Ben Franklin once famously replied to a question about what sort of government he and his fellow representatives had just given us in Philadelphia:
A republic, if you can keep it.
Thomas Jefferson said that the electorate needed to be well-informed to be trusted with their government. As one of the figures that was responsible for bringing it into being, he would know.
It seems we -in the collective sense- have become quite ill-informed. If we don’t know anything about what’s going on in the government, how can we stop abuses of the powers that are granted to it? Frank Bruni writes about the high level of cluelessness amongst Americans: we don’t know who’s running our government, or whether tremendously important legislation like Obamacare event exists, much less has become the (really terrible) law of the land. It turns out there’s a lot we don’t know.
But 40 percent of Americans are clueless about its (Obamacare) sheer existence. Some think it’s been repealed by Congress. Some think it’s been overturned by the Supreme Court. A few probably think it’s been vaporized and replaced with a galactic edict beamed down from one of Saturn’s moons. With Americans you never know.
According to a survey I stumbled across just weeks ago, 21 percent believe that a U.F.O. landed in Roswell, N.M., nearly seven decades ago and that the federal government hushed it up, while 14 percent believe in Bigfoot.According to another survey, taken last year, about 65 percent of us can’t name a single Supreme Court justice. Not the chief one, John Roberts. Not the mute one, Clarence Thomas. Not even the mean one, Antonin Scalia. Though when it comes to Scalia, perhaps the body politic suffers less from ignorance than from repressed memory.
That we Americans are out to lunch isn’t news. But every once in a while a fresh factoid like the Obamacare ignorance comes along to remind us that we’re out to breakfast and dinner as well. And it adds an important, infrequently acknowledged bit of perspective to all the commentary, from us journalists and from political strategists alike, about how voters behave and whom they reward. We purport to interpret an informed, rational universe, because we’d undercut our own insights if we purported anything else.
But only limited sense can be made of what is often nonsensical, and the truth is that a great big chunk of the electorate is tuned out, zonked out or combing Roswell for alien remains. Polls over the last few years have variously shown that about 30 percent of us couldn’t name the vice president, about 35 percent couldn’t assign the proper century to the American Revolution and 6 percent couldn’t circle Independence Day on a calendar. I’m supposing that the 6 percent weren’t also given the holiday’s synonym, the Fourth of July. I’m an optimist through and through.
Here’s one of my favorite findings: in a poll in 2011, after intense, closely chronicled fiscal battles in California, a sampling of the state’s residents were quizzed about which category of spending accounted for the biggest share of California’s budget. Only 16 percent correctly said public education through the 12th grade. And they did this poorly in spite of being given just four possible answers, including the correct one, from which to choose. They more or less underperformed the odds.
Apart from perennial news stories about how many Americans would flunk the citizenship test that immigrants must pass, we mostly gloss over our ignorance or deny it. Election analysts are constantly saying that voters are “too smart” for some ploy or “smarter than” they get credit for being.
You could spend a lot of time, I suppose, looking into the reasons why we don’t know much about what’s going on with our government. I’m not sure there would be a point to it, though: if you published a study outlining the reasons why, and what corrective measures to take, no one would read it.