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January 12, 2005

is policy just too complicated?

Some people think that it's harder for citizens to participate in politics today than it was 50 years ago, because issues have simply grown more complex. The G.I. bill was relatively simple legislation, so it was easy to organize members of veterans' groups and others to support it. But health care reform in the 21st century is enormously complex. No one really knows what should be done. Some people argue that public engagement has declined as a result.

I think there must be something to this theory. Between 1952 and 1992, the National Election Study (NES) asked people whether they agreed with the following statement: "Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on." Generally, people have found politics too complicated--or at least, have doubted their own capacity to understand it. However, the results do not show a lot of decline in Americans' sense that politics is too complicated for them. The trend is pretty flat. Unfortunately, the question was dropped in 1996, and it changed a bit in 1988, when people were offered the option of refusing both choices ("too complicated" and "not too complicated"). If we assume that the people who chose "neither" would otherwise have said "too complicated," then there was an erosion of confidence after 1984. But that's a big assumption.

By the way, people's impression of complexity is not the only thing that might affect their participation. Regardless of their subjective beliefs, the actual complexity of policy issues might block their engagement. And perhaps we should be a little disappointed that people haven't gained confidence in their understanding of politics. Before World War II, the mean level of educational attainment of the US population was elementary school; by 2000, it was two years of college. Yet we feel no more capable of understanding policy--perhaps somewhat less.

Posted by peterlevine at January 12, 2005 02:58 PM


"Yet we feel no more capable of understanding policy--perhaps somewhat less."

might this be due at least in part to the conventions of the industry whose role it is to inform us?
"he said - she said - hell if we know" doesn't make for clarity.

Posted by: Anna at January 12, 2005 03:20 PM

The following is sheer speculation, but it occurs to me that perhaps increased educational attainment is pushing levels of confidence up, while increased complexity and lousy reporting are pushing confidence down. The result would be no change over time.

Posted by: Peter Levine at January 13, 2005 09:06 PM

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