Consti­tuents Do Not
Monitor Legis­lation

How sunshine allows for government capture

Below are dozens of studies, citations and sources to support the notion that citizens do not (and likely cannot) monitor the legislative process. Indeed, we have not come across any studies or evidence to suggest otherwise. This means that popular ‘democratizing’ reforms pushed by groups like Transparency International are based on dangerously flawed, ‘pigs-fly’ type assumptions.

By Davidson & Ranalli – October 2017

Major Studies

Research to support the idea that citizens do not monitor legislation or government


Pew Research 2011

Pew Research 2007

Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Annenberg Public Policy 2010

Ipsos Mori 2014

Citations

To support the idea that citizens do not monitor legislation or government



By anything approaching elite standards, most citizens think and know jaw-droppingly little about politics.
– Luskin 2002 – Politics and Identity
When it comes to political information there are two groups of people. One group is almost completely ignorant of almost every detail of almost every law and policty under which they live. The other group is delusional about how much they know. There is no third group...every one of us is almost completely ignorant of almost every detail of almost every law and policy under which we live.
– Lupia 2014 - Uninformed: Why People Know So Little About Politics
The mass public contains...a great many more people who know next to nothing about politics...The average American’s ability to place the Democratic and Republican parties and ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ correctly on issue dimensions and the two parties on a liberal-conservative dimension scarcely exceeds and indeed sometimes falls short of what could be achieved by blind guessing. The verdict is stunningly, depressingly clear: most people know very little about politics.
– Luskin 2002 Thinking About Political Psychology
How can citizens control legislators when most citizens pay scant attention to public affairs? Why should legislators worry about citizens’ preferences when they know most citizens are not really watching them?
– Arnold 1993 – Can Inattentive Citizens Control Representatives?
Politicians know the American people, millions of them, don't know very much and they count on that, and that's why they use bumper stickers and slogans and they appeal to fear...You can't have a rational discussion with the American people because it goes over their head...only 2 out of 5 voters can name the three branches of the federal government.
– Shenkman 2016 – The Open Mind
Transparency, unlike other forms of regulation, has a major disadvantage: it assumes that those who receive the information released by producers or public officials can properly process it and that their conclusions will lead them to reasonable action. However, the well-known and often-cited findings of behavioral economics demonstrate that very often the public is unable to properly process even rather simple information because of “wired in,” congenital, systematic cognitive biases.
– Etzioni 2010 – Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant?
Evidence assembled by behavioral economists strongly indicates that people are neither as able to process information nor as likely to act on it as transparency theory presumes.
– Etzioni 2010 – Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant?
Nothing strikes the student of public opinion and democracy more forcefully than the paucity of information most people possess about politics. Decades of behavioral research have shown that most people know little about their elected officeholders, less about their opponents, and virtually nothing about the public issues that occupy officials from Washington to city hall.
– Ferejohn 1990 – Information and the Electoral Process
The second major theoretical claim of Downs is that individual citizens have no incentive even to learn enough to be able to vote their own interests intelligently...this citizen also builds opinions on calvalier ‘facts.’
– Hardin 2002 - How Do You Know?
Even if voters were smothered with “costless” information, it is doubtful that they would pay attention and process detailed information about the complexities of public policy they do not care much about. In contrast, special interests are “naturally” better informed; compared to the general public, they get costless information as a by-product of their specialized activities, and they have stronger incentives to invest in costly information gathering, to pay costly attention to complex information, and to invest in costly expertise that allows them to understand such information.
– Lohmann 1998 – Information Rationale For the Power of Special Interests

Brennan 2016 - Foreign Policy

The reality that most voters are often ignorant of even very basic political information is one of the better-established findings of social science. Decades of accumulated evidence reinforces this conclusion...The evidence shows that political ignorance is extensive and poses a very serious challenge to democratic theory...

