The surplus of quality journalism in print, on the Web, and over the air should give the public little to no excuse for being uninformed about political issues. Never before has so much raw and refined political intelligence been available at such a low cost to citizens willing to buy a cheap computer and Web connection — or pay the bus fare to the local public library.
But uninformed the people are, as Ilya Somin delineates in his subversive new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, and their ignorance is willful!
“The sheer depth of most individual voters’ ignorance may be shocking to readers not familiar with the research,” Somin writes on his first page. Many Americans don’t know how the government works, they don’t know much about who runs the government, and they’re clueless about how government programs work. For instance, a 2006 Zogby poll reported that only 42 percent of respondees could name the three branches of government. In another survey from that year, only 28 percent could name two or more of the five rights in the First Amendment, and a 2002 study indicated that 35 percent believed that the words “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” could be found in the Constitution. CNN found in its 2011 poll that Americans estimated on average that foreign aid consumes 10 percent of the federal budget when it actually takes up less than 1 percent.
Our political ignorance is as enduring as it is pervasive. When the Pew Research Center study compared the political knowledge of 1989 respondents with those from 2007 it found the advent of multiple 24-hour news channels, the C-SPAN channels, and hundreds of news sites on the Web had not moved the political ignorance dial in any appreciable way. Nor have massive rises in education over the past half-century put a dent in political ignorance, Somin finds. “On an education-adjusted basis, political knowledge may actually have declined, with 1990s college graduates having knowledge levels comparable to those of high school graduates in the 1940s,” he writes, even though IQ scores have been rising.
Assuming that political ignorance is a supply-side problem, some of our European friends have legislated an increase in political TV programming on private and public stations. That seems to have boosted political knowledge but most of the observed increases appear to be in the realm of international news. But Somin cautions his audience into reading too much in that finding: Americans have long exhibited less an interest in international news than those living in smaller European countries.