by Regina Cantu @ Matt.org
Newsweek recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take the US’s official citizenship test, and it turns out,
• 29% couldn’t name the vice president.
• 73% couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War
• 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights
• And 6% couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.
But this we know. Americans have been mixing up the branches and their senators since the drafting of the Constitution (Which was… when?). Civic ignorance has been mocked as much as it has been lamented ever since pollsters started publishing these alarming surveys in the late 1940s, (But please don’t ask me who was President back then!).
First let’s understand why this ignorance about government exists and why it is so widespread. Most people will claim that the complexity of the political system in this country makes it hard to stay informed. Compare our structure to most European countries whose parliaments have proportional representation, and the majority party rules without having to defer to as many subnational governments. In contrast, the US is guided by a nonproportional Senate, a web of federal, state and local bureaucracies, as well as endless elections for every available government position (judge, sheriff, school-board member, etc.) So you can see how challenging it becomes to know whom to for and when.
I also blame American schooling. Under the current decentralized education system, individual states structure their own curricula, and this has weakened civic culture and the common body of knowledge. To make matters worse, our TV channels and high-traffic Internet sites devote far more programming and coverage to market- and consumer-oriented topics in place of international news and public affairs, prioritizing entertainment over government issues.
As Newsweek’s Andrew Romano puts it,
For more than two centuries, Americans have gotten away with not knowing much about the world around them. But times have changed—and they’ve changed in ways that make civic ignorance a big problem going forward. While isolationism is fine in an isolated society, we can no longer afford to mind our own business. What happens in China and India (or at a Japanese nuclear plant) affects the autoworker in Detroit; what happens in the statehouse and the White House affects the competition in China and India. Before the Internet, brawn was enough; now the information economy demands brains instead.
And this is my biggest criticism of how we use the Internet. Rather than become informed or contribute to the existing body of knowledge, we choose to fill our bookmarks with entertainment and social networking sites, giving preference to an acquaintance’s Facebook photo album from some banal event we did not attend over the most pressing issues and discussions of our time. The irony of today’s Internet culture is that we are given the tools to become informed and partake in dialogue accessible to anyone, anywhere who chooses to do so, but we instead allow activists to dominate the debate from extreme ends of the spectrum while we engage in frivolous online activity, such as shopping and entertainment.
The most glaring example of our ignorance is the current conflict over government spending: Countless polls show voters have no clue what the budget actually looks like. A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that Americans think the best way to minimize deficits is by cutting foreign aid from what they believe is the current level (27 percent of the budget) to a more prudent 13 percent. In truth, our foreign aid amounts to less than 1 percent of our budget. Needless to say, such ill informed public opinion brings into question the value of our vote. Politicians pander to these mistaken voters’ notions, and as a result, have implemented short-term solutions including cuts to more than 700,000 government jobs.
American freedom stops where American ignorance begins. In ignoring the real long-term fiscal challenges we face, we are impairing our chances to both compete and think globally. And the worst part about it is, everyone is too engrossed in entertainment to notice.