I’ve been reading a recent book by Ilya Somin, a well-known and respected constitutional scholar, called Democracy and Political Ignorance.
He begins by reciting several aspects of public ignorance with which readers of this blog are also distressingly familiar. And he argues that certain aspects of that ignorance are particularly troubling:
many voters are ignorant not just about specific policy issues but about the basic structure of government and how it operates….such basic aspects of the U.S. political system as who has the power to declare war, the respective functions of the three branches of government, and who controls monetary policy.
This makes it difficult to assign credit and blame for policy outcomes; it also means that many voters have a very inaccurate picture of “the scope of elected officials’ powers.”
How many times have I heard liberal voters express disappointment that Obama didn’t “do” this or that? How many times have I heard conservative critics charge the President with “dictatorial” powers when he has (1) done something routine, something all Presidents have done; or (2) when Congress has either enacted a policy they disliked or defeated one they liked (so they attributed the result to a President they dislike)?
Somin notes that the level of political knowledge has barely increased since the 1930s—as he says, this is a “stable level of ignorance” that has persisted even in the face of massive increases in educational achievement and “an unprecedented expansion in the quantity and quality of information available to the general public at little cost.” Television and the internet seem not to have increased political knowledge, with the exception of those who were already well-informed. Somin suggests these media may actually have diverted attention away from politics by providing alternate sources of entertainment.
In the introductory chapter of the book, Somin provides reams of evidence—as if we needed to be further depressed—in support of his contention that the public cannot make fact-based decisions about policies or the merits of public officials when they know virtually nothing of the political world they inhabit. With all of the screaming about Obama’s stimulus bill, for example, 57% of the public didn’t know that a quarter of the stimulus came in the form of tax cuts. Only 34% of the public knew that TARP was enacted by President Bush. Only 39% is aware that defense spending is a larger percentage of the federal budget than education, Medicare and interest on the national debt.
We know that people who are unaware of facts are more easily manipulated.
The question—as always—is “what do we do about this state of affairs?” Somin is convinced that “rational ignorance”—the recognition that one vote is unlikely to matter much in the democratic scheme of things—will prevent us from raising the level of civic knowledge.
His conclusion? We need to change our form of government. I haven’t yet finished the book, or read his recommendations, so I will withhold comment.
Talk amongst yourselves….
9 thoughts on “Throwing in the Towel?”
I readily admit to my lack of knowledge on these issues; my ignorance has probably been evident in some of my comments on this blog. BUT…I know enough to know that President Obama, as all presidents, do have unlimited powers and that they are not responsible for all failures. Look at the fools in the House who have just made their 50th attempt to repeal and/or defund what that call “Obamacare”. I have voiced this opinon to a couple of liberal friends who have turned on President Obama because he has not done everything THEY believe he could have and should have accomplished. There are also issues that we do not have full information about that could be why he has or has not fulfilled each and every campaign goal. Even with the Freedom of Information Act there are situation when we should NOT have access to full information. Suppose it had been made public that Navy Seals knew where Bin Laden was and that they planned to attack? The media, in their attempts to have a “scoop’, often publicize information that prevents successful completion of legal acts by government and public safety members. Maybe teaching Civics should begin with the Legislature but members of the media also need to be included in these classes. Our education system is lacking in this area of learning and knowing the importance of this knowledge should be included.
I’ve been looking forward to reading that one — I remember his posts on this topic over at Balkinization, and I learned quite a bit from his colleague’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. I also look forward to your thoughts on his conclusion, once you’ve finished the book.
I’m really interested in how we go about trying to correct the misinformation and ignorance. We know from the research that Brendan Nyhan and others have done over the past few years that the ways we commonly try to address these problems often backfires and makes the problem worse. (Just yesterday, Chris Mooney gave a quick rundown of 5 Infuriating Examples of Facts Making People Dumber.) I hope that the recent research around habits and other cognitive “shortcuts” would give us some insight into when and how people change their thinking — maybe that will provide a way forward.
The lack of knowledge of the basic functions of government is appalling, the knowledge of how we select our leaders is even worse. Those who bother to vote at all frequently put little thought into who they’re voting for, what they do or the impact of their vote. Far too many claim their vote won’t matter, or voting doesn’t matter because government will do what it wants anyway.
That is capitulation. The people have been so beaten down by the government, the schools and the news media they’ve forgotten that we have the power, were we to use it. Far too many people have accepted their slavery. Fortunately, there are enough of us who think to keep this situation from completely collapsing, but for how long is anyone’s guess.
It comes down to how badly do we want to be free.
There are periodic ‘Constitutional’ information classes offered at various times throughout the year in Indiana and surrounding states (one in Cincinnati this weekend), usually available for a reasonable cost including guidebooks and outlines. What I’ve noticed is that most, if not all, of the sessions are held by individuals with a personal conservative and/or libertarian outlook. I’ve not seen any ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ individual hold Constitutional seminars. Why? If one is really sincere about educating the public about our founding documents and how our government works, then one should be advancing and advertising these seminars or holding one himself/herself.
I HAVE ALREADY ADMITTED THAT I AM ONE OF THE IGNORANT PUBLIC WHO DOES NOT UNDERSTAND GOVERNMENT ENOUGH TO ALWAYS MAKE INTELLIGENT DECISIONS OR COMMENTS. BUT – I DO NOT BELIEVE THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA IS SO POORLY GOVERNED THAT THERE IS NO WAY TO STOP THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES – OR THE SENATE – FROM CONTINUING TO VOTE TO REPEAL “OBAMACARE” OR ANY ENACTED BILL. I DO NOT BELIEVE THE FOUNDING FATHERS AUTHORED AND SIGNED THE CONSTITUTION, AMENDMENTS AND BILL OF RIGHTS TO CONTROL GOVERNMENT AND NOT IMPOSE LIMITATIONS ON THIS SITUATION WHICH WE ARE WITNESSING AGAIN. THE REPRESENTATIVES ARE ELECTED AND PAID TO DO A JOB, NOT PLAY GAMES AND IGNORE VITAL BILLS AND APPOINTMENTS THAT PROTECT THIS COUNTRY.
Last Sunday’s interview with talking heads is still ringing in my ears! Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) still refers to THE Ukraine and THE Crimea. That’s like saying THE South Carolina. Shhhh! Don’t tell him that it’s ‘Ukraine’ and ‘Crimea’. Talk about being out of touch, and with such a currently-sensitive region!
Paul, Indianapolis Center for Inquiry has had educational programs of the type you suggest. I was trying to post a link to their site, but it is not loading. Try centerforinquiry.net.
Thank, Sheila. Got the book.
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