Last time, I wrote about what Americans and others know about politics. Before I get to discussing why people don't know much about politics—and whether it even matters—let's take a closer look at how much people know, whether it's changed over time, and who knows what. I'll also look a bit at whether the measures of political knowledge people use are actually that useful.
A lot of what I'm going to talk about today comes from Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter's book What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters, a standard textbook for graduate-level introductions to American politics. Like a lot of graduate-level introductions to American politics, it has some drawbacks. First, it is now 15 years old, and the most recent data they analyze is about twenty years old. Second, there are some legitimate concerns about how they measured knowledge, how to compare knowledge levels across time and across countries, and so forth. However, it is the most comprehensive study of what Americans know about politics you're likely to find, in part because of the measurement and comparison issues. Much of the research that has come since has focused on how to measure what people know rather than simply measuring what they know. (Some time, I'll write about measurement problems in social science, or why physics had it easy and ignorance is sometimes a good thing.)
What do people know?
The general picture so far is that people don't know much, and while that's true, there's also a great deal more nuance to explore. Here's a summary of what Delli Carpini and Keeter found:
1) While Americans don't know much about politics—for example, only 41 percent of 2,000 questions asked over a period of several decades were correctly answered by more than half of the people surveyed—there is a tremendous amount of variation from issue to issue and question to question. When asked in the mid- to late-1980s, 96 percent of Americans knew that the US was a UN member state (a number not much changed from the 1940s), 50 percent knew that the accused are presumed innocent, and two percent could name two Fifth Amendment rights.
2) People generally fare less well when it comes to details about their leaders and institutions. At the time of their Survey of Political Knowledge, fewer than three quarters of Americans could identify any position a public official had taken, with two exceptions. More than the three quarters knew what Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was, and more than three quarters knew that George H. W. Bush didn't like broccoli.
3) Even though people don't know that much, their answers often tend to cluster roughly around the correct answer. In 1989, the most frequent belief about the proportion of the federal budget devoted to defense was 30 percent, not too far off from the correct answer, 26 percent. The distributions are broad and a bit off in terms of the average answer, but, write Delli Carpini and Keeter, the average American isn't too far off. This point will be key in one of the arguments that American political ignorance is not so disastrous.
4) Political knowledge is not unique. In fact, the levels of knowledge regarding culture, popular and otherwise, were similar. In 1989, only 16 percent of Americans knew the Giants had won a Superbowl that decade. (They had won three years earlier.) Again, there is variation: in 1975, 89 percent knew who Shakespeare was, while in 1982, only six percent knew Jackson Pollock was a painter. (That one makes me sad. Not so much disturbed. Just sad.)
If you see some patterns emerging, well, they are. People tend to know things that are particularly high profile. Shakespeare is higher profile than Pollock. "Don't ask, don't tell" was higher profile than most any policy from the 1990s—so much so that we're still talking about it. And the one big Fifth Amendment right—the one against self-incrimination—is the one that even TV shows talk about. They don't tend to talk so much about grand jury indictments, double jeopardy, due process, or the takings clause, which requires the government to pay you for property that it seizes through eminent domain.
A final point: most people are fairly uniformly knowledgeable. While there are a few "information specialists," who know a lot about one particular area, most people know, to paraphrase Peggy Lee, a little bit about a lot of things. (If you pick up the book, you'll mysteriously find this observation at the beginning of the chapter on who is informed about politics.)
What do Americans know in comparison to other countries?
Again, the story is fairly incomplete, but we know a few things. In comparison to other countries, Americans don't do so well, but there are bright spots. In a 1986 survey of knowledge about foreign affairs, Americans did about as well as Canada and United Kingdom and better than Spain and Mexico. According to Almond and Verba's The Civic Culture—a book that I could write a book about—Americans and Germans are much better than others at naming party leaders and cabinet offices. Finally, a 1988 National Geographic Survey found that Americans were sort of middle of the pack at locating important places, such as the United States and the Persian Gulf.
Who knows about politics?
There are a handful of individual traits that, if you have them, make you more likely to know a lot about politics across the board. One of them is simply discussing politics: the more you talk about politics, the more you know about politics.
Another is education: roughly, if you have more years of education behind you, you're more likely to know the rules of the game, the substance of political debates, and who the players are. I don't know that anyone's ever dug into this in a rigorous way, but the argument for why education matters is simple enough—the more education you have, the more you're able to digest and analyze political information. (And, psychologists know, digesting and analyzing information is central to actually retaining it.)
I am a bit skeptical of that argument, however, and here's where things start to get distressing. The hope of the education argument is that if people have access to education, they'll be more active and informed citizens. (Sidney Verba, Kay Schlozmann, and Henry Brady make such an argument in their book Voice and Equality.) The trouble is, higher education tends to go along with two things that ought to have nothing to do with the capacity to participate meaningfully in politics: income and race.
Indeed, higher income tends to lead to higher levels of political knowledge, possibly because it means you have a greater interest in the outcomes of political debates, or maybe because you simply have more spare time and energy to devote to following politics. What causes what, as is often the case in social science, is tricky: maybe you have higher levels of knowledge and income because you're educated. Maybe you have more knowledge and education because you're wealthy. But until we sort that out, I'm still distressed.
And the worst of all: race and, while we're at it, gender. Blacks and women—at least at the time of the Survey of Political Knowledge—knew substantially less about politics than others. Again, there's a lot of variation, but on average white men know quite a bit more. Nor, argue Delli Carpini and Keeter, have these gaps declined much over the years, as one might hope given the trend toward more education—another reason to doubt that education is the great equalizer.
One final point. People who read about politics in the newspaper know more about politics than others, but only when it comes to a particular area: the people and political parties involved in politics. In other words, reading the newspaper doesn't seem to help people understand how politics works or the substance of political issues. As Delli Carpini and Keeter point out, knowledge and understanding of politics depends not only on the will to learn about politics and the resources to achieve that goal, but also the opportunity to learn about it in the first place.