The Nation's Pulse

Civically Illiterate

America's voters: dumb, irrational, and out-of-touch.

By 11.24.08

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How can you vote responsibly if you don't know the meaning of "free enterprise"? 

That is the question posed in "Our Fading Heritage," the survey on civic literacy released by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The report found that only 54% of college graduates can correctly identify a free enterprise system as one in which individual citizens create, exchange, and control goods and services.

Of course, this statistic reflects the civic understanding of college graduates. Those without a college degree fare even worse.

Overall, Americans fail the test, which featured questions on U.S. history and economics written at a high school level, with many of the questions taken from a Department of Education test designed for 12th graders. The average score was 49%, and people from all walks of life -- rich, poor, conservative, liberal, religious, secular, etc. -- earned similarly terrible scores.

Specifically, only 27% of citizens know that the Bill of Rights expressly forbids establishing an official religion for the United States. Barely half of Americans know that the power to declare war belongs to Congress and not the president. Fewer than half can name all three branches of the government.

When I was a high school junior, my U.S. history teacher tried to trap me on that last one. First he asked if anyone could name the Three Stooges. I shot back with Larry, Moe, and Curly. He then challenged me to name the three branches of government, expecting to show that I was better versed in dumb TV than in important matters.

Some of my classmates looked terrified for my sake, but I did know the answer, and I foiled him. I felt like I'd dodged a bullet, thinking that if I'd muffed the answer I'd be exposed as an ignoramus. I didn't realize that I would have had a little over half of my fellow Americans -- most of whom had long since graduated from high school -- to keep me company.

It doesn't take a scientific survey to show that the unwashed masses are relatively uneducated. Unfortunately, though, the ISI study also casts doubt on two groups that should be held to a higher standard: college graduates and elected officials.

Previous ISI studies focused on U.S. colleges, showing that most schools, including elite ones, are utterly failing to educate their students. This year's study allows a comparison between college graduates and those without higher education, and the results are ugly: college grads earned a failing grade only 13 percentage points higher than those with only high school diplomas. Controlling for innate differences between the two groups (naturally engaged students are more likely to succeed at higher levels, after all), the difference shrinks even further, suggesting that U.S. colleges add very little to their charges' education.

Most damning of all, perhaps, is that self-identified elected officials score lower on average than the general public. So not only are our politicians illiterate in matters of political history and economics, they are less knowledgeable than the already lamentably ill-informed average citizen. Fifty-four percent do not know that the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. They tested worse than everyone else in the subjects of First Amendment freedoms, international trade, abortion, and many more. "The blind leading the blind" has never seemed more appropriate.

Of course, Americans are not only ignorant of basic civic matters, they are also unaware of current events. A recent Zogby poll (pdf) presented findings that seemed to discredit Obama supporters' knowledge of the candidates. While it is still a matter of debate whether the poll unfairly cast Obama's fans in a bad light, there is no doubt it impugned citizens in general. Among other revealing numbers, 57% of Americans thought that the Republicans controlled Congress. Since only two parties realistically could possibly have control over Congress, the respondents had a 50% shot at the right answer if they simply guessed -- but obviously they were biased against the truth.

Irrational biases such as this are not as rare as we might hope. In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, the George Mason economist Bryan Caplan looks into the numbers and finds that voters are not symetrically ignorant. In his words, the "errors don't cancel out," meaning that there is a statistically significant amount of ignorant voters who favor bad policies. He finds anti-market, anti-foreigner, and pessimistic biases, among others, to be inexplicably persistent.

Although Caplan can't explain why we vote so irrationally, his finding do show how we end up with such bad politicians.

What we are left with, then, is a citizenry woefully ignorant of its civic institutions, morbidly unaware of the surrounding world, and irrationally misguided in the voting booth. How is democracy to succeed?

(DISCLOSURE: Joseph Lawler's fellowship is through the Collegiate Network, a subsidiary of ISI)

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About the Author

Joseph Lawler, former managing editor of The American Spectator, is editor of Real Clear Policy. Follow him on twitter: @josephlawler.