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Does Ignorance Matter?

Does Ignorance Matter? The Relative Importance of Civic Knowledge and                            the Human Tendency to Engage in Motivated Reasoning

Aaron Dusso, Assistant Professor Political Science, IUPUI

Sheila Suess Kennedy, Professor, Law and Public Policy, IUPUI



The importance of civic literacy is, and has long been, an axiom of democratic theory; a “generally-accepted belief that civic knowledge is an important foundation of democratic self-government” (McCabe and Kennedy 2014). Americans generally agree that a basic understanding of the structure and philosophy of government is a necessary precondition to productive political engagement or policy debate; a mutual understanding of the constitutional framework; agreement on the meaning of basic legal, economic and scientific terminology is necessary if there is to be common ground for discussion.

Former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton summarized this consensus, writing in 2003

The truth is, for our democracy to work, it needs not just an engaged citizenry, but an informed one. We’ve known this since the nation’s earliest days. The creators of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 thought the notion important enough to enshrine it in the state’s founding document: “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people,” they wrote, are “necessary for the preservation of rights and liberties.”

It is this broad agreement on the importance of accurate, basic civic information that raises widespread concern about current, dangerously low levels of civic knowledge. A copious literature confirms the existence of a civic deficit: Only 36% of American citizens can correctly name the three branches of government (Annenberg Public Policy Center Judicial Survey 2007); Thirty-six percent of twelfth-grade students fail to achieve a basic level of civic knowledge (National Center for Education Statistics 2011); only 35.5% of American teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the U.S. Constitution (National Constitution Center Survey 1998). The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2010 report on civic competencies found that barely a quarter of the country’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders could be considered proficient in civics. (National Center for Education Statistics 2011). Numerous other studies confirm the extent of our civic deficit (Bennett 1995; Caplan 2008; Converse 2000; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1991, 1996; Shaker 2012).

Given the depth of the empirical literature demonstrating a broad public deficit of accurate civic information, a growing number of researchers and educators are working to identify best practices and to improve civics education in the schools. Peter Levine at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Civic Engagement (CIRCLE), Ted McConnell, Director of the National Council for the Social Studies Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools, Shawn Healy, Chair of Illinois’ Civic Mission Coalition , Joseph Kahne, Director of Civic Engagement Research, Diana Hess of the Spencer Foundation, and the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI are just a few of the scholarly efforts currently underway. They are joined by programmatic endeavors: former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s ICivics, the Bar Foundation’s sponsorship of the Center for Civic Education’s “We the People” curriculum and competition and several others.

These efforts to raise awareness of the issue and to identify measures that may ameliorate it are important. At the very least, a shared understanding of basic social and political institutions is necessary for communication to occur— a common reality, after all, is much like a common language. If we are looking to improvements in civic knowledge to reverse the political polarization that has paralyzed so much of our political system, however, the emergence of new lines of research in political psychology suggests we may well be disappointed.

Political Polarization

Theoretically, in order to have a productive argument, the participants need to have at least a basic agreement on the definitions of the terms being employed and the facts involved. The recent debates about the Affordable Care Act—aka “Obamacare”—are a case in point. Citizens debating that legislation may have very different opinions about the wisdom of the policy choices involved, but decisions to repeal, implement or amend the Act should be based upon agreement about what it actually says and does. If opposition to the policy is based upon “death panels” that don’t exist, or its defense is based upon an insistence that the individual mandate isn’t government coercion, the likelihood of reasoned discussion—let alone agreement on policy changes—disappears.

A similar example would be the ongoing battles over religion in the nation’s schools. There are genuine arguments to be made about the proper application of the Establishment Clause in the context of public education. But reasoned disputes require people who recognize that the First Amendment’s religion clauses require government neutrality in matters of religious exercise.

We certainly agree with those who advocate for the importance of a shared vocabulary and a conceptual common ground to facilitate legitimate and productive political debate and discourse. A common civic language—an agreement on the basic nature of our shared political reality—is necessary, but it may not be sufficient. An examination of two robust literatures, political science research on political polarization and partisan sorting, and political psychology research on motivated reasoning strongly suggests that efforts to calm the political waters by supplying accurate information, while necessary, may be inadequate to the task.

A comprehensive review of the literature on political polarization was conducted by Morris P. Fiorina and Samuel J. Abrams in 2008. Fiorina and Abrams surveyed the existing research, testing the “polarization narrative” that began in the early 1990s, when Pat Buchanan famously “declared a culture war for the soul of America in his speech at the 1992 Republican convention” (Fiorina and Abrams 2008). They noted the emergence of the “notorious red-blue map” after the 2000 election, and the acceptance of the polarization narrative by commentators and pundits (one of whom went so far as to compare Republicans and Democrats to Sunnis and Shias). Although the authors noted their agreement with the scholarly consensus that elites and Congress had, indeed, polarized, their review of the then available research convinced them that the situation for the public at large reflected partisan sorting, rather than polarization.