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, his administration and the Democratic Congress pursued an ambitious agenda on health care and environmental policy, among other issues. The media covered both issue areas extensively. Yet a September 2009 survey showed that only 37 percent of Americans believed they understood the administration’s health care plan, a figure that likely overestimated the true level of knowledge. A May 2009 poll showed that only 24 percent of Americans realized that the important “cap and trade” initiative then recently passed by the House of Representatives as an effort to combat global warming addressed “environmental issues.” Some 46 percent thought that it was either a “health care reform” or a “regulatory reform for Wall Street.” It is difficult to evaluate a major policy proposal if one does not know what issue it addresses. In 2003, some 70 percent of Americans were unaware of the recent enactment of President George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug bill, the biggest new government program in several decades.
– Somin 2016 – Democracy and Political Ignorance
America’s embarrassing little secret...is that vast numbers of Americans are ignorant, not merely of the specialized details of government which ordinary citizens cannot be expected to master, but of the most elementary political facts – information so basic as to challenge the central tenet of democratic government itself.
– Blumberg 1990 – What Americans Know about Politics
Before assessing the impact of public perceptions of congressional candidates on individual vote choice and on electoral outcomes, I must first document what the public knows about the candidates. Donald Stokes and Warren Miller were impressed with how many voters in 1958 knew nothing at all about the candidates for the House of Representatives. Since the publication of their findings, no evidence has been presented to dispute the accuracy of this conclusion for the 1958 electorate or to support the view that the level of public information about congressional candidates has increased. The burden of proof is clearly on those who would argue that a significant part of the public is aware of the candidates.
– Mann 1978 - Unsafe at Any Margin
Mass public knowledge of congressional candidates declines precipitously once we move beyond simple recognition, generalized feelings and incumbent job ratings
– Mann 1978 - Unsafe at Any Margin
If nobody else cares about it very much, the special interest will get its way. If the public understands the issue at any level, then special interest groups are not able to buy an outcome that the public may not want. But the fact is that the public doesn’t focus on most of the work of the Congress. Most of the work of the Congress is very small things... And all of us, me included, are guilty of this: If the company or interest group is (a) supportive of you, (b) vitally concerned about an issue that, (c) nobody else in your district knows about or ever will know about, then the political calculus is quite simple.
– Rep. Vin Weber (R-Min) 1995 – Speaking Freely (Schram)
Evidence from recent presidential campaigns has done little to rehabilitate the American voter’s image. For example, a 1992 report by the Center for the Study of Communication at the University of Massachusetts found that while 86 percent of a random sample of likely voters knew that the Bush’s family dog was named Millie and 89 percent knew that Murphy Brown was the TV character criticized by Dan Quayle, only 15 percent knew that both candidates favored the death penalty and only 5 percent knew that both had proposed cuts in the capital gains tax. There is seemingly no end to the examples one can find to illustrate the public’s ignorance of politics. The single most commonly known fact about George Bush’s opinions while he was president was that he hated broccoli. More people were able to identify Judge Wapner (host of the television series, The People’s Court) than Chief Justices Burger or Rehnquist. More people know John Lennon than Karl Marx, or know Bill Cosby than either of their U.S. senators. More people know who said “What’s Up Doc,” “Hi Yo Silver,” or “Come Up And See Me Sometime” than “Give Liberty or Give Me Death,” “The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself,” or “Speak Softly And Carry A Big Stick.” More people knew that Pete Rose was accused of gambling than could name any of the five U.S. Senators accused of unethical conduct in the savings and loan scandal. And so on.
– Delli Carpini 2005 – What Americans Know about Politics
[The people] know nothing about government or current events. They can’t follow arguments of any complexity. They stuff themselves with slogans and advertisements. They eschew fact for myth. They operate from biases and stereotypes, and they privilege feeling over thinking. The result is a political system of daunting irrationality... A study finds that 22 percent of Americans can name all five members of TV’s “Simpsons” clan, but only one in 1,000 can name all five First Amendment freedoms.
– Bayard 2008 - Salon Magazine
Stokes and Miller pointed out some years ago that "the popular image of the Congressman is almost barren of policy content. A long series of open-ended questions asked of those who said they had any informtion about the Representative produced mainly a collection of diffuse evaluative judgments: he is a good man; he is experienced; he knows the problems; he has done a good job; and the like."...half of the comments referred to his personal qualities.
– Mann 1978 - Unsafe at Any Margin

