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Citizens and Political Sophistication

Summary and Keywords

Political sophistication refers to the role of expertise and the use of information in the forming of political judgments. Citizens in a democracy need a sufficient level of political sophistication to make sense of politics and to hold office holders accountable. Most people do not seem to be as sophisticated as theory would expect, and political sophistication also seems to be very unevenly spread among individuals. The consequences for democratic governance continue to be a matter of much scholarly debate.

Although most researchers agree that sophistication among citizens tends to be low, many issues in the research field are deeply contested. First, several concepts such as awareness, sophistication, and knowledge are used more or less interchangeably in analyses of the political competence of citizens. It is, however, unclear whether the terminology conceals essential conceptual differences.

Second, the empirical strategy of using surveys to measure sophistication has been heavily criticized. For some, the survey is an unsuitable method because it measures the respondents’ ability to produce correct answers under suboptimal conditions, rather than measuring what they actually know about politics. For others, the survey questions themselves are an inadequate measure of sophistication.

Third, it is not clear what the effects of citizens’ political sophistication or lack thereof are on democratic governance. According to one group of scholars, the aggregated opinions and electoral choices of democratic publics would not look very different even if they were more sophisticated. The opponents of this low-information rationality theorem claim that increases in citizens’ sophistication would lead to substantial differences in democratic output. In other words, perceptions of the significance of sophistication for democracy deeply divide scholars working in the field.

There is less disagreement concerning the individual-level determinants of sophistication. Although being male, well educated, and in a socially advantaged position still stand out as the strongest predictors of high sophistication, recent findings provide a more nuanced understanding of how sophistication is distributed among citizens.

In addition to many enduring disputes, some questions remain largely unanswered. Without cross-nationally standardized survey items, scholars have struggled to conduct comparative studies of political sophistication. Therefore, role of political institutions as facilitators of political sophistication is to some extent uncertain. Whether and how sophistication changes over time are equally important, but mostly unexplored, questions.

Keywords: political sophistication, political knowledge, political awareness, civic literacy, political efficacy

Introduction

Modern representative democracy builds on the idea that governments are responsive to the preferences of the people (e.g., Dahl, 1971, p. 1). The people’s preferences, which the government responds to by making policies accordingly, are expected to be meaningful, in the sense that they should reflect the values and beliefs of the citizens. For democracy to function in this manner, it is necessary, among other things, that citizens are capable—that is, have the ability to formulate real and consistent preferences, which can be expressed through various forms of political action.

Democracy, therefore, entails some degree of political interest and awareness on the part of ordinary citizens. This key feature of democracy has been captured most famously in the quote by Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee (1954, p. 308): “The democratic citizen is expected to be well-informed about political affairs. He is supposed to know what the issues are, what their history is, what the relevant facts are, what alternatives are proposed, what the party stands for, and what the likely consequences are.”

The political competence of citizens thus can be considered one important determinant of the quality of democracy; if citizens fail in constructing meaningful preferences or in communicating them effectively—or both—democracy runs the risk of producing suboptimal policies. This could severely damage democratic legitimacy. The political sophistication of citizens is, therefore, a defining characteristic of any democratic society.

For the individual citizen, political sophistication is a means of making sense of politics. As Delli Carpini and Keeter (1996, p. 8) put it in their seminal study, sophistication is the “currency of democratic citizenship.” According to this view, which is shared by many, political sophistication is a resource that makes it possible for the citizen to gain access to the democratic political process and the opportunity to affect it (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996, p. 8).

Since much is at stake here for democracy, public opinion research has paid considerable attention to examining how well informed public opinion really is. Almost 70 years of empirical research have produced many useful findings, but they have not succeeded in resolving some fundamental scholarly disputes about the true meaning of citizen competence for representative democracy. For some, the citizenry’s apparent lack of political sophistication is a problem. For others, it is simply a democratic reality that might even be beneficial for democracy.

In this article, we examine the current state of scholarly debate concerning some key aspects of political sophistication: the normative theoretical foundations, the concepts used to describe it, and some noteworthy empirical findings. In our examination of research on political sophistication, we try to identify scholarly consensus and disagreement in order to provide an understanding of where the discipline currently stands. In this quest, we find more disputes than agreements. Illustrative of this, there are many rival concepts, which could be confusing for anyone approaching the research field for the first time. We conclude the article with some suggestions for future research and explain the current trends in the research on political sophistication.