“The political positions of Americans had not become more polarized between the early 1970s and the early 2000s. Importantly, however, within the larger population the parties in the electorate had become more distinct. This change was a product of two other senses of polarization that the DiMaggio group identified: constraint (“the more closely associated different social attitudes become..”) and consolidation (“…the greater the extent to which social attitudes become correlated with salient individual characteristics or identities.”) (DiMaggio et al. 1996, p.693) In the last few decades of the twentieth century, inter-issue correlations were increasing, and partisans were becoming more closely associated with one or the other of the increasingly interconnected clusters” (Fiorina and Abrams 2008).

Whether this differentiation is called sorting or polarization, the authors agreed with other observers that it had occurred and appeared to be continuing. And they conceded that other scholars, notably Abramowitz and Saunders (2008) “believe that the process of partisan sorting has proceeded so far that it is accurate to speak of a polarized America.”

In the wake of Fiorina and Abrams’ influential and much-cited review, a number of other researchers have studied the phenomenon, with most agreeing that the partisan divide is increasing, especially among elites and in Congress (see, for example, Krasa and Polborn 2012).

To further complicate the search for common ground and collaborative policymaking, several political psychologists have found that partisans who are often quite well informed will reject “negatively valenced” information if that information is in conflict with their preferred worldview (Redlawsk, Civettini and Emmerson 2010), and still others have concluded that personality traits can predict a “considerable array of human behavioral patterns” (Ha, Kim and Jo 2013), including political preferences and behaviors. Indeed, Alford, Funk and Hibbing (2005) and Fowler, Baker and Dawes (2008), among others, have concluded that certain political behaviors and attitudes are genetically influenced and/or heritable. Personality traits—extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience, sometimes referred to as the “Big Five,” have demonstrable effects upon political behavior. (Ha, Kim and Jo 2013).

Polarization, Political Sophistication and Motivated Reasoning

Motivated reasoning research poses challenges to widely-held beliefs about the way in which individuals search for information. Theoretically, when people are engaged in learning about the world around them, the primary goal is accuracy. The good citizen watches the news, reads newspapers or blogs as part of an effort to gain an accurate understanding of the particular topic under investigation. Unfortunately, as emerging research underscores, this is not how people actually go about gathering information, if they choose to gather it at all. The reality is that people are motivated reasoners (Kunda 1987, 1990).

The concept of motivated reasoning is built on decades of research documenting the biased cognitive processes by which individuals gather and understand new information. It is an unconscious process that occurs through selective perception of reality. Once people have developed a worldview–an idea about how something works, or what they like and do not like– they are extremely resistant to information that would require them to change that worldview.

Research confirms that most people do not engage in a wide search for information in order to understand a subject from various perspectives. Instead, they engage in selective exposure (Lodge, Taber, and Galonsky 1999; Mutz and Martin 2001; Sweeney and Gruber 1984), which means that they seek out information that will confirm what they already know (or think they know) and avoid information sources that might challenge their beliefs. While it may be difficult to avoid all contrary information, encountering contradictory facts will not usually require the individual to change or adapt a preexisting framework; when people are faced with a variety of information, some that is confirmatory and some not, they simply ignore or actively argue against the evidence they don’t like, while uncritically accepting the data seen as confirmatory (Ditto and Lopez 1992; Lavine, Borgida, and Sullivan 2000; Taber and Lodge 2006). Furthermore, when faced with ambiguous information, people do not spend time learning more about the topic; instead, they interpret the ambiguous information so that it is consistent with their current beliefs (Fazio and Williams 1986; Lord, Ross and Lepper 1979; Vidmar and Rokeach 1974).

The consequences of motivated reasoning for politics can be quite troubling. This is especially the case when we consider its effects on a political system in which political polarization is increasing both within elites and the general public (Abramowitz 2010; Bishop 2008; Theriault 2008). As we have seen, the combination of motivated reasoning and increased partisanship leads to more deeply entrenched beliefs and a corresponding increase in unwillingness to compromise as partisans build self-serving, motivated realities. Barker and Carman’s (2012) recent work documents how different the realities are for citizens in Red versus Blue states, and Levendusky (2009) demonstrates how the increased sorting of average citizens into partisan camps has produced more polarized emotional responses to the parties. Politics thus becomes an “us versus them” competition. Taber, Cann, and Kucsova (2009) also find strong support for the polarizing effect of biased information processing (see also Slothuus and de Vreese 2010).

