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.