So the results of a recent Newsweek survey are hardly surprising:
They’re the sort of scores that drive high-school history teachers to drink. When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.
To appreciate the risks involved, it’s important to understand where American ignorance comes from. In March 2009, the European Journal of Communication asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. to answer questions on international affairs. The Europeans clobbered us. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same—even though we’ve led the charge in Afghanistan. It was only the latest in a series of polls that have shown us lagging behind our First World peers.
The current conflict over government spending illustrates the new dangers of ignorance. Every economist knows how to deal with the debt: cost-saving reforms to big-ticket entitlement programs; cuts to our bloated defense budget; and (if growth remains slow) tax reforms designed to refill our depleted revenue coffers. But poll after poll shows that voters have no clue what the budget actually looks like. A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that Americans want to tackle deficits by cutting foreign aid from what they believe is the current level (27 percent of the budget) to a more prudent 13 percent. The real number is under 1 percent. A Jan. 25 CNN poll, meanwhile, discovered that even though 71 percent of voters want smaller government, vast majorities oppose cuts to Medicare (81 percent), Social Security (78 percent), and Medicaid (70 percent). Instead, they prefer to slash waste—a category that, in their fantasy world, seems to include 50 percent of spending, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.
Needless to say, it’s impossible to balance the budget by listening to these people. But politicians pander to them anyway, and even encourage their misapprehensions. As a result, we’re now arguing over short-term spending cuts that would cost up to 700,000 government jobs, imperiling the shaky recovery and impairing our ability to compete globally, while doing nothing to tackle the long-term fiscal challenges that threaten … our ability to compete globally.
Given our history, it’s hard to imagine this changing any time soon. But that isn’t to say a change wouldn’t help. For years, Stanford communications professor James Fishkin has been conducting experiments in deliberative democracy. The premise is simple: poll citizens on a major issue, blind; then see how their opinions evolve when they’re forced to confront the facts. What Fishkin has found is that while people start out with deep value disagreements over, say, government spending, they tend to agree on rational policy responses once they learn the ins and outs of the budget. “The problem is ignorance, not stupidity,” Hacker says. “We suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.” Whether that’s a treatable affliction or a terminal illness remains to be seen. But now’s the time to start searching for a cure.
Arguing ignorance vs. stupidity is like a chicken/egg argument. Ignorance left unchecked becomes stupidity. I do question, however, whether the results that James Fishkin has found over time still hold up -- that opinions evolve when people are forced to confront the facts. Perhaps it's because here in the U.S. we have the mammoth media monster that is News Corp., which between its Fox News behemoth and a number of "newspapers" like the New York Post, push out into the ether daily a load of horsepuckey masquerading as facts. For the Fox News viewer, ideology trumps EVERYTHING, and "fair and balanced" simply means that when you have demonstrable fact on the one hand, and demonstrable falsehood on the other, you still have to present both sides. The ideologues of the right (and let's please stop this "both sides do it" nonsense; show me the knee-jerk Obama support in the same significant numbers as those on the right who still think George W. Bush was a great president, and show me the same significant number of people on the left who still believe proven falsehoods as opposed to those on the right) will now cling to their ideology no matter what -- because there is now an echo chamber that will reinforce it even in the face of facts to the contrary.
I understand why people might want to be ignorant of current affairs. When you have kids that you're going to try to put through college when an in-state school is going to cost you six figures over four years; when your house is worth less than you owe on it after taking an equity loan to remodel the kitchen four years ago; when your spouse lost her job last year and now yours is on shaky ground; when the little you've been able to squirrel away for retirement is now showing minus signs again because the markets panic every time someone says "Boo!"; when being informed means having to confront the realities of the Middle East and what nuclear power means, and half of Japan being obliterated, and this winter's weird weather being not just a fluke but an ominous sign of things to come; when it costs you forty bucks to gas up a Honda Civic but you can't car-pool because you never know how late you're going to have to stay at the office; it's not surprising that people would prefer to stay ignorant and just watch Dancing With the Stars.
But to do so is to participate in the continued handing over of our country to the oligarchs. And when we are all scrambling for the scraps left after the oligarchs can't stuff themselves with another bite, perhaps Americans will wish they'd paid more attention instead of watching Extra every night.