Indeed, the simple act of counting ballots can be affected by motived reasoning when the counting instructions are vague or ambiguous. In such situations, individuals fill in the gaps in a self-serving, highly partisan way (Kopko et al. 2011). Finally, Cohen (2003) shows through a serious of experiments that “even under conditions of effortful processing, attitudes toward a social policy depended almost exclusively upon the stated positons of one’s party.” And to top it off, “…participants denied having been influenced by their political group, although they believed that other individuals, especially their ideological adversaries, would be so influenced” (p. 808). Arguably, this kind of myopic adoption of the positions of one’s party is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Education is often proposed as the solution to the problem of political ignorance (Putnam 2000); it is thus reasonable to consider whether it can also solve the problem of motivated reasoning. Unfortunately, rather than moderating partisanship, political knowledge is often connected to an increase in polarization. Education has certainly been shown to be a good predictor of political knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Price and Zaller 1993), and it is equally demonstrable that politically knowledgeable citizens are those most likely to acquire political information and most able to incorporate it into their existing knowledge framework (Zaller 1992). A recent study by Gillion, Ladd, and Meredith (2013) showed that the gender gap in voting occurred first among the highly educated because they were the first to be aware of elite polarization. Claassen and Highton (2009) find the same dynamic. Polarization among party elites leads those individuals who are the most politically aware to follow suit. In a similar vein, Federico and Hunt (2013) show that individuals who are highly knowledgeable and heavily invested in politics are more likely to approach politics in an ideological fashion, and more likely to exhibit a polarized response to politics (see also Abramowitz 2010; Federico 2007; Judd and Krosnick 1989; Sidanius and Lau 1989; Zaller 2004).

The dilemma posed by what we now know about motivated reasoning is that it occurs no matter how educated or sophisticated the individual. In his examination of partisan sorting, Levendusky (2009) shows that the highly knowledgeable are just as likely to change their ideology to match their partisanship as the politically unsophisticated. Political theorists might hope that the politically sophisticated would privilege policy positions over their devotion to the correct “team,” but this is apparently not the case. In other somewhat disheartening research, Hartman and Newmark (2012) examined the motivated reasoning behind the belief that President Obama is a Muslim. It is not a shock to learn that this belief is stronger among Republicans than Democrats, but the fact that political sophistication does not appear to attenuate it is distressing.

To summarize, there is strong evidence indicating that political sophistication—rather than moderating ideological commitments—actually contributes to partisan polarization. We argue that this strengthening of the connection of the most highly engaged to a particular party is then reinforced through selective perception. This leaves the politically sophisticated open to significant ideological inconsistency. Ever since the early works of Converse (1964, 2000), it has been understood that the phenomenon of ideological thinking is not occurring in the mass public; it is instead a characteristic of a relatively small percentage of the most politically engaged Americans. But if even those few knowledgeable thinkers are susceptible to motivated blindness, then the prospects for a rational debate are rather dim.

Connecting Political Sophistication to Polarization—Data and Methods

In order to examine the effect of political sophistication and motivated reasoning on polarization, we conducted a national survey measuring partisanship, ideology, and political knowledge, along with specific questions about same-sex marriage. This was an online survey designed and hosted using Qualtrics online survey software. Survey Sampling International (SSI) was then contracted to provide over 2300 respondents. SSI maintains national online panels of respondents; it recruits participants from across the web using numerous methods, which gives them the ability to reach nearly anyone who uses the Internet.

For our survey, a quota method was used in order to match the survey’s demographic and gender distribution to that of the overall United States. Thus, this is not a representative sample of the U.S. population. However, since we were not attempting to estimate some characteristic of the U.S. population (for example, the percentage of the population who voted in the 2012 presidential election) that does not affect our results. We are interested in understanding the connection between cognitive processes and political beliefs. We are unaware of any variable that is correlated with participation in one of SSI’s panels and these cognitive processes that, if present, could bias these results. Furthermore, we control for numerous demographic and political variables, which further alleviates any concern about bias in the sample.

We produce two models. The first is designed to explain the source of the strength of respondents’ party identification. The survey contained standard questions designed to identify respondents’ partisanship following the method used in each American National Election Studies (ANES) survey.[1] This produces a seven-point scale ranging from strong Democrats on the left to strong Republicans on the right. Since we are interested in understanding the causes of polarization, we are more concerned with what drives individuals to the poles of these scales than what causes them choose one side or the other. Therefore, we fold this scale so that it ranges from independent (coded 0), leaning/weak partisan (coded 1), partisan (coded 2), and strong partisan (coded 3), resulting in a scale measuring respondents’ strength of partisan attachment (e.g., Dolan and Holbrook 2001).

We then include measures of political knowledge, education, and their interaction as key predictors of partisan strength. Political knowledge is measured on a nine-point scale and based on respondents’ ability to answer eight factual questions (Zaller 1992). These questions are copied directly from ANES and ask respondents to identify (1) Joe Biden, (2) John Boehner, (3) John Roberts, and (4) David Cameron; and whether they know which party controls the (5) House and the (6) Senate, (7) which party is more conservative, and (8) what the current unemployment rate is. Education is measured on a seven-point scale that indicates the highest level of educational attainment by the respondent.

Finally, the model also includes several standard control variables: Gender (coded 1 if male, 0 if female), race/ethnicity (1 if white, 0 otherwise), age (coded in years), household income (coded on a 10 point scale), and religious fundamentalism. This last variable is based on a General Social Survey question tapping respondents’ beliefs about the Bible as follows:

Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?

  • The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.
  • The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.
  • The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.

This produces a three-point scale ranging from most (coded 0) to least (coded 2) religious fundamentalist.

