The phrase “low-information voter” was originally coined to describe people who were too stupid to vote for liberal policies because they didn’t know what was good for them. “Low-information voters will vote against labor unions, in spite of the fact that the labor unions are responsible for getting them the 40 hour work week, decent wages, employer provided health insurance, vacations, lunch hours, and breaks, among other things.”
In September 2012, comedian and political commentator Bill Maher made fun of undecided voters on his HBO program Real Time calling them “low-information voters, otherwise known as dipshits.” Also in September, the NBC program Saturday Night Live ran a mock public service announcement featuring undecided low-information voters asking questions such as “When is the election?” and “Who is the president right now? Is he or she running?”
What supposedly distinguished LIVs from “thinking” voters was their use of cues instead of individual, reasoned analysis. “Cues” are proxy measures of the underlying questions they are unwilling to answer for themselves. They are a shorthand way of arriving at answers. We look to see what other people do, and by imitating them harvest the benefit of their wisdom.
It crucially depends on whom we consider wise. Do we prefer a man of the people? Then vote for Bill Clinton since he eats at McDonald’s. Do we hate elitists? Then hate John Kerry because he goes windsurfing.
The use of cues is not entirely irrational. Because people often do not know enough to judge a thing for themselves, they sometimes look to see what well-known people choose. It’s like being at a formal dinner with a dozen forks, spoons, and knives arrayed beside the crockery. If we ape the monocled aristocrat beside us, we are bound to be right.
So with the vexing questions of the day. Does Jim Carrey hate guns? Well then guns must be bad. Does Lena Dunham like Barack Obama? If so, vote Barack Obama. We don’t need no steenkin’ knowledge. All we need to do is watch the celebrities. Cues are “a statistic or signal that can be extracted from the sensory input by a perceiver, that indicates the state of some property of the world that the perceiver is interested in perceiving.”
Unfortunately this inflates the influence to the famous, who are very often the only source of cues that LIVs know. Their proxies are often reality-show actors, bombastic politicians, and successful self-promoters. Why? Because they’re on TV. What is worse, since these celebrities run in the same circles, their opinions tend to feed back on each other, a self-reinforcing effect that produces conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom is something everyone knows is true but almost no one knows why. However, as Wikipedia notes, “conventional wisdom is not necessarily true. Conventional wisdom is additionally often seen as an obstacle to the acceptance of newly acquired information. … For example, it is widely believed that conventional wisdom prior to Christopher Columbus held that the world was flat, when in actuality scholars had long accepted that the earth is a sphere.”
Once something becomes CW it is almost cast in stone. John Maynard Keynes said that after age 25 or 30 people seldom change their understanding of how economies work. Therefore if you can convince an elementary-school kid that socialism is grand and communism is even better, that locks a generation or two into that CW.
There is a big first-mover advantage to creating an item of conventional wisdom. Once established, it is hard to overthrow. Consider global warming. Ask about it and one might receive the answer: “Of course it exists.” Or ask about Operation Iraqi Freedom: “Of course it was a failure.” However, the respondent may not be able to explain why. It is just something that “everybody knows.”
Even when confronted with unremitting rebuttal it may take an extraordinarily long time to overthrow a widely held belief. For example, how long did it take for German citizens to reject the legitimacy of the Nazi government? Among the few films to explore this question is the masterpiece Decision Before Dawn, which almost nobody remembers was nominated for best picture in 1951. Decision Before Dawn was shot entirely on location inside Germany, and much of the cast probably wore a uniform only a few years before. The dialogue is something that viewers with an immediate, first-person recollection of World War Two would have found credible.
It tells the story of a German enlisted man, played by Oskar Werner, who volunteers to spy for the allies against his own government. One of the most memorable scenes is when Werner, traveling as spy through his own country, is befriended by an SS courier. As they sit in a cafe, amid dancing girls who have lost a leg or two from bombing raids, the SS man offers him a bottle of wine. “Drink, for we’ll be dead any day now,” he says. “I know the amis are coming.” And then he adds that, anyway, “we’ve given the world twelve years they’ll never forget. They’ll never get over us.”
So the answer to how long it took the conventional wisdom to change in Nazi Germany is “too long.” For strange as it may seem, the flesh often changes before the spirit. As applied to business, it implies that companies don’t change. They go bankrupt. As applied to history, it suggests that dysfunctional regimes don’t discover remorse and reform. They are simply defeated. Neither Nazi Germany nor imperial Japan experienced a change of heart. They experienced a radical change in circumstances.
The body got there before the soul.
Few in error see it coming. Or if they do, they act as if they don’t. A careen toward a cliff is often ended by the physical fact of falling over the precipice. Gamblers, drinkers, debtors, and criminals of all stripes don’t as a rule stop because the conventional wisdom has changed in their heads. They stop when they look around to see The End staring them in the face.
The way conventional wisdoms end is they are taken to their logical conclusions.
If the first-mover advantage belongs to the originators of the narrative, then an equally important role must be accorded the last movers. Their strategy is to remain the last man standing, and pick up the pieces. The last movers don’t argue; they survive. They don’t have to worry about the nonsense low-information voters believe because that entire system of cues will crash, and therefore the LIVs will be blank slates ready to be overwritten.
One often thinks of arguments as being settled by debate, via a kind of dialectic. Yet in fact arguments are often decided by survival. The narrative that wins in history isn’t the most beautiful meme; often just the one that can show up tomorrow. One interesting example of this strategy is Palestine, and similar nationalisms. Their power is based on repeatedly saying “no” to anything and everything except their maximum demands. The Israelis think that reason is important. The Palestinians know that reason is unimportant. It is far more decisive to be the last mover.
Even on the global scale this has surprising implications. The United States after World War Two probably dominated the world simply by being the last mover in that conflict. There was a whole slew of pre-existing conventional wisdoms — like colonialism — which became irrelevant because they were consumed in the cataclysm. This insight has not wholly been lost. One way to think about China and Russia’s grand strategy is that each aspires to be the last mover in a world without America.
The practical implication of this in politics is that success often depends less on persuasion than on assured survival. One of the first modern figures to realize this was James Michael Curley, four-time mayor of Boston. He had no interest in persuading the voters that he was an honest, upstanding politician. He simply set about turning Boston “into a city that would elect him.” He packed it with the Irish constituents, in the process destroying the municipal economy. But though he ruined Boston, he was re-elected as often as he wanted.
Just as the power of conventional wisdom was never in the truth of its precepts, the destruction of established memes is not always a function of rational rebuttal. Myths are compounded of some truth, but are mostly held together by human ingenuity. Their job is to create cues; to illuminate the path of the LIVs.
The real function of knowledge is to enable survival. The function of narratives is to create a mental universe for the LIVs.