That and other depressing facts are revealed in the latest Pew Research Center poll, which compares public knowledge of current affairs in 2007 with the results of a similar poll taken in 1989.
Pew tries to spin the bad news: “a new nationwide survey finds that the [cable news] and digital revolutions and attendant changes in news audience behaviors have had little impact on how much Americans know about national and international affairs.” The fact of the matter is that Americans know even less in 2007 than in 1989, which is really saying something.
It Pays to be Ignorant.
In 1989, the VP was a nonentity and a laughing stock. Today, he is a monster and a laughing stock. Cheney is booed in baseball stadia, he’s reviled on late-night shows. How is it possible for 31% of the public not to know his name? What does it say for American democracy that in 1989 more people knew that Dan Quayle was VP?
It’s not simply that some of our fellow citizens would prefer to forget this one representative of our basest instincts. Almost right across the board, Pew’s survey finds that Americans know less about public affairs than they did 18 years ago. Consider the array of questions in this chart, selected (it appears) to suggest that public awareness is up in some areas while down in (most) others.
But the four questions where public knowledge has actually gone up are easily explicable by the changed political situation. Why, for example, would most people in 1989 feel the need to know the name of the new Defense Secretary? The U.S. wasn’t bogged down in a war at that time.
By contrast, the chart shows how public knowledge has dropped in more essential areas—the names of leading political figures, and basic economics such as the existence of a trade deficit.
Other things which stand out in the survey are the effects of race, gender, wealth, education, and age. Baby boomers are better informed than those who are between 30-49 years old. That’s my generation, and I say with a moderate amount of pride that we’re fairly clueless. But the 18-29 year old crowd are on the whole remarkably, amazingly, spectacularly clueless. It’s as if they got a huge, very unfair head-start upon us older types in the clueless-marathon.
Those who have completed a college education are significantly better informed than everybody else. I suppose that’s not particularly surprising. And yet they’re not remotely as aware as they ought to be; more than a third of college grads are seriously deficient.
Pew also found that the poor are stunningly ignorant of public affairs. The middle class are, well, evenly divided between the well-informed and the befuddled. The wealthy, by contrast, are noticeably less badly informed than everybody else. That, good reader, is a large part of the reason why the tax codes are all written to favor the rich; they’re paying close attention.
A very striking finding is that women are much more likely than men to be poorly informed. Some of this must be due to the fact that women make up a higher proportion of the poor. Still, I have to wonder whether that is sufficient to explain what is going on?
The relatively poor showing of blacks in this survey is probably attributable largely to the twin factors of wealth and education, where minorities still lag behind whites.
Those who depend upon Fox News, naturally, score very poorly relative to those who use actual news outlets. Perhaps the most remarkable finding of all, though, is that the audiences for Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are very far from being the most ignorant people in the country.
So, is the latter a good thing, or a mark of how far we have fallen as a society?