The second model predicts a contradiction in the policy beliefs among respondents. There is ample scholarship suggesting that policy positions are the product of a process of motivated reasoning. Our survey asks two questions about religious freedom and same-sex marriage: 1) should same-sex couples be allowed to marry, or do you think they should not be allowed to marry? And 2) Do you think the federal or state governments should make laws regarding who religious organizations can and cannot marry? If one answers “no” to the second question, one should then not answer that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry because that would be making a law restricting a religious organization’s marriage policies. This is an instance of individuals contradicting themselves on policy grounds. However, it may not necessarily be a contradiction for conservative Republicans who hold strong beliefs about smaller government and the legality of same-sex marriage. An individual engaged in motivated reasoning should be expected to make such a contradiction, with the strongest partisans and ideologues being the most susceptible. Thus, the comparison of respondents’ answers to these two questions produces our measure of policy contradiction.

The key independent variables in this case are partisanship and ideology. The more conservative and the more Republican one is, the more likely s/he is to answer these questions in a manner consistent with being a conservative Republican rather than in an ideologically consistent manner. The key to motivated reasoning is that partisanship and ideology interact to produce an effect that moves people away from a purely rational thought process by which one either does not accept government intervention in religious choices and thus accepts religious organizations decision to marry same-sex couples, or one is happy with government intervention in religious choices and thus okay with banning same-sex marriage. Simultaneously, disliking government restrictions on religion and liking government banning of same-sex marriage is the product of current partisan and ideological thinking. Those who engage in it are motivated to do so in order to protect their preferred set of beliefs through a form of self-affirmation (Steele 1988). Kahan (2013) finds strong evidence for this. His research shows that individuals are motivated to engage in information processing that reinforces their connection to important ideological groups. In this case a conservative self-identity. Following this line of reasoning, our supposition is that this effect should be most pronounced among the most extreme partisans and ideologues.

We measure partisanship as a set of dummy variables. (1) Republican, coded 1 if one identifies as Republican and 0 otherwise. (2) Democrat, coded 1 if one identifies as Democrat and 0 otherwise; and (3) Independent, coded 2 if one is independent and 0 otherwise. The Democrat variable is then dropped and becomes the comparison group for Republican and Independent when interpreting the results.[2] Ideology is measured on a 7 point scale ranging from 0 (strong liberal) to 6 (strong conservative), with a score of 3 indicating independent or none ideological. We then interact ideology with the Republican dummy variable in order to test for the conditional effect of each on the dependent variable. Finally, the model also includes the same control variables as the model predicting partisan strength above.

****Table 1 about here****

Table 1 presents results after estimation of the two models. The results of an Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression model predicting strength of party identification are presented in the first column, while the results of a logit model predicting the likelihood of holding contradictory beliefs about religious freedom and same-sex marriage are presented in column two. Focusing first on the model predicting partisan strength, one can see that political knowledge, education, and their interaction are all highly statistically significant. This means that the effect of political knowledge on strength of partisanship is conditional on the value of education and vice versa. The negative sign indicates that the effect of one variable diminishes as the value of the other goes up.

****Figure 1 about here****

Interaction effects are notoriously difficult to substantively interpret from an output table, thus Figure 1 presents a graphical look at how the effect of political knowledge changes as the highest level of educational attainment moves from having a high school diploma, to a college degree, to a graduate degree. Figure 1 makes clear that the effect of increasing political knowledge is strongest for those having only finished high school. Moving from a political knowledge score of 2 to a score of 7 is associated with an increase in partisan strength of about 3/4ths of a point. That is an 18 percent jump in one’s partisan leanings. The same type of gain in political knowledge for someone with a graduate degree shows virtually no movement in the strength of their partisanship. Interestingly, at low levels of political knowledge people with a high school diploma are the least partisan, while at the highest levels of political knowledge they are the most partisan. Therefore, it would seem that gaining political knowledge without education has a polarizing effect on people. This is a disturbing result for those advocating for civic learning outside of formal education. It would appear that this may simply exacerbate polarization.

Returning to Table 1, the logit model estimating policy preference contradiction includes an interaction between ideology and Republican identification. The interaction and ideology variables reach significance, but the Republican variable does not. This is not particularly surprising since the substantive meaning of that variable is the effect of being a Republican when compared to a Democrat when ideology equals zero, which represents strong liberalism. There are likely very few strongly liberal Republicans and the data cannot tell the difference between them and Democrats. The significant interaction indicates, once again, that the effect of partisanship is dependent on ideology and vice versa. Before looking at Figure 2, which helps clarify the interactive effect of ideology and partisanship, it should be noted that political knowledge and education fail to reach significance. Thus, there is no evidence in this data that political sophistication, as measured by either education or political knowledge, helps individuals avoid contradicting themselves. This is what one would expect when the driving force behind policy preferences is not rational calculation, but motivated reasoning to answer questions in a way that is consistent with one’s partisan and ideological positions.