A Conceptual Clarification

Several decades of research into citizen competence have spawned many concepts, which are used practically interchangeably. Political knowledge, political sophistication, political awareness, political expertise, civic literacy, and internal political efficacy are some of the most widely used concepts in the literature. All of them refer to the broad notion of citizen competence, but with slightly different connotations and intellectual history. We begin by presenting political knowledge, which is probably the most commonly used concept in contemporary research in the broader field of political sophistication.

Political Knowledge

Delli Carpini and Keeter (1996, p. 10) define political knowledge as “the range of factual information about politics that is stored in long-term memory,” which captures all the essential aspects of the term. As Delli Carpini and Keeter (1996, p. 11) explain, by referring to “information,” they distinguish political knowledge from political attitudes. Since information should be “factual,” in terms of being correct, their definition only includes accurate cognitions about politics. For them, political knowledge is essentially something that can be tested empirically for correctness. A political knowledge survey item, therefore, must have a right answer, which can be distinguished from all other answers, which must be incorrect. This separates political knowledge from political beliefs. Delli Carpini and Keeter’s definition is rather narrow and technical, but also quite practical, as it is strictly confined to knowledge of facts relating to politics.

Political Sophistication

Unlike political knowledge, political sophistication is a more inclusive concept. When the concept of political sophistication was first introduced, it referred broadly to the level and structure of ideological constraints or belief systems, as well as the use, recognition, and understanding of ideology (Converse, 1964). Later, political expertise among citizens was largely conceived as a function of the level of information that the individual possesses—that is, the simple facts about politics and how they are connected.

Empirical research has converged on a general focus on factual political knowledge, which perhaps has become the most widely used concept in the sophistication literature. The conceptual development and scholarly use have brought political sophistication very close to political knowledge during the past three or four decades. The two concepts are now so intertwined that it is difficult to see the difference.

If we look closely at some important contributions to the political sophistication literature, however, there are several definitions that reveal significant differences. Luskin (1990, p. 332) summarized political sophistication as “political cognitive complexity, political expertise.” Political sophistication is, therefore, not only about being politically knowledgeable, in terms of being aware of a wide range of political facts. It refers instead to such expertise in the political domain, where a rich body of political knowledge is organized in a manner that makes that knowledge useful. Simply having information may constitute being knowledgeable, but being able to employ it to cast a meaningful vote or place political events in a proper ideological context is being sophisticated.

Although political sophistication requires at least a reasonable degree of knowledge, knowledge does not necessarily entail sophistication. Indicative of its conceptual broadness, Neuman (1986, p. 194), for instance, considers political sophistication as a wide-ranging concept, “spanning the three concepts of salience, knowledge, and conceptualization.” For Neuman, political sophistication is an amalgamation of all three components, with political knowledge being the most important. Luskin and Neuman seem to agree that while political knowledge is the most vital aspect of political sophistication, the notion of cognitive processing of political information is also required.

Political Awareness

The concept of political awareness, which is most often associated with John Zaller and his influential work The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, is very similar to political sophistication. Zaller (1992, p. 21) defines political awareness as referring “to the extent to which an individual pays attention to politics and understands what he or she has encountered.” As he explains, just paying attention to politics is insufficient, “since people who, for example, watch the TV news while lying on the couch after dinner and a couple of glasses of wine will typically fail to enhance their political awareness” (Zaller, 1992, p. 21). Emphasizing the cognitive processing of political information, political awareness is the next of kin of political sophistication.

Civic Literacy

Yet another similar concept is civic literacy, which is most intimately linked with Henry Milner’s argument that societies can be described by the extent of civic literacy among their citizens (Milner, 2002). According to Milner, at the individual level, civic literacy is the ability to exercise one’s role as a citizen. His focus is on the local level of political decision-making because, he claims, that is where most of the decisions are made that have the greatest bearing on people’s everyday lives. At the societal level, civic literacy is “the proportion of [their] inhabitants demonstrating the knowledge and skills to act as competent citizens” (Milner, 2002, pp. 2–3).

As seen previously with political sophistication and awareness, the emphasis of civic literacy is on the ability of citizens to do something, not simply the amount of information that they possess. Milner, however, also considers civic literacy as a trait of entire societies, not just individuals.

