by David O. Sears, University of California, Los Angeles
The dilemma of America’s commitment to universal suffrage paired with recognition of the citizenry’s limited political knowledge and capabilities has been a constant theme in both normative accounts of democracy and behavioral descriptions of how it operates in practice. The Founders worried about how much authority to give ordinary citizens, given their spotty understanding of the issues and processes involved in self-governance. H.L. Mencken, with little respect for representative democracy, famously described the electorate as “boobs.” Intellectual elites often flog the electorate as acting in ignorance of readily-available scientific knowledge, as in the Scopes trial of a century ago, the fluoridation controversies of half a century ago, or today’s battles over climate change. Lupia cites many polls claiming to document the ignorance of the electorate, though somewhat skeptically.