Crain 2016 - New Yorker

Fox 2006 - Government Transparency and Policymaking

The results suggest that most voters do not know what they need to know in order to vote retrospectively...a substantial portion of voters do not possess the knowledge assumed by theories of economic voting. This is true even in the case of Finland, which has high civic literacy and a highly educated public. Only 38% could name all four parties in the government coalition, without also incorrectly naming any additional parties...The implications for government accountability are discussed.
– Rapeli 2016
Has television coverage of Congress increased public understanding of the issues and operations of Congress and, as a result, increased public confidence and trust in the institution? There is no hard evidence chat it has. However, 65 percent of the respondents to a 1995 poll said they received most of their news about Congress from local or network television newscasts, compared with 20 percent from newspapers. And according to another poll, network news coverage of Congress has been steadily declining rather than increasing since the advent of televised floor sessions. Therefore, it is highly unlikely chat more Americans are better informed about Congress and its debates than they were during the pre-TV era. The exception, of course, are regular C-SPAN viewers, but they comprise only a small fraction of the TV-viewing public. Whereas 62 percent of the people in a Roper Poll said they watched a TV news program daily, only 4 percent said they watched C-SPAN daily.
– Wolfensberger 2000 – Congress and the People
Evidence from recent presidential campaigns has done little to rehabilitate the American voter's image. For example, a 1992 report by the Center for the Study of Communication at the University of Massachusetts found that while 86 percent of a random sample of likely voters knew that the Bush's family dog was named Millie and 89 percent knew that Murphy Brown was the TV character criticized by Dan Quayle, only 15 percent knew that both candidates favored the death penalty and only 5 percent knew that both had proposed cuts in the capital gains tax.

There is seemingly no end to the examples one can find to illustrate the public’s ignorance of politics. The single most commonly known fact about George Bush's opinions while he was president was that he hated broccoli. More people were able to identify Judge Wapner (host of the television series, The People's Court) than Chief Justices Burger or Rehnquist. More people know John Lennon than Karl Marx, or know Bill Cosby than either of their U.S. senators. More people know who said "What's Up Doc," "Hi Yo Silver," or "Come Up And See Me Sometime" than "Give Liberty or Give Me Death," "The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself," or "Speak Softly And Carry A Big Stick." More people knew that Pete Rose was accused of gambling than could name any of the five U.S. Senators accused of unethical conduct in the savings and loan scandal.
– Delli Carpini 1999 - What Americans know about Politics

Somin 2012 - Democracy & Political Ignorance - p17-19

The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.
- Joseph Schumpeter 1942 - Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy
Voters cannot hold legislators responsible without sufficient information about what legislators have, in fact, done. Yet that sort of information consistently eludes the electorate. It is an article of faith among political scientists that citizens are woefully uninformed about politics.
– Schacter 2006 – Political Accountability
In sum, while congressional activity is certainly more accessible to citizens, the fragmentary evidence accumulated in the short time the sunshine reforms have been in effect suggests that the public is not really more aware of, or more sympathetic to, Congress or its members, their activities, or their performance. Citizens seem no better able to recall the incumbent’s name, though more can recognize it when it is presented to them; there has been no visible increase in issue-based voting in congressional elections. Incumbency and partisanship more than policy positions shape voter concerns.
– Rieselbach 1982 – Reforming Congressional Procedures
I have challenged the conventional accountability axiom, arguing that it has two characteristic sorts of problems. The first is a deficit in accountability that arises because voters are so poorly informed about politics and legislation.
– Schacter 2006 – Political Accountability
Special interests prevail because they are better able to monitor the incumbent's activities than are diffuse interests. For example, farm households in developed countries are generally well informed about legislation dealing with agricultural price supports and subsidies, and they can assess fairly accurately whether and how their political representatives contributed to the passage of an agricultural bill or to the size of price supports and subsidies the bill promises to deliver. In contrast, the huge majority of nonfarm households is unlikely to know that an agricultural bill was passed at all, let alone its details or the contributions made by their political representatives. Members of the general public may well notice the decrease in their real disposable income caused by the increase in food prices and taxes, but they can assign political blame for the loss only very imprecisely... Either way, organized interests end up with access to better, or less costly, observations of political performance than do unorganized voters.
– Lohmann 1998 – Information Rationale for the Power of Special Interests
Most people, most of the time, are able to find better things to do than participate in politics. Even if some method could be devised to allow all citizens to be consulted on every governmental decision, few people would have the time or inclination to participate. Study and informed debate are required to decide whether the tax code should be amended to allow machines used in manufacturing glass containers to be depreciated on an accelerated schedule, or whether a program is required to subsidize students taking graduate degrees in mining engineering. Yet those are the kind of narrow, technical questions that elected legislators must deal with every day. They manage to address these questions through an elaborate system of specialized committees and with the assistance of thousands of staff members. Most citizens would not be able to comprehend the information generated by the congressional staff, and even if they could, there is little reason to think it would interest them. People have better things to do. Legislating in a modern democracy has become a highly specialized, full-time job. Most people do not know how their representative votes on most issues that come before Congress. The little they hear in the mass media about new legislation is usually obscured by confusing talk of conference committees, parliamentary maneuvers, floor votes, presidential vetos, or administrative rulings…the majority of citizens never have any direct contact with their representatives and know nothing about them.
– Walker & King 1998 – Mobilizing Interest Groups in America
Most legislators voting on any given issue would not have a constituency interest involved. Most Representatives do not have a large proportion of their electors who are farmers, union members, or businessmen. Rarely was there a constituency interest or attitude, which was so strong that the Representative had to bow before it; indeed, Miller and Stokes found a close fit between constituency opinion and the Representative’s voting record only on civil-rights issues.
- Wilson 1981 – Interest Groups in the United States
Even if legislative processes are open, does the public actually tune in to them? One cannot be a romantic about this. It would be an economically unproductive and no doubt crazed public that spent all its days watching C-SPAN. But one does get the sense that Congress’s place in American public life may be slipping. The public is much distracted. There is too much otherwise to do, watch, and listen to. Law and Order reruns and other attractions are stiff competition. An attribute of the public itself may be at issue here, but visibility is also an attribute of Congress.
- Mayhew 2006 – Promoting the General Welfare
The political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best-documented features of contemporary politics...What is striking is that political scientists have done so little to investigate empirically the electoral consequences of voter ignorance. If those who have viewed a well-informed electorate as crucial to the functioning of democracy have been too little burdened by the scientific demand for supporting evidence, the same could be said of those who have viewed the political ignorance of the average voter as largely or wholly irrelevant. They have preferred either to limit their analyses to individual information stores and information processing, or to extrapolate from individuals to collective outcomes on the basis of assumptions rather than evidence.
– Bartels 1996 - Uninformed Votes

