FIAT IGNORAMUS

Posted in Election 2008 on July 22nd, 2008 by Ed

If you can spare 90 seconds, take the Pew Center's News IQ test. Or don't and just keep reading.

As I have stated repeatedly over the years, and as you are already fully aware, Americans are stupid. We already know this. Every conceivable way of measuring what Americans know about politics, government, and current events leads to the same abysmal conclusions. It is easy to take a survey like Pew is offering and point to alarming findings such as the fact that 84% of Americans know that Oprah likes Obama and 28% know that more than 4,000 troops have died in Iraq. Oh, that liberal media!

This is not new. Every 12-18 months, usually on a slow news day, another media outlet or polling organization rolls out a new but essentially identical set of data; lots of adults don't know who represents them in the Senate, which party controls what, where the Pacific Ocean is on a map (seriously), and so on. Several landmark studies in political science (notably Philip Converse's "Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics," 1964) and countless best-selling books (including Rick Shenkman's new Just How Stupid Are We?) have cashed in on telling the same story. Americans, aided by absolutely vacuous news media, are stunningly ignorant.

The data cited by these authors, both popular and academic, are doubtlessly accurate. Nonetheless the conclusions commonly drawn – we're too stupid to dress ourselves without assistance let alone wield democratic power – are controversial. Just how much, and more importantly what, does one need to know to participate in the political process? It would not be hard to support an argument that much of this has little relevance to opinion formation. Critics, in other words, assert that these tests of political/civic knowledge are essentially tests of trivia.

Does a person need to know the Senate Majority Leader – or find Louisiana on a map, or whatever – to form a negative opinion of one presidential candidate or the other? Is knowing the number of Senators relevant to understanding the motives and justifications for the war in Iraq? Objectively, no. At the same time, it is also obvious that some facts (whether or not WMD were found in Iraq, which nations were most responsible for 9/11, how many troops have died in the war) are very relevant to drawing accurate conclusions and forming intelligent opinions.

The reality about the relationship between basic civic knowledge and our electoral system centers around two dynamics. First, there is a threshold effect. It's not necessary to get 12-for-12 on the Pew quiz in order to be an informed voter and there's probably no effective difference between getting 9 or 12. There is a number, probably hovering around the mean, at which someone shows enough knowledge to form opinions that are not completely random. Going beyond that doesn't help a whole lot (although more is obviously better for other reasons) and dipping below it probably reveals comprehensive ignorance. Second, very high or very low scores are essentially measuring political interest; it's not possible to pay any attention to politics and be unaware of the Congressional majority. Conversely, it's not possible to know minute points (the names of Senate Committee Chairs and so on) without paying a lot of attention.

The conclusion I usually draw, and the sense in which I mean "stupid", is that Americans are vacant. True stupidity would be an inability to learn this stuff, and that certainly does not exist. Listen to sports talk radio for 10 minutes. You will hear callers, people who probably couldn't name their Senators for a million bucks, rattle off the batting averages of the entire starting nine of the 1986 Mets. Americans, in short, are simply chock full of information about meaningless things – Survivor, shoe shopping, celebrity romance, football, cars, and so on. Those things are all fine and good (see the sidebar for a set of baseball links I read every day). Survivor and sports are supposed to be our brain candy, our hobbies. Instead, they are the entirety of what we know. These subjects have become to the American mind what junk food has become to the American diet: what should be an occasional indulgence in the interest of pleasure and relaxation has become the whole menu.

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