FactCheck.org has an interesting post about campaign ads which are “99% Fact-Free”:
In this article we examine two examples of what we call “fact-free” advertising, which we see in abundance. These ads seek to associate the candidate with a string of positive words and images but are void of specifics. Voters should beware.
I think this generally supports the ‘Vision’ theory of campaign advertising. As the article explains, however, these ads do serve a useful purpose:
Even hot air has its uses. “These ads do have a lot of meaningless rhetoric but are not completely empty,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor who teaches courses in political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “Actually these two ads signal two different sets of priorities. Ask how you would react if Edwards spoke of a ‘strong military’ or Romney said he’d ‘lift families out of poverty.’ Romney uses traditional Republican language to signal that he would spend more on defense. Edwards speaks of ‘the middle class’ to signal that although his policies will address poverty he will focus on middle class needs as well.”
This is what democracy does well. Democracy is good at distilling voters’ altruistic values, but democracy is not good at selecting representatives who would choose intelligent ways of promoting those values. It is possible that it is actually lucky that these ads don’t contain policy details, because voters have poor incentives to evaluate policy well. If voters were really interested in deciding on public policy relatively directly, it could actually make policy worse if voters have bad biases.
This brings up a side point. I have heard several people attribute declining voting rates to opportunity cost; meaning that you can now do a lot of cool things with your time that you couldn’t before, but because voting has not become more attractive, people have substituted away from voting. Substitution takes two forms; either fewer people can vote (voter turnout has declined significantly in the last 40 years) or people can spend less time on voting activities, such as becoming informed about proposed policies, which I suspect is the case. If the second effect actually improves governance, as a country becomes richer, government should actually become more effective.
Both these points rely on the assumption that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing;” is this a realistic assumption? I’m not sure.