Shenkman 2008 - How Stupid Are We? (pdf)

When social scientists first started using detailed opinion surveys to study the attitudes and behavior of ordinary voters, they found some pretty sobering things. In the early 1950s, Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues at Columbia University concluded that electoral choices “are relatively invulnerable to direct argumentation” and “characterized more by faith than by conviction and by wishful expectation rather than careful prediction of consequences.” For example, voters consistently misperceived where candidates stood on the important issues of the day, seeing their favorite candidates’ stands as closer to their own and opposing candidates’ stands as more dissimilar than they actually were. They likewise exaggerated the extent of support for their favorite candidates among members of social groups they felt close ­to.

In 1960, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan published an even more influential study, The American Voter. They described “the general impoverishment of political thought in a large proportion of the electorate,” noting that “many people know the existence of few if any of the major issues of policy.” Shifts in election outcomes, they concluded, were largely attributable to defections from ­long-­standing partisan loyalties by relatively unsophisticated voters with little grasp of issues or ideology. A recent replication of their work using surveys from 2000 and 2004 found that things haven’t changed much in the past half-­century.

The intervening decades have seen a variety of concerted attempts to overturn or evade the findings of the classic Columbia and Michigan studies. In the 1970s, for instance, some scholars claimed to have discovered what the title of one prominent book called The Changing American Voter, a much more issue-oriented and ideologically consistent specimen than the earlier studies had portrayed. Unfortunately, further scrutiny revealed that most of the apparent improvement could be attributed to changes in the questions voters were being asked rather than a remarkable elevation of their political thinking. When voters were asked the old questions in the 1970s, their responses displayed no more consistency or sophistication than the responses from the 1950s described by the authors of The American ­Voter.

In the 1990s political scientists took a different tack, acknowledging that voters were generally inattentive and uninformed but denying that the quality of their political decisions suffered much as a result.
– Bartels 2008 – The Irrational Electorate
Americans are indifferent to much that transpires in the political world, hazy about many of the principal players, lackadaisical regarding debates on policies that preoccupy Washington, ignorant of facts taht experts take for granted, and unsure about the policies advanced by the candidates for the highest public offices.
– Kinder & Sears - Public Opinion and Political Action
But in the real world of American politics, interested individuals and organizations, not average citizens, have the greater incentive and means to monitor the government closely. This can open the door to obstruction and policy distortion as it enables regulatory capture by interested parties who advocate freely for their views without any countervailing public voice.
– Cain 2014 – The Transparency Paradox
Given the technical nature of regulations and permits, Federal agencies and advisory committees rarely hear from average citizens. More often, stakeholders with strong material interests and preferences dominate the public hearings and opportunities for ex parte discussions with agency officials. Consequently, there is no guarantee that these agencies and committees will receive balanced information reflectingbroader public interests.
– Cain 2014 – The Transparency Paradox

Etzioni 2014 – Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant?

*NOTE: What Etzioni is underlying here, rather beautifully, is that when the public do not monitor and follow legislation, they cannot then turn to civic groups to do so either as the citizens will run into the same trust/accountability problems with the civic groups that they originally had with their legislators.