Internal Political Efficacy

Internal political efficacy has its origins in the one-dimensional concept of political efficacy, which later research has divided into two separate dimensions: (a) internal equals citizens’ perceptions of their own competence “to understand and to participate effectively in politics” (Craig, Niemi, & Silver, 1990, p. 290); and (b) external equals citizens’ perceptions of the responsiveness of political institutions and actors in realizing citizens’ demands (for an overview, see, e.g., Morrell, 2003).

Of these two dimensions of efficacy, internal efficacy belongs to the same strain of thought as the other concepts discussed previously. It is essentially a subjective estimation of personal political sophistication. Whereas political knowledge can be seen as a straightforward, objective measure of political competence, internal political efficacy is a personal evaluation of the same.

All the abovementioned concepts offer insight into the general idea of political sophistication. In one way or another, they all seek to address the question of the extent to which citizens are able to grasp politics, whether measured in terms of factual knowledge, the capability to form consistent opinions, or self-confidence in political matters. For the sake of clarity, Table 1 provides a summary of these concepts.

Table 1. Political Sophistication and Kin Concepts

Concept

Definitions

Political sophistication

  1. 1. Political sophistication is political cognitive complexity and political expertise (Luskin, 1990, p. 332).

  2. 2. [Political sophistication is] a combination of salience, knowledge, and conceptualization (Neuman, 1986, p. 194).

Political knowledge

The range of factual information about politics that is stored in long-term memory (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996, p. 10).

Political awareness

The extent to which an individual pays attention to politics and understands what he or she has encountered (Zaller, 1992, p. 21).

Civic literacy

  1. 1. The ability of the individual to act as citizens of a society

  2. 2. The proportion of the inhabitants of a society demonstrating the knowledge and skills to act as competent citizens (Milner, 2002, pp. 2–3)

Internal political efficacy

Belief about one’s competence to understand and to participate effectively in politics (Craig et al., 1990, p. 290)

The Informed Citizen

The preceding overview included several closely related concepts, which all have been used in the field to describe essentially the same thing—political sophistication. This might suggest to the critical reader that sophistication researchers have trouble agreeing even about quite fundamental issues. They seem, nevertheless, to agree on one key point. There is a widespread scholarly consensus that only a small fraction of the democratic public is politically truly sophisticated, while the great majority is poorly informed. It is widely accepted that popular levels of political sophistication do not match the normative requirements of an informed citizenry. In most places, political knowledge is a variable of “low mean and high variance” (Converse, 1990).

Ever since the first notable empirical studies from the late 1940s, few scholars have challenged the interpretation that a large portion of the electorate is less knowledgeable about politics than anyone—or at least political scientists—would assume. In a landmark study, Converse (1964) found that only about 3% of American voters processed politics through a logically consistent and constrained ideology. Studies from various countries time and again have reported similarly low levels of political knowledge (for a review, see, e.g., Rapeli, 2013).

But scholars have not interpreted the empirical results in the same way. They have triggered intense academic disagreement about whether the well-documented low level of political sophistication really is a real problem for representative democracy. This is essentially a collision between two approaches to representative democracy, which hold very different normative views of just how informed ordinary citizens need to be to carry out basic democratic functions, such as turning out to vote and holding office holders accountable.

Some make rather stringent demands and argue that citizens ought to at least know who the relevant politicians and parties are, what they stand for, and what the current issues on the political agenda are, as well as understand how the political system works. Making a case for an enlightened citizenry, these scholars typically cite a long line of classic political thinkers beginning with Plato, who have shared their belief in the self-governing capacity of the common man (and woman). The proponents of this view may realize that the requirements that they are proposing are unrealistic for most citizens. But in the spirit of the participatory model of democracy, some democratic theorists believe in the educating power of civic engagement: if citizens are given a genuine opportunity to participate, they eventually will develop into politically sophisticated individuals.

