Monday, September 30, 2013

The Politically Under-Informed Majority in America

While I realize that the data is a bit dated, the premise still holds.  A national survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania provides us with some insight regarding Americans understanding of the document that so many quote, particularly when referring to their right to bear arms and their right to privacy.  This is particularly pertinent in today's partisan environment where neither side of the political divide, both in Washington and on Main Street, has any patience for the views held by their political opponents.

The survey of 1230 adults taken in September 2011 showed the following:

    only 38 percent could name all three branches of the United States government.

    one third of respondents could not name a single one of the three branches.

      only 51 percent of Americans knew that a two-thirds majority vote by Congress is needed to overturn a Presidential veto.

   91 percent of respondents knew that the United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States, however, only 62 percent of respondents knew that the Supreme Court is responsible for determining whether or not a law is constitutional.

    only 48 percent of respondents knew that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision has the same effect as a 9-0 decision.

       only 15 percent of respondents knew that John Roberts was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (in an interesting twist, 27 percent knew that Randy Jackson was a judge on American Idol).

Here are a few questions from the official U.S. citizenship test and how well respondents did:

       a respectable 78 percent knew that the first ten amendments to the Constitution were called the Bill of Rights.

  76 percent knew that the Declaration of Independence established American independence from Great Britain.

   only 42 percent of respondents knew that jury duty is reserved exclusively for American citizens.

       a paltry 13 percent of respondents knew that the Constitution was signed in 1787 with 55 percent stating that it was signed in 1776, the year that the Declaration of Independence was signed.
A study in 2005 titled "An Overview of the State of Citizens' Knowledge About Politics" by Michael X. Delli Carpini examines a history of the level of how well Americans are informed about domestic politics and a comparison of political knowledge in other countries.  Here's a quote from his paper:

"...a 1992 report by the Center for the Study of Communication at the University of Massachusetts found that while 86% of a random sample of likely voters knew that the Bush's family dog was named Millie and 89% knew that Murphy Brown was the TV character criticized by Dan Quayle, only 15% knew that both candidates favored the death penalty and only 5% knew that both had proposed cuts in the capital gains tax."

On average, over the past fifty years, Americans have been able to correctly answer only four out of ten questions in a political questionnaire and the author suggests that rather than being uninformed about political issues, Americans are under-informed.  It seems that when the Democrats and Republicans take more distinctive stands on various key issues, the public can more easily differentiate between the two.

All that said, research suggests that when comparing knowledge of national legislatures in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, Americans averaged less than three in ten correct responses compared to six in ten for the United Kingdom and 9.8 out of eleven for Canadians.

Research suggests that citizens that are better informed tend to be more tolerant and are less likely to change their opinion in the face of misleading information but are more likely to change their opinion when they are presented with relevant information that proves their opinion wrong.  
In closing, here's a quote from Paul Blumberg's 1990 paper, The Politics of Ignorance:

"America's embarrassing little secret ... is that vast numbers of Americans are ignorant, not merely of the specialized details of government which ordinary citizens cannot be expected to master, but of the most elementary political facts - information so basic as to challenge the central tenet o f democratic government itself."

Think about that the next time you listen to someone's vitriolic and politically polarized commentary on the current state of politics in America.  Perhaps they are speaking from their own ignorance.


  1. In truth, that study gave me some hope. Particularly, this part: "Americans averaged less than three in ten correct responses compared to six in ten for the United Kingdom and 9.8 out of eleven for Canadians."

    So basically, the idea of 'people who don't care to know making big decisions." Isn't a regular aspect of humanity and more a regular aspect of Americans.

    Or to put it another way: Democracy and giving power to 'the people!' actually can work. It's just not working that well over in the States.

    The question though, is why? Why are we unique? Is it due to us believing we don't have to change due to already being 'on the top'? Is there something in the water? Did we experience a brain drain long ago that we never recovered from?

  2. Ill give a perfect example: About 3 weeks ago I was talking with a coworker at one of my part time Jobs(I have 1 full time and 2 part time jobs). She is a student 2nd or 3rd year in college with her major being Political Science focusing on Global Politics. So I figure she would be interesting to talk to about the situation of the possible attack by the US on Bashar al Assad's military. She stated that it was important to attack Syria because they had nuclear weapons and we can not allow they to give the weapon to Al Qaeda. I am asuming anyone reading this will at least have a general idea of who is on what side in the civil war in Syria. But her answer just unscores the complete ignorance of even college educated people in the US.