As we enter the home stretch of the 2004 presidential election, the majority of citizens remain ignorant about many of the issues at stake. Surveys show that 70 percent of American adults don’t know that Congress recently passed a prescription drug benefit for seniors, even though the new law — projected to cost $500 billion over the next 10 years — is probably the most significant domestic legislation passed during the Bush administration. More than 60 percent do not know that President Bush’s term has seen a massive increase in domestic spending, about 25 percent above previous levels, that has led to a major increase in the national debt. And despite the extensive media attention focused on employment numbers, almost two-thirds of the public don’t know that there has been a net increase in jobs this year. Three quarters admit they know little or nothing about the USA Patriot Act and 58 percent mistakenly believe that the Bush administration perceives a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks.
However sad those results may be, they are not surprising. Decades of research show that most citizens know very little about politics and public policy. Ignorance goes beyond lack of awareness of specific issues. Even more alarming is that most citizens lack basic background knowledge about political leaders, parties and the structure of government. For example, the majority of Americans don’t know the name of their congressman, which branch of government is responsible for which issues and the basic differences between liberalism and conservatism. Immediately after the 2002 congressional elections, only 32 percent knew that the Republicans had held control of the U.S. House of Representatives prior to the balloting.
It is tempting to conclude that voters must be lazy or stupid. But even a smart and hardworking person can rationally decide not to pay much attention to political information. No matter how well-informed a citizen is, her vote has only a tiny chance of affecting the outcome of an election; about one chance in 100 million in the case of a presidential race. Since her vote is almost certain not to be decisive, even a citizen who cares greatly about the outcome has almost no incentive to acquire sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice. Acquiring significant amounts of political knowledge so as to be a more informed voter is, in most situations, simply irrational. But the rational decisions of individuals create a dysfunctional collective outcome in which the majority of the electorate is dangerously ill-informed.
People who can influence politics in ways beyond casting a vote and those who simply find politics interesting might learn about it for perfectly rational reasons. But few of us are influential activists or campaign contributors. And most Americans find politics far less interesting than other forms of entertainment. Polls show that many more people know the names of the judges on “The People’s Court” than those on the Supreme Court.
If political ignorance is rational, there are limits to our ability to reduce it by reforming the education system or by improving media coverage of politics. Studies show that knowledge levels have remained roughly constant for decades in spite of massive increases in education levels and greatly increased availability of information. With the rise of the Internet and 24-hour news channels, political knowledge is readily available to those willing to take the time and effort to find it. The problem is not that the truth isn’t out there, but that most don’t bother to seek it.
Even if the majority of voters were willing to pay more attention to politics than they do, that still might not be enough to cope with the complexities of modern government. The federal government alone spends over 20 percent of our national gross domestic product and adopts thousands of regulations that touch on almost every aspect of our lives. Even the best-informed voters are unlikely to be aware of more than a small fraction of this activity. Thus, huge swathes of government power are likely to escape public scrutiny, and therefore also escape public accountability and democratic control. If government had fewer functions, it might be easier for voters to keep track of them.
The problem of political ignorance is not going to be solved anytime soon. But it may be possible to ensure that more people possess at least basic political knowledge. At the same time, we should consider the possibility that a government with fewer functions might be easier for voters to understand and control.