Others are satisfied with much less. Supporting a model of democracy that emphasizes the role of the ruling elite, for this group of scholars, it is sufficient for a citizen to have only a very basic, superficial understanding of politics, which makes it possible for them to vote in elections (e.g., Schumpeter, 1976). They often recognize the merits of a more sophisticated public but consider that public’s ignorance of politics as the natural state of affairs in a democracy. They typically bolster this normative stand by presenting empirical evidence of how public policy tends to be responsive to public opinion in spite of poor information levels (e.g., Gilens, 2011; Wlezien & Soroka, 2007). Althaus (2006) also has pointed out that the normative theoretical grounds behind demands for a well-informed citizenry may be the result of a poor reading of those classic thinkers, upon whose theories the whole idea relies. It could be, therefore, that democratic theory is a bit less demanding on the ordinary citizen than the proponents of the “enlightened citizenry” view have claimed.

Despite these grave differences, which admittedly are difficult to reconcile, the two approaches disagree only on the extent of sophistication required from all citizens, not on the principle of equal right to participate regardless of sophistication. There is, however, a third view, which calls into question universal suffrage on the grounds of competence. The meritocratic or epistocratic argument, recently and most notably presented by Brennan (2011), is that since democracy grants everyone political power over others—not just oneself—it is morally unsound to allow anyone with poor political competence to participate through such actions as voting. Arguments in the same vein ask whether actors in a representative democracy should seek to represent the opinions of the unknowledgeable and the uninformed as well as their own.

Moral questions can seldom be settled through empirical examination, but Brennan and the like-minded seem to have empirical reality on their side. A wealth of evidence documenting poor levels of political knowledge has led researchers to focus on a common dilemma, referred to as the paradox of mass democracy: how can democracies endure and even flourish when political ignorance is so widespread among democratic citizens? Several explanations have been offered, with no end to the discussion in sight.

Resolving a Paradox: From Information Levels to Information Processing

Researchers have proposed at least three major solutions to resolve the paradox caused by low information levels and the survival of mass democracy. The first two argue that a high level of political sophistication among ordinary citizens is unnecessary for democracy to survive because people manage to form coherent political opinions anyway. The third solution, which comes in many versions, says that the survey-based research methods and measurements of political sophistication are unreliable, to the degree that we cannot even be sure that there is a paradox to resolve. According to these critics, using poorly constructed survey items to measure sophistication produces poor data, which makes citizens look more politically incompetent than they really are.

Low-Information Rationality

Probably the most debated explanation is that no paradox exists because even low-information individuals can use heuristics and cognitive shortcuts to emulate fully (or at least adequately) informed behavior (Lupia, 1994). Although they may fail information tests in surveys, they are fully capable of fulfilling their duties as citizens.

Obviously, everyone uses information shortcuts, such as party labels, ideology, interest groups, or someone they know, to some extent because it is impossible to account for or accumulate all available information about an election. It is also convenient to rely on cues because there is much else to think about in life besides politics. The heuristics argument claims that because of such shortcuts, it does not matter that most citizens are politically ignorant on the facts of politics; they will efficiently compensate for their lack of factual information by effectively relying on cues.

While the heuristics model undoubtedly enhances our understanding of how citizens reason about politics, there is a good reason to be skeptical about it as an explanation for the paradox. The main problem is that low-sophistication individuals, who are in most need of cues, are not very good at utilizing them (Lau & Redlawsk, 2001), while highly sophisticated citizens seem to be most effective in using heuristics. To navigate politics efficiently with the help of convenient cues, one still has to understand such elements as party ideology. Without such understanding, it is impossible to take an information shortcut, even if it is available. Many studies have shown that low-sophistication individuals do not possess adequate knowledge about such abstract concepts. Experimental research, however, has discovered instances where cue-taking may diminish the gap between high- and low-sophistication individuals when making political decisions (see, e.g., Boudreau, 2009).

Statistical Aggregation of Preferences

A second solution claims that although the individual opinion may be misguided, judgment errors tend to cancel each other out when opinions are aggregated (Page & Shapiro, 1992). Although appealing, the “miracle of aggregation” or “wisdom of the crowd” argument is unlikely to resolve the paradox. Research has demonstrated that judgment errors among citizens are not randomly distributed; instead, they are strongly related to factors such as political sophistication and also are heavily influenced by partisan bias (e.g., Duch, Palmer, & Anderson, 2000). At any given time, public perceptions may be offset in ways that make it highly unlikely that individual errors would cancel each other out. In other words, inconsistencies and other imperfections in opinion formation are to a considerable degree systematical, not random, and they are affected by an individual’s political sophistication.