****Figure 2 about here****

Figure 2 presents the predictive margins of the conditional effect of partisanship and ideology on the probability of contradicting oneself. As can be seen, on the left-hand side of the scale (scores 0-2), which correspond to liberal ideological leanings, there appears to be no discernable difference between Republicans and Democrats. But when one moves to the right-hand side (scores 4-6), which corresponds to increasingly conservative leanings, Republicans and Democrats respond much differently. To be sure, both see an increase in the probability of contradicting themselves, but the slope for Republicans is much steeper. For a strong conservative (score of 6), the probability of contradiction is about 23 percent greater if one is a Republican than a Democrat. Indeed, simply moving from a strong liberal to a strong conservative increases the probability of contradiction for Republicans by nearly 60 percent and about 35 percent for Democrats. This is the effect of motivated reasoning.

Is Civic Literacy Irrelevant?

If motivated reasoning “trumps” accurate information, will our politics inevitably be ideological and polarized? Is the effort to provide credible, evidence-based information a fools’ errand? Not necessarily. Redlawsk, Civettini and Emmerson (2010) explored just this question. The authors did not challenge the research on motivated reasoning, but they did test the thesis that a “tipping point” would be reached—that despite the tendency of motivated reasoners to ignore evidence inconsistent with their preferred beliefs (here, a candidate they viewed positively)—given enough negative information, attitude change would occur.

“The question here is whether there is a point at which the positive affect motivated reasoners try to maintain is overwhelmed by a growing threat to the existing evaluation as more incongruent information is encountered, and thus leading to more accurate updating” (Redlawsk, et al. 2010).

The authors noted that a small amount of evidence contradicting the motivated reasoner’s initial positive impression of a candidate had the effect of confirming that impression; that is, a moderate amount of incongruent information simply resulted in the individual clinging more stubbornly to his or her original beliefs. But at some point, mounting evidence inconsistent with those beliefs did, in fact, generate a change of opinion.

There is also hope of change if individuals are forced to pay attention to new information. Boudreau and MacKenzie (2013) looked at the effect of party cues and policy information in the context of support for ballot initiatives. They find that citizens do indeed privilege policy information over party cues when the policy information gives them a compelling reason to do so. Bullock (2011) found similar results. He concludes, “These results warrant a measure of optimism about partisans’ ability to hold meaningful policy views. To be sure, partisans are rarely exposed to more than meager descriptions of policy. But when they are, the results suggest that they can arrive at policy views that are independent of and even contrary to the views of their party leaders” (p. 512). Of course, these conclusions were the result of controlled experiments in which the audience was captive. The observed effect requires that citizens both receive the compelling information and take the time to understand it.

In another line of research, Binning et al. (2010) documented some success in reducing partisanship by having individuals affirm their self-integrity prior to watching the 2008 presidential debates. They gave randomly selected participants an opportunity to identify values important to them and asking them to write about a time when an important value affected them. The premise of self-affirmation theory is that people want to see themselves as good, moral and efficacious (Steele 1998; Sherman and Cohen 2006). These feelings often get intertwined with group identity. In politics, group identity means partisanship. When individuals reaffirmed their integrity, it lessened the connection to party identification and thus freed them to be more judicious when evaluating the presidential candidates.

Although this research is encouraging, it remains to be seen whether a tipping point exists at which ideology concedes to evidence. Learning that a favored candidate is not as admirable as once thought is one thing; accepting evolution or climate change and adjusting one’s literalist approach to religion accordingly is quite another. If the research tells us anything, it is that good information and civic literacy are necessary, but insufficient to rid us of polarization and a highly selective approach to evidence. It would seem that ignorance isn’t the only enemy of reason and political compromise.


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Table 1

Predicting Strength of Party Identification and Policy Preference Contradiction

Dependent Variable

Strength of                              Preference

Variable                                               Party ID                                  Contradiction


Political Knowledge                            0.232***                                 0.050

(0.026)                                                (0.031)

Education                                            0.207***                                 -0.011

(0.035)                                                (0.046)

Pol. Know. x Education                      -0.037***


Ideology                                              -0.064***                                0.420***

(0.014)                                                (0.065)

Republican                                                                                          -0.564


Ideology x Republican                                                                        0.284**


Independent                                                                                        0.486*



Control Variables

Male                                                    -0.150***                                0.200

(0.043)                                                (0.126)

White                                                  -0.076                                      -0.121

(0.045)                                                (0.137)

Age                                                      0.005***                                 0.018***

(0.001)                                                (0.004)

Household Income                              0.002                                       -0.043

(0.008)                                                (0.022)

Religious Fundamentalism                  -0.220***                                -0.800***

(0.030)                                                (0.092)

Constant                                             1.255***                                 -2.433***

(0.145)                                                (0.350)

N                                                         2237                                        2244

R2                                                        0.10

Log pseudolikelihood                                                                          -912.18

Notes: Strength of Party ID estimated using OLS. (Since this is a short scale running form 0-3, an ordered logit model was also estimated. The substantive results were identical and therefore the OLS results are presented here for easy of interpretation.) The Preference Contradiction model is estimated using logit.

*= p < .05, ** = p < .01, *** = p < .001, two-tailed.





