There are two schools of thought: (1) the average voter is dumb as dirt and (2) the voters can do a far superior job of governance than elected representatives. I subscribe to both views with caveats and urge your indulgence to explore this important subject and consider corrective actions.
First, the average American is ignorant as evaluated by surveys, and a substantial proportion is inclined to believe weird things. As example, right after the 9/11 attack and despite news coverage, young American adults could not locate Afghanistan (83%) or Iraq (87%) on a map, as determined by National Geographic Society survey; 95% of American college freshmen could not locate Vietnam and only 30% could point to New Jersey on a U.S. map. Four years ago a National Science Foundation survey found half of 1,500 people polled believed dinosaurs and humans coexisted on Earth and 45% thought that humans were created "pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years." News media polls show 80% of Americans think government is hiding knowledge about extraterrestrial life and 40% believe "supernatural intervention" will bring an end to human history. In a Middle Tennessee State University survey, only 50% could identify Kerry as the 2004 presidential candidate who wanted to "roll back tax cuts for the rich" and only 42% knew that Bush favored Social Security savings into personal retirement accounts. A consensus view by qualified people is that about 40% of the U.S. electorate is too ignorant and inept to be part of the democratic political process.
Second, elected representatives show no better mental prowess than voters. For example, in January 1897 the Indiana Legislature voted 67 to 0 that geometric constant 'pi' would be equal to "16 divided by square root of 3" and that "the circular area is to the quadrant of the circumference, as the area of an equilateral rectangle is to the square on one side." Looney and embarrassing. It was estimated by (several) U.S. Senators that 90% of Members do not read 90% of legislation they vote upon but more to the point, it is a cynical fact and common knowledge among politicians that "voters are treated like suckers...and are easily manipulated," according to a political advisor knowing that they "can be easily misled because they are obsessed with selfish interests." Therefore, "push polls" that manipulate public attitudes (and not meant to measure opinion) and strategies to focus on "swing voters," who are usually about 15% of the electorate and the least informed, are facts of life. Across the nation, politicians and their media sales agents know how to play the tunes to keep themselves in power and the voters beholden to them. An obvious, current example of this phenomenon is the wild gyration in President Bush's approval and disapproval ratings.
If the masses are stupid, democracy does not work. Shallow policies do not allow correct government and many voters can only comprehend shallow issues. The way out of this dilemma is to restrict voting by uneducated people. A politically incorrect truth is that all people are not equal and this message must be understood by the approximate 60% of the population that must revert what is a dysfunctional, pseudo-democracy, into a meritocracy.
Neither the average voter nor elected officials demonstrate adequate knowledge to set or control correct public policy, and gaining needed knowledge is an unlikely outcome in our national circumstance. "Know-nothings" and thoughtful citizens alike cannot rely on ideology as a shortcut because politician's understand voter manipulation, and the large "knowledge underclass" is sure to make egregious errors by equating personal experience with global need. Since political parties actually reduce information flow in order to gain electoral outcome advantage, a result is less competition and greater opportunity for collusion to control the public policy agenda. I believe political chicanery and ineptitude is ruining our democracy, not that this is new, just worse now than our national experience. I argue that voter ignorance is a problem that can only be circumvented by changing the basic structure for voting.
Since growth of government over the last century in America and other industrial democracies has followed the same pattern, most spending half of GDP on government, life remaining outside government control is shrinking and this extension of power undercuts democracy. There is healthy advantage to decentralizing federalism. Possibly the time has come to scale back our ambitions for democracy from citizen control of public policy to a more practical ability to change elected representatives as needed. Maybe use of industrial type structures and management methods offers a better point of departure for reinvigorating democracy. The national future depends on improving the processes for governance. IH