Bad Measurement

A third suggestion to resolve the paradox is that the survey method, through which the paradox has been identified, is flawed in various ways (for a useful review of this criticism, see Boudreau & Lupia, 2011). These criticisms suggest that survey findings conceal a good deal of political knowledge that the respondents actually possess. If this is true, there may not be much of a paradox to begin with, because we have been grossly underestimating the public’s political sophistication all along. The problem of how to best measure political knowledge has triggered a lively controversy.

First, the items on the quiz-type survey (e.g., correct/false/don’t know) that are traditionally used to measure citizens’ political knowledge are considered inadequate and trivial. According to Graber (1994) and Lupia (2006), for instance, it is far from obvious why asking citizens for the names of prominent office holders or about the number of members in Congress or Parliament should be related to their ability to cast a meaningful vote. Relatedly, Barabas, Jerit, Pollock, and Rainey (2014) have accused previous measurements of ignoring the nature of political facts. According to them, political knowledge should be seen as consisting of two dimensions: the temporal and the topical. They argue that political facts should be distinguished in terms of whether they are subject to change, and whether they are general or policy specific.

Second, it seems possible that unreliability in survey measures of sophistication also varies between different types of individuals. According to Mondak and Anderson (2004), men’s greater propensity to guess when they are unsure of the right answer explains 50% of the gender difference in political knowledge. While this explanation would not fully explain the paradox of mass democracy, it would profoundly alter the way that it should be understood: If the robustness of survey findings truly varies that significantly between the two genders, the findings provide a very unstable picture of the public’s sophistication. If guessing really is as unevenly distributed among sociodemographic groups, it is difficult to assess how serious the paradox is among those groups.

Third, survey respondents do not necessarily do their utmost to get the knowledge questions right. In an important study, Prior and Lupia (2008) showed that manipulating respondents’ motivation levels or providing them more time to answer greatly affects knowledge scores. These simple treatments proved powerful and raised the number of correct answers by 1–24 percentage points in their experiments. This finding is troubling for scholars of political sophistication because circumventing the very understandable problem of low motivation among respondents is typically not easy.

Fourth, the way that survey data are handled can lead to distorted results. Gibson and Caldeira (2009) showed that unreasonably rigid coding made the American public look remarkably less knowledgeable about the Supreme Court than it actually was. Their findings were taken seriously by the scholarly community, leading to changes in the coding of open-ended knowledge items in the American National Election Studies.

Finally, surveys have been criticized for their inability to measure political knowledge, which sometimes cannot be expressed verbally. Prior (2014) argued that citizens also store political information visually, which is not taken into account in traditional survey questions. Traditional verbal knowledge questions, therefore, tend to underestimate the knowledge levels of people who prefer to learn and think visually, such as women and less educated people. Taking individuals’ different cognitive styles into account may challenge what we know about how political sophistication is distributed in the public.

In addition, new insights into individuals’ processing of political information provide further challenges to the survey method. The basic idea is that although people may not be able to actively recollect political information that they have encountered, this information still may have played a role in their previous opinion formation, and it may affect their political choices. According to the online processing model, political judgments and choices are the result of continuous processing, which incorporates new data into the existing store of information (e.g., Zaller, 1992). When old information is replaced, it is no longer retrievable from memory during a survey, although it has previously had an impact on an individual’s preference formation. In light of this argument, assessing individuals’ political knowledge by asking them to recall political facts from memory is insufficient.

All of these points amount to a good deal of uncertainty about the current state of knowledge concerning the political sophistication of ordinary citizens. The preceding discussion illustrates the extent to which even some of the most fundamental issues concerning the conceptualization and measurement of sophistication remain contested issues among scholars. The scholarly quarreling, however, should not distract from the fact that research in this particular area has contributed many important insights that are very valuable to the broader study of political behavior and participation.

One of the ambitious efforts to try collect comparable measures of political knowledge from many different electorates is the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES). In Module IV of the project, four multiple-choice questions were asked to voters in 36 countries in order to find any variations in factual political knowledge (see Table 2). The evaluation report (Gidengil, Meneguello, Shenga, & Zechmeister, 2016) highlights the challenges of producing knowledge indices that at the same time are internally consistent and can provide a basis for country comparisons. The authors concluded that the knowledge items produced very weak scales in most countries, mainly due to the lack of variation in scores within countries. Their recommendation was that direct factual knowledge questions should be omitted from future rounds of the CSES.