Full rationality requires unlimited cognitive capabilities. Fully rational man is a mythical hero who knows the solutions to all mathematical problems and can immediately perform all computations, regardless of how difficult they are. Human beings are in reality very different. Their cognitive capabilities are quite limited. Modern mainstream economic theory is largely based on an unrealistic picture of human decision making. Economic agents are portrayed as fully rational Bayesian maximizers of subjective utility…However, it is wrong to assume that human beings conform to this ideal.
Reinhard Selten 1999
In a complex and uncertain world, humans and animals make decisions under the constraints of limited knowledge, resources, and time. Yet models of rational decision making in economics, cognitive science, biology, and other fields largely ignore these real constraints and instead assume agents with perfect information and unlimited time. Introduction to Bounded Rationality
- 2002 Gerd Gigerenzer
The democratic citizen is expected to be well informed about political affairs. He is supposed to know what the issues are, what their history is, what the relevant facts are, what alternatives are proposed, what the party stands for, what the likely consequences are. By such standards the voter falls short.
– Berelson, Lazarsfeld & McPhee 1954
Many people know the existence of few if any of the major issues of policy.
– Campbell et al. 1960
People who participate regularly and knowledgeably form a distinct minority.
– Entman – 1989 Democracy Without Citizens

Charlie Rose Show (video)

Transparency theory presumes, in the first instance, the existence of an interested public that needs and wants to be fully informed. This presumption badly needs proof. A vast body of empirical studies demonstrates citizens' lack of political knowledge. Summarizing the extent of voter ignorance, one commentator has concluded that “voters are not just ignorant about specific policy issues, but about the basic structure of government,” lack ideological consistency in issue stances, and have been found to be consistently ignorant about politics by survey research into the matter since the late 1930s.
– Fenster 2006 – The Opacity of Transparency
Other data…strongly indicate that people are neither as able to process information nor as likely to act on it as transparency theory presumes…The state’s large bureaucracies…make a staggering number of decisions of varying importance, not all of which can be viewed before the fact or even easily reviewed later. The state is too big, too remote, and too enclosed to be completely visible.
– Fenster 2017 – The Transparency Fix
Ordinary citizens tend to pay attention to politics only fitfully, and possess in consequence a thin, rather than thick, knowledge of it.
– Sniderman 1993
“I have to vote on 150 different kinds of things every year – foreign aid, science, space, technical problems, and the Merchant Marine, and Lord knows what else. I can’t possibly become an expert in all of these fields.” - Member of Congress
– Matthews Stimson 1975 – Yeas and Nays - Cue Taking & Decision-Making
*NOTE: Here Matthews and Stimson quote a member of Congress talking about how it is impossible to follow all the legislation, and that’s his full time job.
On the day the House passed HR6678 [a bill on bank holding companies], members also discussed on the floor (in one form or another) national egg inspection, aircraft cost overruns, school desegregation, the war in Vietnam, defense appropriations, food stamps, office equipment for members of the House, the poverty program, draft reform, the problems of air travel and the Supersonic Transport, crime, education problems in the District of Colombia, consumer protection, and rural electrification. Each member might consider themselves an expert on only one or two of these issues, and they are thus completely overwhelmed on the others. A member of the Armed Services Committee commented “Now the years that I studied military things, it would take a man that many years to learn it. And you don’t have enough hours, enough years in your life to learn all you should.
– Matthews Stimson 1975 – Yeas and Nays - Cue Taking & Decision-Making
*NOTE: Here Matthews and Stimson discuss how difficult it is for a member of Congress to follow all the legislation, and that’s their full time job.
We don't have a problem with information — we have an information overload.
– Lorelei Kelly 2012 – Washington Post

Program on Political Policy Attitudes

Perhaps the more difficult problem is simply a lack of interest. Many voters do not choose to avail themselves of the copious amount of informaiton about policy and politics that is, in theory, available to them.
– Schacter 2006 – Political Accountability
The public is likely incapable of following even a curated and distilled version of legislation.
– Adler 2017 – MPSA Discussion Chicago
I would have to say that most of the people in my district do not know what is involved in major legislation. And I would also have to say that not very many of them are interested.
– Matthews & Stimson 1975 – Yeas and Nays
The longer I’m here the more I’m convinced that very few constituents are aware of how I vote…I’m also convinced that a great majority of them have adopted the policy, “We sent you there; now make up your own mind!” That’s the reaction I get. On my trips home I always urge them to write. I often get the response, “Well, why should we write and say what we think; that’s why we elected you.”
– Member of Congress – Matthews Stimson 1975 – Yeas & Nays