Figure 1


Marginal Effect of Political Knowledge and Education on Strength of Party Identification








Figure 2


Marginal Effect of Ideology and Partisanship on the Probability of Holding Contradictory Policy Preferences







[1] Whenever possible, we simply copied the long established question wording used by either the American National Election Studies or General Social Survey. This provides for easy comparability and avoids the need to reestablish the credibility of survey question wording, since these are well established and understood survey instruments.

[2] See Wooldridge (2012) for an explanation as to why one of these variables needs to be dropped.

The Arms Race and the Road to Ferguson

Peter Mancuso, at Ten Miles Square, takes issue with the conventional wisdom about “militarization” of police departments. Not that it isn’t taking place–clearly it is–but he argues convincingly that the reasons go far beyond the notion that local police units are simply a convenient receptacle for the federal government’s no-longer-needed weaponry.

He lays the blame on the gun lobby and NRA.

By the early 1980s, there was a growing perception among law enforcement officers and portions of the public that America’s police were being out-gunned in encounters with criminals…. [R]outine arrests for illegal gun possessions were increasingly turning up weapons more powerful than those carried by the officers making those arrests. As law enforcement officers, their families, and police unions began naturally voicing their concerns, the call became louder to increase police officers’ “firepower” (a military term). It was argued strenuously then that this would require replacing the highly reliable revolver, which had been carried by most departments for over a half-century, with a rapid fire, more powerful, semi-automatic side arm.

Of course, this call to increase police officer fire power was further exacerbated by the fact that state legislatures failed miserably in the face of the gun lobby to curb the sale of some of the most powerful and lethal firearms that posed threats to police officers across the country in the first place. As this dichotomy, of the availability of more powerful weapons in the face of police officer safety took hold weapons manufacturers finally broke through and hit real pay dirt. The true irony in all of this is that the huge fortunes realized by their marketing more powerful weapons to American law enforcement, was actually the result of them having already made a fortune selling these more powerful weapons, easily acquired by criminals, to the public to begin with.

You can chalk up the demise of Officer Friendly to your local gun nut. People aren’t the only things being killed by out-of-control guns–sanity and moderation are also victims.

Money and Speech

The big problem with the Supreme Court’s insistence–ever since Buckley v. Valeo– that money is just a different form of speech is that the equation ignores reality.

In theory, it’s logical: I should be able to use my dollars to voice my support of the candidate who favors the same spay-neuter policies that I support. I should be able to signal my support for Candidate A by buying an ad in the local newspaper, or pooling funds with others to run that ad demonstrating that Candidate B pulled wings off flies when he was young. Whatever.

It’s freedom, dude.

The problem, of course, is that equating money with speech gives some people much louder voices than others. (You’d think the great minds on the Court might have noticed this lack of fiscal parity and been troubled by its implications, but this obvious privileging of the wealthy and powerful evidently escaped the majority’s notice.)

I thought about the consequences of the “money equals speech” formula yesterday, during a discussion with one of the producers of the homelessness documentary about which I’ve previously posted, “Uncharted: The Truth Behind Homelessness.” The small team that produced the documentary about the treatment of homeless folks in Indianapolis produced it on the proverbial shoestring;  now they are trying to raise enough money to promote it, and it has been a slog.

People who want to “sell” Indianapolis, people with a vested interest in a particular version of local reality, who want to focus national attention on our sports venues or other “shiny objects” have plenty of resources with which to do that. Their free speech rights are easy to exercise. The passionate students who put together this thoughtful and well-made film have the same theoretical freedom of speech that the cheerleaders enjoy. What they don’t have is resources.

A cynic might suggest that, without resources, their free speech rights are rather illusory.

I’m not in a position to change the jurisprudence that has gotten us here, but I am in a position to send a small check, to try to even the playing field just a little, to ensure that a disfavored message has a chance to be communicated. I hope some of the readers of this blog will join me. We’ll never have the decibels of the Koch Brothers, but together, perhaps we can help make at least this one message more audible.

This is their Paypal link: 

Want to send a check? It can be made out to Lighthouse Research and mailed to: 12210 Laurelwood Ct., Indianapolis, IN 46236.

Because we know what the Court refused to acknowledge: free speech isn’t free.

Presentation to the Center for Civic Literacy

The 2d annual conference of the Center for Civic Literacy was held this last weekend, and this is an abbreviated version of my introductory presentation. The sessions were videotaped, and will be posted to the Center’s website….I hope at least some of the readers of this blog will view some or all of them when they become available, because several were very thought-provoking.

This blog will return to its regular curmudgeonly ways tomorrow…


One year ago, we convened the first of what I hope will be many annual meetings of the National Advisory Committee of the Center for Civic Literacy. Those of us who had embarked on this venture were still very wet behind the academic ears, and the advice so generously shared by many of you proved invaluable as we considered the direction of Center research.

Because last year’s conference was the first, attendance was limited to presenters and members of the National Advisory Committee; this year, we have opened attendance to other interested parties—so we are joined for some or all of the sessions by teachers, political figures and others who are concerned with the causes and consequences of what we at CCL have come to call our “civic deficit.” We welcome you all and we want to hear your perspectives.