Table 2. Factual Political Knowledge in 36 Countries

Country

Name of finance minister

Unemployment rate

Second-largest party

Name of United Nations president

Average correct responses

Ireland

88

(88)

Canada

78

92

(85)

Sweden

93

53

90

64

75

Austria

74

49

89

53

67

Germany

85

37

94

43

65

New Zealand

83

34

85

52

64

Norway

72

54

69

57

63

Republic of Korea

38

23

81

93

59

Israel

68

29

83

54

58

Finland

71

30

76

51

57

Great Britain

78

26

81

42

57

Greece

62

37

86

41

57

Australia

50

60

58

47

54

Switzerland

53

52

48

61

54

Hong Kong

86

46

12

63

52

Slovenia

59

41

75

33

52

Iceland

60

31

71

38

50

Portugal

58

21

88

23

48

Japan

56

38

57

39

47

Turkey

59

18

85

25

47

Czech Republic

57

25

78

20

45

France

52

42

63

23

45

Serbia

44

17

58

58

44

Montenegro

43

11

73

45

43

Poland

47

36

84

8

43

Taiwan

32

32

86

18

42

Slovakia

38

36

45

29

37

United States of America

35

50

48

14

37

Kenya

30

9

75

27

35

Bulgaria

28

17

69

22

34

South Africa

8

72

16

(32)

Romania

24

15

69

5

28

Brazil

34

14

16

9

18

Mexico

19

12

24

8

16

Philippines

23

14

4

14

14

Thailand

29

0

4

10

11

Source: Comparative Study of Electoral Systems IV (www.cses.org)

Note: Percentages given here are the percentage of correct responses to four factual knowledge questions, CSES IV (percent, average correct responses).

Question wordings are: (1) “Which of these persons was the Finance Minister before the recent election?” (2) “What was the current unemployment rate in [COUNTRY] as of [DATE]?” (3) “Which [PARTY, ALLIANCE, OR COALITION] came in second in seats in the [NAME OF THE LOWER HOUSE IN BICAMERAL SYSTEMS; OR ASSEMBLY, PARLIAMENT, OR CONGRESS IN UNICAMERAL SYSTEMS]?” (4) Who is the current Secretary-General of the United Nations—Kofi Annan, Kurt Waldheim, Ban Ki-moon, or Boutros Boutros-Ghali?” Multiple-choice questions with four alternatives were used for all knowledge questions for most of the countries (see the CSES IV codebook for details). The table entries are the percentages of correct answers. Incorrect answers and “don’t know” responses have been categorized as incorrect. n=832/4 391. Results are weighted with demographics.

In spite of all the measurement problems, the rank order of the countries with regard to citizens’ political knowledge enjoys at least some face validity if we relate it to the scattered findings in the literature. Citizens’ knowledge is generally higher in countries with multiparty systems (Gordon & Segura, 1997; Berggren, 2001), and, partly overlapping, in the high-civic-literacy countries of northern Europe (Milner, 2002). There are, however, reasons to expect that the country rankings are highly dependent on the selection of factual questions because citizens’ demand for specific information is likely to vary under different political systems. As of now, there is no robust evidence about the level of political sophistication in electorates around the world.

What You Get: The Effects of Sophistication

Why should we care about political sophistication? We argue that not only is there descriptive merit to mapping sophistication levels, but also that there is merit to the individual, and possibly also to the democratic system and the quality of policy. Scholars of sophistication typically expect positive returns from political knowledge in system support, political representation, and electoral turnout.

Effects on the Distribution of Power

First, even if the aggregate level of political ignorance were as irrelevant and inadequately documented as some claim, sophistication is quite unevenly distributed among citizens. If we adopt the commonly accepted view that sophistication helps individuals to understand and engage in politics, being very unevenly spread among citizens makes sophistication a source of inequality within democratic citizenship. Typically, the same characteristics that are associated with an advantageous social position—male gender, high education, high income, and middle-age—are linked to high political sophistication (e.g., Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996).

