Thomas Jefferson is known for his belief that a democracy cannot survive without a well-educated electorate. He supported an educational Constitutional amendment and helped establish both West Point (during his presidency) and the University of Virginia (after leaving office). But what happens to a democracy without education?
As the franchise is expanded, it inevitably encompasses people who are not prepared for the responsibility. Education can fill this gap, but only if it is available and accepted. Failing that, you end up with people voting against their own self-interest out of ignorance.
- Joe the Plumber became the conservative media’s darling as he railed against candidate Obama’s tax proposals during the 2008 US presidential election – despite the fact that he would not have been affected by the proposed tax, demonstrating a fundamental lack of understanding of how income tax is calculated.
- Tea Party advocates are infamous for their calls to “Keep government out of my Medicare” – despite the fact that Medicare is a government program.
- Actor turned political advocate Craig T. Nelson once said, “I’ve been on food stamps and welfare, did anyone help me out? No.” – despite the fact that both food stamps and welfare are government aid programs.
This is not just a liberal complaint about conservative voters, even if some of the more amusing examples do come from the conservative side of the spectrum. Conservatives themselves are also concerned that uninformed voters are polluting the democratic process and have their own proposals for correcting this imbalance.
In the end, this is a democratic issue. It affects the world’s largest and longest-established democracies, as well as its newest. Every time someone is given the vote – either by reaching their age of majority or by an expansion of the franchise to a previously unrepresented group – the potential danger to democracy posed by the un- or under-educated voter increases.