America the ignorant

Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin has another great report which follows a recent speech by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’connor. In it, Her Honor laments the general ignorance of Americans when it comes to critical matters of how their own nation works, and wonders how we’re supposed to govern ourselves out of our problems if we don’t even know the rules of the game we’re playing.


Two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told the crowd that packed into a Boise State ballroom to hear her Thursday.

About one-third can name the three branches of government. Fewer than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

“Less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s right there in the name,” she said.

O’Connor touted civics education during her keynote address at the “Transforming America: Women and Leadership in the 21st Century” conference, put on by the Andrus Center for Public Policy. She also described being a female lawyer in the 1950s, and challenged her listeners to help the next generation of leaders reach their goals….

“The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance,” O’Connor said.

I’m not sure which of the many historical surveys O’Connor was relying on for her numbers, but they certainly sound about right. One of the frequently depressing things you encounter when writing about politics and government, or talking to the sorts of people who read about it on a daily basis, is the false impression you form that everyone knows this stuff. Those of you who read Hot Air or any of the other many political sites each day also watch the news and debate issues of the day with each other. You’re forced to collect information to defend your views and are exposed to the ideas of others with different opinions. But I’m sorry to report that you are in a shockingly tiny minority.


Earlier this year, Richard Winchester, writing at The American Thinker, noted some very recent studies which should trouble you.

It doesn’t take much effort to describe the typical citizen’s political ignorance. The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, for example, has plumbed random samples of the public’s public affairs knowledge about twice a year since 2007. The questions have varied in substance and format, but the results have been uniformly dismal. The average correct score is usually just above 50% which, if judged by the usual academic standard –90+% = A, 80-89% = B, 70-79% = C, 60-69% = D, <60% = F — would be F.

Since people who cannot be contacted or refuse to take part in polls are more politically ignorant than those who do, these are generous estimates of the public’s political knowledge. It’s estimated that 25% to 33% or more of the adult populace is “missing in action” when poll results are reported. Were these people’s ignorance added to poll results, pollsters tell us that the public’s grade would be F-.

The questions being asked in some of these polls were not rocket surgery. In one of them, more than 60% of respondents did not know how many justices were on the Supreme Court. Roughly 30% didn’t know who the Vice President was, and that’s a problem no matter what you think of Joe Biden. But how do we address that, if it’s even possible? Should we be pushing for more civics instruction in the public education system? That might be nice, but how to square it with the need for students to concentrate more in math, science and engineering disciplines needed to compete in the modern job market? You can’t cover everything.


More from Somin:

That is not to suggest that we should simply give up on efforts to increase political knowledge. It may be possible to increase it at the margin by improving education, or by other means. But we should combine such reforms with efforts to shrink and decentralize government, so that we can make more of our decisions by “voting with our feet,” and fewer at the ballot box. Foot voters have stronger incentives to acquire relevant information and evaluate it rationally than ballot box voters do.

Uninformed people are not somebody else’s problem and the issues they cause are not only visited upon their own house. Uninformed people frequently show up to vote. They pick up the phone and give answers to pollsters which politicians then react to. Heck, they even drive cars. And as near as I can tell, it’s a problem which is completely out of reach of any solution.

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