It seems that those economic, societal, and cognitive resources, which are crucial for effective citizen engagement, tend to cumulate. But evidence challenging our mental image of the stereotypical political sophisticate as a middle-aged, well-to-do man is slowly but steadily growing. Several studies have convincingly shown that this common typecasting is to some extent the product of the knowledge questions typically used in surveys. The questions ask about things that are not very relevant to many of the sociodemographic groups that tend to score relatively low on such tests. When asked about political matters that touch upon issues such as education, family matters, or healthcare, for example, women are at least as knowledgeable as men (e.g., Dolan, 2011). In a similar fashion, the knowledge gap between ethnic minorities and the racial majority in the United States also disappears (Pérez, 2015). According to these examples, the questions that we ask tend to make the disadvantaged groups look ignorant.

The findings that various societal groups know different things support Converse’s thesis about the existence of issue publics (Converse, 1964). According to him, most citizens minimize attention to politics by concentrating only on issues that interest them personally or may have significance for a group with which they identify. The issue publics model, therefore, treats citizens as political experts rather than generalists (see also Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996, p. 136ff). If the model holds true, which can be determined only after much more rigorous testing by future scholarship, the picture of the general public as politically ignorant may undergo a substantial revision. It is already clear that there are several instances where certain sections of the citizenry are much more politically sophisticated than previously thought.

Knowledge also is power in civic engagement. The uneven distribution of knowledge is, therefore, a fundamental question of political power in a democratic society. This claim gets more support from studies examining how sophistication relates to attitude formation and voting behavior.

Effects on Attitudes and Behaviors

Second, we should care about political sophistication because there may be substantial information effects on political preferences and political behavior that have direct implications for core functions of representative democracy. Examples include research into the effects of deliberation (e.g., Fishkin, 1991) and deliberative attempts in polling to gauge the opinions that people would hold if they knew more about the issue. Participation in deliberative mini-publics, where ordinary citizens engage deeply in resolving a policy issue, has been found to increase sophistication about that issue (see, e.g., Grönlund, Setälä, & Herne, 2010, p. 98). These findings lend very direct support to the contention that people are not entirely hopeless when it comes to developing political sophistication through participation.

A more recent line of inquiry into the effects of political sophistication suggests that what people know about politics also has an impact on the outcome of elections. Starting with Lau and Redlawsk (1997), there is a steadily growing literature on “correct voting,” which refers to citizens’ ability to vote according to their own political preferences. As several other studies since then also have shown (e.g., Lau, Patel, Fahmy, & Kaufman, 2014), correct voting has a strong, positive relationship with political sophistication—that is, the more sophisticated a person is, the more likely she or he is to be able to find the candidate or party that most closely matches her or his own values and policy preferences (cf. Sokhey & McClurg, 2012). At the individual level, therefore, political sophistication affects a person’s chances for meaningful political action: knowledgeable voters seem to be more in touch with their supposedly objective political interests than are less knowledgeable voters.

A closely related body of literature argues that if the current low levels of political sophistication among electorates were higher, election results often would look different. Although there may not be large direct effects of political information on voting, the use of simulation methods first introduced by Bartels (1996) and Althaus (1998) has shown that there may well be an aggregated net impact of information if multiple interactions between political knowledge and socioeconomic variables are allowed.

It is not clear who would benefit from a more sophisticated electorate, however. Arnold (2012) examined the intuitive “natural constituency hypothesis,” according to which information gains would be most tangible among the lower socioeconomic strata, which would result in electoral gains for leftist parties. Comparing 27 democracies, he found that both the political left and the right could make substantial electoral gains if the voters were better informed about politics, varying between countries and elections and lacking any discernible pattern.

Other studies offer a similarly mixed bag of results. While many find that leftist, often social democratic parties (or the Democratic Party in the U.S. context) would profit from increased voter sophistication (e.g., Fowler & Margolis, 2014), others provide counterevidence or claim that the information effects would be negligible (e.g., Bartels, 1996; Oscarsson, 2007; Toká & Popescu, 2007).

Taken as a whole, it seems that information affects election results, but in ways that depend on election-specific factors. The literature on the effects of increased sophistication on elections is inspiring, but it also has been heavily criticized for using survey data for counterfactual analysis, which is too far removed from reality to be trusted (e.g., Fowler & Margolis, 2014).

