Political Ignorance in America

 Posted by on 3 December 2012 at 11:00 am  Activism, Culture, Election, Politics
Dec 032012

It’s a fact that most Americans pay very little attention to politics. Personally, I exert almost no effort whatsoever to learn about current events in politics. I’m not subscribed to any newspapers or magazines. I don’t scan any online news aggregators or sources. I don’t read political blogs. For better or worse, I learn about pretty much all the major political news via Facebook. That works because I have a whole lot of friends interested in politics, and I read articles that look interesting. Most people, however, don’t follow any political news.

Consider this story, blogged under the heading “Most people just barely care about politics.”

The title of this post was driven home to me at a party last night. I was talking to a friend and one of his friends, and they were marveling over the Lincoln movie. They were quite impressed that Lincoln was a Republican and the one who ended slavery, and they felt like this is an under-appreciated fact these days.

The one that I know is a very casual Republican-every four years he notices there’s an election, notices that the Republican seems pretty nice and congenial to his views, pulls the lever, and then forgets politics. If I mention something from the news-anything at all-he’s like “What?” Name the political news story, and it’s news to him. He’s usually suspicious of me for bringing it up, because he hasn’t heard about it and he wonders where I’m getting all this. I’m not going to indict the entire GOP for this one low-information voter, because he has counterparts on the other side. I only bring it up to make the point that he and his friend are not apologists or revisionists talking about Lincoln to argue that the Democrats are The Real Racists. They are guys who were just genuinely blown away by this revelation. If I had mentioned that Nixon oversaw the creation of the EPA, they’d probably be all “Wow, people these days think Republicans are opposed to the environment, but look at Nixon!” and not because they want to persuade an environmentalist to vote Republican (they don’t care all that much), just because their minds will have been blown and they’ll want the entire world to share in this revelation.

Anyway, I gave a mini-lecture on how the Democrats were once the party of the South, but then the left wing of the party gained ascendance with the New Deal, and when LBJ passed the Civil Rights Act Goldwater had an opening to go after the South, and this set in motion a generation-long process where the parties swapped large portions of their constituencies, but the underlying coalitions remain mostly the same as before despite the new party labels. My friend was all “How do you know this?” He was genuinely baffled.

I think we need to keep this in mind when we think about political discourse in our country.

Do you think that’s just an isolated case? Think again. Americans are remarkably ignorant of politics.

The most comprehensive surveys [of the political knowledge of Americans], the National Election Studies (NES), were carried out by the University of Michigan beginning in the late 1940s. What these studies showed was that Americans fall into three categories with regard to their political knowledge. A tiny percentage know a lot about politics, up to 50%-60% know enough to answer very simple questions, and the rest know next to nothing.

Contrary to expectations, by many measures the surveys showed the level of ignorance remaining constant over time. In the 1990s, political scientists Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter concluded that there was statistically little difference between the knowledge of the parents of the Silent Generation of the 1950s, the parents of the Baby Boomers of the 1960s, and American parents today. (By some measures, Americans are dumber today than their parents of a generation ago.)

Some of the numbers are hard to fathom in a country in which for at least a century all children have been required by law to attend grade school or be home-schooled. Even if people do not closely follow the news, one would expect them to be able to answer basic civics questions, but only a small minority can.

In 1986, only 30% knew that Roe v. Wade was the Supreme Court decision that ruled abortion legal more than a decade earlier. In 1991, Americans were asked how long the term of a United States senator is. Just 25% correctly answered six years. How many senators are there? A poll a few years ago found that only 20% know that there are 100 senators, though the number has remained constant for the last half century (and is easy to remember). Encouragingly, today the number of Americans who can correctly identify and name the three branches of government is up to 40%.

Polls over the past three decades measuring Americans’ knowledge of history show similarly dismal results. What happened in 1066? Just 10% know it is the date of the Norman Conquest. Who said the “world must be made safe for democracy”? Just 14% know it was Woodrow Wilson. Which country dropped the nuclear bomb? Only 49% know it was their own country. Who was America’s greatest president? According to a Gallup poll in 2005, a majority answer that it was a president from the last half century: 20% said Reagan, 15% Bill Clinton, 12% John Kennedy, 5% George W. Bush. Only 14% picked Lincoln and only 5%, Washington.

And the worst president? For years Americans would include in the list Herbert Hoover. But no more. Most today do not know who Herbert Hoover was, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey in 2004. Just 43% could correctly identify him.

The only history questions a majority of Americans can answer correctly are the most basic ones. What happened at Pearl Harbor? A great majority know: 84%. What was the Holocaust? Nearly 70% know. (Thirty percent don’t?) But it comes as something of a shock that, in 1983, just 81% knew who Lee Harvey Oswald was and that, in 1985, only 81% could identify Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ll make three points about the above passage:

First, “A tiny percentage know a lot about politics, up to 50%-60% know enough to answer very simple questions, and the rest know next to nothing.”

Activism can be effective in politics. In 2007, a small group of Colorado Objectivists was largely the reason why “health care reform” (read: socialized medicine) fizzled. Yet such efforts shouldn’t be confused with influencing the American voters. The vast majority of people don’t follow politics closely enough for that.

Second: “Contrary to expectations, by many measures the surveys showed the level of ignorance remaining constant over time.”

The political ignorance of Americans shouldn’t be an excuse to gripe about modern times. We’ve all heard it: “People today are consumed by their own petty interests. They’re too busy posting about their breakfasts on Facebook to notice that the world is going to hell around them. In the past, Americans cared about the wider world! No more…” In fact, the levels of American ignorance about politics haven’t changed — and they’re not likely to change.

Third: I don’t lament the fact that Americans are wildly ignorant of politics; it’s not a cause for pessimism in my view. Why not?

The vast majority political news has little impact on people’s lives. Even when some issue matters, most people aren’t willing or able to much about it. They lack the requisite knowledge, skills, and time. They’d have to sacrifice too many crucial values — like their kids, work, or hobbies — to engage in any significant political activism. That’s why I think that most people are better off ignoring current events in politics in order to pursue the values that actually matter to them. Their ignorance is pretty darn rational.

In contrast, most persistent citizen-activists — such as my own Paul Hsieh of Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine and Atlee Breeland of Parents Against Personhood — aren’t motivated just by the prospect of political change. That’s not enough to sustain even a highly capable person. Instead, these activists discover a host of significant values in the work itself. That’s part of what makes them so rare and so valuable.

All of that is part of why I think fostering a culture that respects individual rights requires reaching people where their values are, rather than expecting them to magically develop an interest in politics. Only a few people will ever be political junkies — thank goodness!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000536747848 Jennifer Snow

    Something like 99% of the political crap posted by my facebook friends is just meaningless sound bytes, anyway. Every once in a while, someone will share an interesting article.

  • JP

    If it weren’t for leftists, this would actually be a GOOD thing. Even people like us are usually only interested in politics because of its effect on us.

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