If you will recall, the theme of last year’s conference was “What We Know, What We Don’t, and Why It Matters: Surveying the Civic Literacy research landscape. (We do tend to have LONG titles…all with what my husband calls the ‘obligatory academic colon’…) Our goal for that first meeting was to establish a research trajectory and develop working partnerships, in order to both avoid duplications of effort and generate synergies among scholars and educators working on various aspects of the “civics deficit.”

After everyone went home last year, we spent a significant amount of time reviewing the conversations in which we’d participated, the notes taken by our graduate students, and the emails and other written suggestions provided by those in attendance. In addition to suggestions for specific research projects, some overarching themes emerged. The various comments, critiques and suggestions actually boiled down to a pretty coherent message—at least, according to our post hoc analysis:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel by continuing to research what Americans do and do not know. We already know that there is a civic deficit; there is ample evidence that confirms the existence of a genuine problem, a worrisome deficit of civic knowledge. There is little to be gained by having yet another set of researchers document the extent to which the sky is falling.
  • Build on your strengths, and one of the Center’s important strengths is the interdisciplinary nature and focus of its faculty. A significant number of comments from last year stressed the value of– and the opportunities inherent in—truly interdisciplinary research. Several of you noted that scholars working on civics tend to come from discrete academic perspectives: educators who focus on curriculum and instructional issues; political scientists who research the political implications of low civic information; scientists and economists worried about public ignorance of basic terminology and principles, and so forth. An interdisciplinary center has an opportunity to “Connect the Dots,” to identify essential knowledge and to demonstrate the effects of the civic deficit across disciplinary boundaries.
  • One reason that there is value in working more broadly across disciplines is that it should allows us to advance another priority identified by last year’s participants: raising the public profile and public understanding of the issue. As several of you pointed out last year, greater public awareness of both the nature and extent of the civic deficit and its consequences is absolutely critical to any effective effort to address the problems that flow from that deficit. Unless policymakers and citizens recognize the importance of civic education in arenas far removed from politics and elections—unless they understand its critical function in providing a common language through which a polity can deliberate—civics will continue to be a neglected stepchild in and out of school.

If I have learned anything in the two years of the Center’s existence, it is that civics is a lot like motherhood and the flag. Everyone gives lip service to its importance, but it isn’t sexy enough to fund. A significant part of that disinclination is a lack of understanding of the function and importance of research—the necessity of sound knowledge upon which to base programs and interventions.

While the philanthropic community is understandably focused on results—on programs that can be evaluated and results that can be quantified—those in this room understand that solutions to any problem require an accurate understanding of the problem to be solved. Diagnosis—as my medical colleagues will attest—must precede treatment.

The mission of the Center for Civic Literacy is to increase public awareness and understanding of the nature and dimensions of our civic deficit and the effect of that deficit upon democratic decision-making. In other words, we want to do careful research that tests the thesis that a deficit of civic knowledge is detrimental not just to political activities in a democratic system, but to the conduct of business enterprises, efforts to improve public policies and the tone and tenor of public discourse, to the ability to distinguish between good science and junk science, and literally hundreds of other aspects of 21st Century American life. If that thesis is correct, it will require other careful research: what is the nature of the information that is essential? Why? Does it vary from domain to domain? Does greater knowledge really enable more constructive civic conversations, or are ideology and motivated reasoning more responsible than ignorance for our current, toxic politics? What are the best practices for raising levels of public knowledge?

If we are going to justify our existence, and the value of our research, we have to start by making a far more visible and compelling case for the importance of civic knowledge. In order to do that, we need to be intellectually honest and methodologically rigorous—we need to truly understand the civic environment in which we find ourselves. We need to ask the right questions, collect credible evidence that will help us answer those questions. We need to connect the dots.

So—what have we been doing this past year to advance that agenda?

Since our last meeting, as most of you know, the Center has published the first issue of the online, peer-reviewed Journal of Civic Literacy, with an introductory essay by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter. (I should note that we are soliciting articles for our next issue, which will come out February 1st, 2015, and we also would love to add reviewers to our editorial board.)

Several of the faculty working with the Center here at IUPUI are pursuing research into questions raised in last year’s meeting and related issues. Center funds are supporting several of those efforts.