It nevertheless seems like scholars have shifted focus from examining individual-level variations to examining aggregate-level consequences of sophistication. There is an obvious need for a more precise understanding of how and when sophistication really matters for individual political choices and their aggregated outcomes. A related question, which future research could explore further, is the role of political institutions as facilitators of political sophistication.

Institutions Matter

Much of the variation in sophistication among individuals actually seems to stem from cross-country differences in political institutions and media environments. The results from the existing, scarce literature encourage further inquiry by suggesting that institutional arrangements may be even more important than individual-level determinants.

The few available studies have found a positive link between the public’s sophistication and attention to public broadcasting (as opposed to market-driven broadcasting). The focus of public service television on news production serves to diminish the knowledge gap between individuals in a democratic society (Curran, Iyengar, Brink Lund, & Salovaara-Moring, 2009).

In addition to media systems, political systems affect the costs and benefits of becoming informed. Systems that are complicated and in which the connection between parties and the consequences of their policies is obfuscated are harder for citizens to grasp. Such systemic qualities also lead to lower levels of sophistication (Gordon & Segura, 1997). Complicated political systems, which often also suffer from unclear lines of political responsibility, therefore significantly raise the costs of becoming politically informed. Institutions and the availability of information through media can either facilitate sophistication or impede it.

Much more cross-national research is needed, but unfortunately, constructing cross-nationally valid scales for factual knowledge is quite cumbersome. It is very difficult to come up with questions that measure knowledge of political facts with equal relevance, regardless of national context. The rules of the game vary greatly between countries; for example, the name of a country’s prime minister is not equally important knowledge in all countries with a prime minister, and it is completely irrelevant in countries that do not have one. Unsurprisingly, students of political sophistication often complain about the difficulty of making reliable cross-national comparisons.

Some data sets, most notably the CSES, the 2009 European Election Survey (EES), and the Eurobarometer studies, nevertheless provide comparative measures of political knowledge. Instead of factual knowledge, some researchers have used respondents’ ability to place parties on a left-right continuum as an indicator of political sophistication. Using a modicum of imagination to conduct comparative research on sophistication surely can be allowed, given the importance of the subject. In addition to more comparative work, there are several other subjects that call for more scholarly attention.

What Now?

As we have already suggested, students of political sophistication still have some fundamental issues to resolve. First, we believe that further inquiries into normative democratic theory are justified in order to clarify the requirements for democratic citizens’ traits and capabilities: What types of competence are really demanded of citizens in a democratic society to bring about sound governance? A more nuanced and detailed treatment of normative points of origin will help build a solid foundation for research into the measurement of political sophistication and its effects, consequences, and implications.

Second, there is no consensus on the conceptualization of political sophistication. For some, factual knowledge is the core component of sophistication—maybe even the only truly necessary component. Others, however, insist that sophistication is all about the ability to process and utilize political information cognitively.

Third, there is a particularly lively debate concerning the right way of measuring sophistication. The critics are worried that typical survey items and the survey method itself are providing too pessimistic a picture of ordinary citizens’ sophistication. In addition to developing better measures, future research should focus especially on developing cross-nationally valid indicators.

Finally, there is a clear trend in the contemporary literature for scholars to focus on the impact of sophistication on political reasoning. Studies focusing on the interplay between partisan bias in political thinking and political sophistication seem particularly popular, especially in North American scholarship. A key concept is misperception, which refers to confidently held, false beliefs that affect the political reasoning of ordinary citizens as if they were accurate facts. These studies are inspired by the theory of motivated reasoning, which resonates with the current political climate, especially in the United States.

Maybe the most important finding so far is that a high level of political sophistication may actually hinder individuals to change their mind, even if their existing beliefs are based on inaccurate information. Trying to correct misperceptions by offering an individual accurate, corrective information is actually more likely to backfire if the person is highly sophisticated (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010).

Although the majority of democratic theory greatly appreciates political sophistication as a crucial quality of the democratic citizen, as well as the democratic society, it does not always promote democracy itself. By offering this surprising insight, the new wave of sophistication studies has the potential to genuinely change the way that scholars think about the role of political sophistication in the functioning of democracy. Perhaps the ideal citizen is a medium-level sophisticate: not too uninformed so she or he still can make effective use of heuristics, and not too informed so that relevant new facts still can penetrate the perceptual screen.

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