circuits that stay and the facts that go out the window. All political parties should aim to communicate facts, but to do so successfully they have to take into account voters’ moral systems that constrain party values. Those moral-system differences are among the facts that need to be discussed.

Fourth, liberals who speak of LIVs need to understand that many voters, Democrats as well as Republicans, vote on the basis of values and character rather than policies, material advantages, and facts. In short, they vote on the basis of trust — trust in both whom they vote for and the sources of information about whom to vote for.

Cursing conservative low-information voters for not voting for liberal policies is a fool’s errand for all these reasons.

Luckily, many people are liberal on some issues and conservative on others. These people are called "moderates," "the center," "independents," or "swing voters." They have both conservative and liberal moral systems in the same brain. How is this possible? Throughout the brain there are circuits that are mutually inhibitory — when one is turned on the other is turned off. The more one is turned on, the stronger it gets and the weaker the other gets. This isn’t just about politics. There are other moral systems that are contradictory and work this way. Think about the things you might find acceptable to do late on a Saturday night as opposed to a Sunday morning. It’s a moral switch mechanism in the brain (and that’s even before a few drinks enter the equation).

So how do political parties best inform and influence voters who have both moral systems but switch back and forth?

The trick is what you’re already seeing on your television: the consistent and repetitive use of language that activates frames and moral systems. Never use the other side’s language. And always say out loud the moral framing needed for comprehending the facts. For example, health care is a matter of both freedom and life. If you have cancer and no health care, you are not free and you could die! With the right narrative, it is a powerful message, and one that tells a deep truth.

And, like it says on the back of the shampoo bottle — repeat as necessary. Brains don’t change without repetition. It’s like any muscle: The more a neural circuit fires, the stronger its synapses get. To strengthen the neural circuits for your moral system, you have to repeat the language of your moral system and avoid the language that activates the contradictory moral system. Conservatives learned this decades ago.

But a quick lesson to liberals who want to inform "low-information voters." Drop the term. It amounts to calling them dumb. Just because you use three words and seven syllables in place of one, it doesn’t mean they don’t understand.

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