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March 27, 2008

ignorance and apathy?

I'm having an email correspondence about whether Americans are politically ignorant and apathetic. Those are harsh and undiplomatic words, but they could be true.

Are we apathetic? Voter turnout is low compared to other countries, around two thirds in presidential years. But about 60 percent of Americans volunteer, according to the DDB Needham survey; and that represents an enormous voluntary contribution of time and energy. Just under 50% attend meetings at least annually. That rate is lower than it used to be, but it's still a large voluntary contribution of time.

Are we ignorant? I'm not sure. According to Pew, 93% can identify Hillary Clinton. 88% know about the surge in Iraq. 69% can generate the name of Dick Cheney, but apparently more can pick him off a list when offered a multiple-choice format. Are these numbers too low? It may help to set them in context. For example, 49% of Americans think that antibiotics affect viruses. Just 60% can pick the right definition of DNA off a multiple-choice list ( source). 37% think that kissing can spread HIV, and 16% think you can get it from a toilet seat (source). 14% of adult Americans score "below basic" level in literacy, meaning that they have no more than "simple and concrete literacy skills." In short, more people can identify Hillary Clinton than can read a paragraph of prose. Many more are right about the Iraq surge than about how one contracts AIDS.

This interests me because literacy and medical information pay off directly for an individual. Even people who are rather selfish should be motivated to obtain skills and knowledge that they can use in their own lives. Political knowledge, in contrast, does not pay off for an individual who thinks in selfish or narrow terms. Maybe being well informed will make you a better voter or help you in a community meeting. But there are hundreds of millions of other people who vote and attend meetings, and you can easily get away as a free-rider.

A model, then, of human behavior as self-interested would predict very low levels of political knowledge and interest. What we observe seems better than that to me. Surveys always reveal disturbing gaps in knowledge, whether we ask about geography, science, religion, or any other topic. Politics doesn't stand out as a particularly weak point.

This is not to say that we shouldn't work to enhance both knowledge and participation, especially so that we can reduce inequality by social class. That will require more than "messages" that provide citizens with information or exhort them to participate. I think a feeling of responsibility already has some positive effects on people's political behavior. Without it, 110 million people wouldn't cast ballots in election years. We need to reinforce people's sense that they ought to engage by providing stable rewards for participation, such as institutions that actually respond to their legitimate activism. It is, for example, hard to persuade people to vote in congressional elections when the districts have been drawn so that only about 10% of them are even remotely competitive. It's hard to follow the news when the local TV station serves up only rapes, fires, and murders. It's hard to improve local education if the No Child Left Behind Act has centralized educational policy. And it's hard to seek office in a union if the union has closed.

March 27, 2008 7:49 AM | category: none


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