Steve Chapman
This is an election year, which means all of us will spend the next few months carefully following the campaigns, finding out all we can about the candidates' proposals and pondering what issues are most vital for the nation's future.

Just kidding. Most of us wouldn't do that if you Tased us to within an inch of our lives.

In fact, many won't learn the most rudimentary facts about the people running for office and the policy issues they will have to address. Some of us will jump to believe any half-baked rumor or stereotype that confirms our prejudices.

We'll vote to reward or punish incumbents for events that they have nothing to do with. Some voters won't even find out the names of the people running for many offices. In short, the citizenry as a whole will carry out what looks like a giant cartoon parody of democracy.

Our form of government is one of those inventions that often look much better in concept than in practice. We see ourselves as a sober, enlightened people who jealously guard the national ideals and voting prerogatives for which our forebears died. We trust that our sound principles and attention to current events will yield good government in the end.

But we rarely live up to our self-image. There is a consistently large gap between what people need to know and what they actually do know.

Most think the federal budget is too big, but the only program a majority wants to cut is foreign aid -- which makes up about 1 percent of spending. Voters think taxes are too high but don't realize they've been reduced. One reason Americans supported the invasion of Iraq was that most of them had the erroneous idea that Saddam Hussein carried out the 9/11 attacks.

It's not just the issues of the day that flummox people. Most Americans don't know the three branches of government. They don't know the name of the person representing them in Congress.

Civics teachers, foundations and the League of Women Voters strive to improve the functioning of democracy by educating people about politics and government. Their efforts bring to mind the joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb: only one, but it has to really want to change.

The most concerted efforts to inform voters won't work unless voters have good reason to learn. And they don't.

After all, a person who learns a lot in order to vote intelligently has almost zero chance of changing the outcome of any election. Aside from the feeling of virtue it may confer, it's an irrational indulgence. Ignorance, by contrast, is perfectly rational.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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