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Maybe voters aren’t as uninformed as elites like to think

A new paper argues that elitist jargon is the real issue.

Eleanor Roosevelt rests below voting booths as people cast their votes in Venice, California, on November 5, 2016.
Eleanor Roosevelt rests below voting booths as people cast their votes in Venice, California, on November 5, 2016.
Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Nothing brings smart, well-informed people together across party lines in Washington quite like a good chuckle at the ignorance of the average voter who believes 20 percent of federal spending goes to foreign aid and we could balance the budget if we just cracked down on waste, fraud, and abuse. Of course the voters think we’re idiots for being unable to put our heads together and solve these big, intractable problems — the issue is that the voters themselves are idiots who don’t understand what the problems are.

But maybe not.

In a great new paper titled “Public Ignorance or Elitist Jargon? Reconsidering Americans’ Overestimates of Government Waste and Foreign Aid” that’s forthcoming in American Politics Research, Vanessa Williamson argues that the disagreement is mainly terminological.

It’s true, of course, that the average voter cannot precisely nail USAID’s budget or cite GAO statistics about program waste of the top of their heads. But the reason voters’ estimates are orders of magnitude away from reality, according to Williamson, isn’t ignorance about the facts and figures — it’s ignorance about the jargon.

Voters think of the Pentagon’s genuinely gargantuan budget as largely spent on helping foreigners, and they think of money spent on priorities they don’t support as wasted. Characterizing the difference in how policy elites and the mass public use words as a form of ignorance winds up obscuring the substantive critique of US policy that voters — especially less educated ones — are making.

Knowledge about ignorance

A fairly typical December 2014 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that the average respondent guessed that 26 percent of the federal budget goes toward foreign aid. That result was widely cited in the media, and similar findings are a common discussion point in terms of both the public’s understanding of foreign aid in particular and the federal budget in general.

But, Williamson asks, what does “foreign aid” even mean?

The Department of Defense is obviously doing a lot of stuff that is not related to defending the United States from the threat of a Canadian invasion or what have you. And most of that stuff is rhetorically justified as a form of helping foreigners. Our troops are participating in the defense of South Korea, Japan, and Western Europe. We hear about efforts to bring democracy to Iraq and liberate women in Afghanistan. In recent years, the US Navy ran a whole ad campaign themed around the notion that it is a “global force for good.”

Williamson shows that belief that America spends enormous sums of money on foreign aid is strongly correlated with belief that military spending is a form of foreign aid:

When an American thinks of foreign aid as military spending, his or her estimate of the foreign aid budget is more than 50% higher, all else being equal. This relationship is concentrated among less educated people; non–college graduates who think of foreign aid as military spending estimate the foreign aid budget to be twice as high as their peers who do not think of foreign aid in this way.

By the same token, inflated estimates of the amount of “waste” are strongly correlated with choosing to use the word “waste” to generically refer to spending on bad programs:

... what Americans mean by “waste” includes more than just inefficiency, and those wider definitions correlate with substantially larger estimates of waste. All else equal, when a respondent thought of government waste in terms of programs he or she dislike, the estimates of waste were 23% higher. When a respondent thought of government waste in terms most similar to official policymaking, his or her estimates were 18% lower, all else equal. Again, the impact is concentrated among those at the lowest levels of education.

There is still a real margin of public ignorance here. But it’s much smaller than a surface reading of the poll results would imply. A big part of the story is simply that ordinary Americans — especially ones who haven’t gone to college — use these terms somewhat differently than do professionals. And while some of this is genuinely just semantic, some of it masks a real substantive critique of American policy priorities that is largely absent from mainstream politics.

The missing foreign policy argument

In elite circles, Americans typically argue about national security policy on a spectrum that ranges from a hawkish push for more military spending and more use of military force abroad to a dovish, anti-imperialist one that is sharply critical of the real motives of US foreign policy and the real consequences of America’s drive for global military domination.

But there’s clearly a large, and primarily working-class, segment of the population that has a view that’s somewhat orthogonal to this debate. It tends to sound somewhere between irresponsible and naive (or both) to elites, who were generally displeased by John Kerry’s 2004 rhetoric about how we shouldn’t be building fire stations in Baghdad while shutting them down in Boston and scandalized by Donald Trump’s proposals to turn NATO into some kind of fee-for-service protection scheme.

Yet it’s fundamentally not all that surprising that some large segment of the public takes the rhetoric about the selflessness of America’s military posture at face value and simply wonders why we’re bothering to be so generous. This perspective is pretty much entirely marginalized in elite circles, and that marginalization — more than confusion about the extent of foreign aid — is, in some ways, the real thing that the famous polls reveal.

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