The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Annenberg Public Policy Center survey provides new evidence of widespread political ignorance

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A recently released Annenberg Public Policy Center survey provides new evidence of widespread political ignorance. Fellow Washington Post-affiliated blogger Reid Wilson lists some of the more striking results:

Wednesday marked national Constitution Day, the 227th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. But only 36 percent of Americans can actually name the three branches of government the Constitution created.
That’s according to a new survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and it shows a huge percentage of Americans might need to take a civics refresher course.
Only 38 percent of Americans knew the Republican Party controls the U.S. House of Representatives, while 17 percent think Democrats are still in charge. The number of people who knew Republicans were in charge has dropped 17 percent since the last time Annenberg asked, back in 2011, right after Republicans reclaimed control.
An identical number, 38 percent, knows Democrats run the Senate, while 20 percent believe Republicans control the upper chamber. Only 27 percent knew it takes a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.

Ignorance about party control of Congress is particularly troubling, because voters unaware of these facts do not know which party to reward or blame for the legislature’s performance. It’s hard to hold political leaders accountable for their performance if you don’t even know who’s in charge.

These results are far from surprising, because they are consistent with numerous previous polls showing widespread political ignorance over a period of many decades. I discussed the relevant evidence in my recent book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

As I describe in the book, widespread political ignorance is not primarily the result of stupidity or lack of availability of information. Thanks to the internet and other modern technology, political information is more readily available today than ever before, yet that has not resulted in significant increases in political knowledge. Similarly, knowledge levels have stagnated even as IQ scores and educational attainment have risen. The voters may be ignorant, but most are neither uneducated nor stupid. Unfortunately, the main cause of widespread political ignorance is the reality that, for most people, it is perfectly rational to pay little attention to political issues, because the chance that any individual voter influence electoral outcomes is infinitesmally small. The rational nature of political ignorance makes it difficult to overcome through education, and strengthens the case for reducing the impact of ignorance by making fewer decisions at the ballot box and more by “voting with our feet.”