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….