  • Robert Helfenbein, Professor of Education, has led a group of doctoral students studying Civic Identity, Public Education and the African-American Community in Indianapolis—a project investigating how members of the local African-American community understand their political environment and form their civic identities. (Rob has left IUPUI for a position as Associate Dean of Education at Loyola University of Maryland, and we wish him well as he moves to a more distant relationship w/CCL)
  • Beth Cate, SPEA Associate Professor of Law and Public Affairs and this Conference’s co-chair, is investigating the Public Use of Government Data to Enhance Civic Participation and ‘Crowdsource’ Problem Solving. I’m particularly intrigued by the part of her research focusing on ways in which things like The National Day of Hacking, the Knight Foundation’s OpenGov Challenge, and the implementation of federal agencies OGI 2.0 initiative are enhancing civic literacy. Or failing to do so.
  • Aaron Dusso, Assistant Professor of Political Science in the School of Liberal Arts has just completed a fascinating survey he employed in gathering information that will inform a book he is writing on Democratic Demands and Citizen Capabilities.
  • Using some of the data from that survey, Aaron and I have just completed an article comparing the relative importance of civic ignorance and motivated reasoning to our polarized political environment.
  • Heather McCabe, Assistant Professor of Social Work, is continuing her collaboration with Social Work Professors at four other urban institutions to determine the degree of civic knowledge of graduate students in social work. Social workers have an ethical obligation to work for policy change benefitting the disadvantaged; the study is intended to ascertain whether those soon-to-be professionals have sufficient civic knowledge and skills to allow them to advance their professional policy goals.
  • CCL is working closely with the Indiana Bar Foundation on both the We the People competition and on this year’s civic health index, about which you will hear more later in the program.
  • Georgetown University Press has now published a slightly expanded version of the monograph we distributed last year, Talking Politics: What you need to know before you open your mouth,” which is our effort to identify what constitutes essential civic knowledge, and Matt Impink and I are currently working on a book that will be jointly produced by CCL and the Bar Foundation, and distributed nationally, with some concrete proposals for raising the relevance and immediacy of civics instruction.
  • The Center is also beginning some very preliminary discussions about potential joint efforts and collaborations with IUPUI’s highly ranked Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture.

This past year we have also produced and expanded the Center’s web page and blog, and thanks to the efforts of graduate students and researchers much, much younger than yours truly, we’ve twittered and Facebooked and—I recently discovered—we even have a YouTube channel.

All of that brings me to a final observation: as thoughtful as our presenters are—and we’re really proud of the line-up we’ve managed to corral!—the value of this annual meeting comes from your responses, your suggestions and cautions, and the interplay and discussion triggered by the various presenters and panelists. We are keenly aware of the gaps in our knowledge, the voids in the existing research—both ours and others—and the danger of just talking amongst ourselves. As fantastic a group as I personally believe we have involved in the Center, there’s nothing as dangerous as working in a bubble. We are counting on each of you to supply the missing information, the pertinent questions, and the needed critiques.

So don’t get too comfortable. You have work to do.

Let me just conclude with an observation. Several years ago, when I was the Director of Indiana’s ACLU, we published a magazine called “Common Ground.” It wasn’t a scholarly journal, but it was several notches up from a newsletter; it was an effort to reach out, to build bridges between our members and thoughtful people who didn’t understand what the organization did or why we did it. We wanted to create a forum that would provide people who didn’t necessarily agree on the issues we cared about with a common language, a common frame of reference (hence the name, Common Ground), within which we could engage in genuine dialogue. I think it is fair to say that the Center for Civic Literacy is engaged in the same effort.

In a diverse country, where people come from very different places, both geographically and ideologically, basic civic knowledge must provide the “common ground” on which we meet. It must equip us with a common language and vocabulary, so that we can talk to each other. We have to figure out why and how we lost that language, identify which of our current problems are a consequence of that loss, and determine what it is we need to do to recover it.

I hope you will evaluate the presentations here today and tomorrow in light of that goal.

Thank you and let’s get started.






The Political Climate

This introductory paragraph from an article from Grist reprinted in Mother Jones is incredibly depressing–not just because  one of our major political parties  is controlled by people unwilling to acknowledge accepted science on climate change, but because that unwillingness is symptomatic of the party’s current approach to reality generally.

It’s hard to believe, surveying the GOP field of possible presidential nominees, but back in 2008 the parties were not that far apart on climate change. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee, backed cap-and-trade for carbon emissions. After joining his ticket, so did Sarah Palin. But back then, lots of Republicans and conservatives also supported an individual mandate to buy health insurance. The Republican Party of 2008 was a big enough tent to include people who admitted demonstrable problems existed and supported free-market-oriented solutions. Not anymore. The rise of the Tea Party movement and the rightward shift of the Republican base and the politicians who pander to it put an end to all that. Whoever is the Republican nominee for president in 2016, it’s a safe bet that he—and yes, it will be a he, as all the leading contenders are male—will oppose taking any action on climate change. Chances are that he won’t even admit it exists.

I don’t believe that all of these candidates are that divorced from reality. It is actually worse: those who know better are willing to ignore the threat of widespread devastation in order to pander to a frightened and uninformed “base.”

I know I sound like a broken record, but what drives me nuts about climate denial is the illogic of the “bet” being placed.

Let’s just say that the science is far less conclusive than it really is. Pretend it’s only 50-50. If policymakers decide to act on the premise that climate change is real, and prove to be wrong, there will have been some up-front costs, but the steps taken to address the problem will clean up the air and water, conserve finite resources and create new industries and jobs. If they decide to ignore the warnings, and they’re wrong, however, the earth will become less habitable. Weather disruptions and climate change will cause devastation, and mass migrations and social upheavals will follow. And that’s the best-case scenario; in the worst case, we wipe out much of humankind.

It’s Pascal’s wager on steroids.