Friday, May 27, 2011

A Look at What People Know About Politics, Part I

What with the recent debate in the United States over the federal budget—and whether to cut funding to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—I got thinking again about how much Americans and other people know about politics. (Naturally, this is also a nice way to come back to the 'blog after a lengthy, research-induced hiatus.)

Among political scientists, the typical answer to, “how much do Americans know about politics?” is, “not much.” A particularly infamous example comes from the The American Voter, a 1960 text that represented one of the first efforts to interview Americans and figure out how they vote. At one point, the authors start quoting people they've interviewed, and it gets to be scary business. They write:

"A woman who reported that she had become entranced by the Republican convention on television and had watched every minute of it came away without visible [knowledge of the issues] but some perplexity at the fact that Nixon had received the vice-presidential nomination. 'He's a foreigner, isn't he?' she asked the interviewer." (Unabridged edition, 243)

Lest you think we’re better off today, consider the case of Barack Obama. According to a Harris Interactive poll fielded in early March 2010, 32 percent of Americans believed he was a Muslim and 25 percent believed he was not born in the United States, which, were it not demonstrably false, could mean he is ineligible to be president. (By the way, he’s also not a socialist. Taxes are lower than they’ve been since at least the 1950s, as one Republican recently pointed out, and the health care bill had, shall we say, a fair amount of input from the insurance industry.)
Now, those are some extreme examples, so let’s step back and ask this question in a bit   (just a bit) more rigorous way. Indulge me for a second, and try to answer the following questions:
1) Who is the current speaker of the house?
2) Roughly what is the national unemployment rate?
3) Of education, Medicare, interest on the national debt, and scientific research, what does the U.S.\ government spend most of its money on?
4) Who founded Facebook? (Bonus question: who played the individual in question in the movie?)
5) What source of energy provides the most electricity in the United States?
Think you know the answers? If you’ve read this far, there’s a decent chance you have some interest in politics and current events and such, and that means there’s a decent chance you actually know the answers to these questions. What about other people?
I adapted these questions from one edition of the Pew Research Center’s News IQ Quiz, which has twice as many questions, but all the questions are multiple choice. (You can take the current quiz at In addition to allowing people to find out what they do and don’t know, Pew also fields a national survey asking the same questions of about 1,000 randomly selected adult Americans. With that in mind, let’s see how America did, along with the correct answers.
1) 43 percent knew who the Speaker is: John Boehner.
2) 57 percent knew the unemployment rate: 9 percent.
3) 29 percent knew on which of education, Medicare, national debt interest, and science the U.S. government spends the most: Medicare.
4) 55 percent knew who founded Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg. (Bonus question answer: Jesse Eisenberg.)
5) 40 percent knew what provides us most of our electricity: coal.
Sometimes, people do better—for example, 80 percent of people knew that the No Child Left Behind Act had to do with education—and you might question whether it’s all that important to know who founded Facebook or even who the Speaker of the House is.
For my part, I find the results for questions 3 and 5 disturbing. First, let’s get some context. Medicare costs are about 13 percent of Obama’s proposed 2012 budget ( Servicing the national debt makes up about six and a half percent, education and job training programs make up less than three percent, and science less than one percent. Who are the real players? Medicare and other health programs like Medicaid, which together make up about 23 percent, social security at about 20 percent, and defense at another 20 percent. 
Meanwhile, much of the public debate concerned things like funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in turn helps fund NPR and PBS. Their funding totals about half a billion dollars, which isn’t actually that much: it’s something like two ten-thousandths of the federal budget. Despite that, in a recent CNN poll (, about three quarters of those polled thought it made up more than one percent of the budget.

Likewise, it's distressing that only 40 percent of Americans know that we get most of energy from coal, particularly when you realize the other options—remember, Pew's survey is multiple choice—were hydroelectric, nuclear, and wind. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hydroelectric makes up about six percent of our energy production nationally, nuclear about 20 percent, and wind doesn't even show up. Coal makes up almost half of our energy production nationally, with the rest coming mostly from natural gas. So, when people are thinking about, say, regulating nuclear power plants, where to invest in energy projects, or whether to invest in cleaner energy, they might be thinking about things all wrong.

(Incidentally, the EPA has a nifty Web site where you can find out the mix for where you live. Here in New Mexico, it mirrors the national mix pretty closely. In Seattle, where a lot of my readers are from, hydroelectric power is much bigger fraction of electricity production, coming in at 48.4 percent.)
In case you think this is just an American disease, that’s likely not true. Henry Milner described Canada, for example, as having low levels of what he called civic literacy, and Paul Howe, reporting in International Political Science Review, finds that in both Canada and the Netherlands—usually thought to score well in  terms of political knowledge—young citizens know increasingly less about politics relative to their elders. 
Now that I’ve showed you that people don’t necessarily know very much, we need to ask at least two more questions. First, why don’t people know anything about politics? Second, does it actually matter? 
I’ll save discussion of those questions for later, but here’s the gist. First, people don’t know much because it’s hard to get information and that information is boring. Second, well, no, it might not matter. The reason is that people might be able to use small pieces of information, such as who endorses a policy, to reach the same conclusions as they would if they knew everything they possibly could.
Stay tuned.