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We’re not stupid. We’re ignorant.

Bill Waterson 1995

And there’s a difference, says Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker.

The problem is ignorance, not stupidity. We suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.

Recently, Newsweek asked 1000 US citizens to take America’s official citizenship test. You probably know where this is headed. Yeah . . . we didn’t do too well.

  • Almost 75% couldn’t correctly state why we fought the Cold War
  • 1/3 couldn’t name the current Vice-President
  • Less than 20% could name a power specific to the federal government
  • 94% don’t know how many Constitutional amendments there are
  • Just 40% know how long an elected senator serves
  • 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights
  • And 6% couldn’t circle Independence Day on a calendar (Psst. Here’s a hint . . . it’s in July.)

But we knew this already, right? Knowledge of US government and history facts has always been low. In fact, Michael Carpini of the Annenberg School of Communication claims that

yearly shifts in civic knowledge since World War II have averaged out to slightly under 1 percent.

So these sorts of scores are nothing new. But . . . times are different and they’ve changed in ways that make civic ignorance a huge problem. The current conversation on the federal budget points out the dangers of not understanding the system. When we think about it, the answer is simple:

  • cut spending in big ticket items (like Medicare and defense)
  • tax reforms that increase revenues (like ending Bush era tax cuts)
  • a compromise that includes pieces from both of these two options

But we just don’t get it. According to a 2010 World Public Opinion poll, rather than seeing the obvious, most of us would solve the budget problem by cutting foreign aid from what we think is the current level (27% of the budget) to a much more realistic 13%.

The actual percent of the budget in foreign aid? Less than 1%.

A January 25 CNN poll found out that 71% of us want a smaller government but huge majorities of around 80% don’t want to cut Medicare or Social Security.

And not only are we confused about things like the budget and other government underpinnings, many of us just don’t care anymore. This is especially dangerous. Newsweek broke out the data a bit more based on Republican and Democrat test takers and discovered some frightening statistics. The more conservative you are or the more liberal you are, the better you did on the test. Moderates didn’t do so well.

This illustrates something quite dangerous. The operative theory about America’s political situation holds that the fringe of each party is poorly informed, and the middle possesses the wisdom, but our numbers show it’s actually the extremes that are engaged—and thus, up on their facts—while the middle is relatively ill informed. More than lacking knowledge, a lot of Americans, particularly in the middle, have completely tuned out.

Stop and think a bit here about the “so what.” Our current system is based on the idea of compromise. Compromise between branches of government, compromise between political parties, compromise between state and federal. Thomas Jefferson once said

I see the necessity of sacrificing our opinions sometimes to the opinions of others for the sake of harmony.

But it seems as if the extreme ends of the political spectrum – those more likely to “fan flames” and less likely to seek compromise – are the ones engaging in the system. The middle – those most likely to listen and look for solutions – is choosing to retreat from participation. If only the loud and strident campaign and vote, then only the loud and strident will be elected. And consensus and solutions will be difficult to come by.


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  1. How to get smart again « History Tech

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