Monday’s Mtg: How Big a Problem is Public Ignorance Of Politics and Public Affairs?

Gee, the problem of easily-exploitable voter ignorance springs to mind a lot these days, doesn’t it? No matter when or how (if?) Donald Trump’s presidential campaign collapses, many of us think we have learned a hard lesson about the political illiteracy of a significant chunk of the American electorate.

Sure, the American public’s ignorance of public affairs and political issues is as old as the republic. Call it “civic ignorance,” the vast extent of which is a kind of dirty little secret in politics and political science. Surveys going back many decades reveal that few American adults have ever had even a cursory understanding of basic civics and political developments. They don’t know what’s in the Constitution, how govt is structured and functions, how political decisions get made or even who makes them, or what their tax dollars get spent on and why.  “The poor (-ly informed) will be with you always.”  Har.

(Oh, ad I’d like us to discuss Trumpism as a movement next schedule.)

Yet, something sure seems different, doesn’t it? I think a number of factors have converged in recent years to make civic ignorance easier to exploit and even more damaging to the country than it has been in a while. Polarized voters that ache to have their beliefs reinforced. Polarized elites that are happy to do so using new media and technology. Hucksters and grifters posing as political commentators. An angry, slowly declining middle class that’s unsure who to be angry at.  And so forth.

Maybe I’m wrong. I think our first order of business in discussion should be to define what civic ignorance means so we can distinguish it from other motivators of political opinions/actions that we might find bafflingly wrong. Political differences, as we’ve discussed many times, often stem from different political values or worldviews, alternate priorities for what govt should be doing, or different rationally-considered interests. Ideology is not ignorance, frequent appearances to the contrary.


  1. What: How would you define a problematic level of “civic ignorance?” What do peole not know that they should know? How much knowledge is it reasonable to expect regular people to have about this stuff?
  2. Who: How widely does this ignorance vary among Americans; e.g., by education, age, party ID, ideology, etc.? Do people that know more about politics really make better decisions about it (see link)?
  3. When-where-compare: Has civic ignorance gotten worse or better in recent decades? Is the need to be knowledgeable really greater nowadays?
  4. Why: Do people have good reasons for ignorance; e.g., distrust of govt, believing your vote doesn’t matter, lazy/biased news media? à How often do we see ignorance when it’s really something else, like different moral values, priorities, or objective interests?
  5. Harm: What damage all this civic ignorance cause? To your preferred (progressive or conservative) outcomes? To trust in govt? To polarization? To democracy’s health?
  6. Harmers: Who exploits civic ignorance? Which side does it most? Worse than it used to be?
  7. No harm no foul? Some people think public ignorance is NOT really a big source of our problems. What do they argue? Persuasive?


Next Week: Are nations finally starting to cooperate on climate change?


One response

  1. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    In the age of Jackson, when real democracy as we think of it began, the public was much less educated than it is today–high school education, even, was rare.
    Since then, we have had almost 200 years of free, universal public education.
    Yet the electorate seems ignorant.
    Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend, but I hope you can address this problem.
    (In addition to free public information, of course, there is the wide diffusion of information through the media, Internet etc.)

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