The Costs of Political Ignorance

September 17 is the 230th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution. That document, in addition to being our governing text, is one of the greatest accomplishment of political and legal thinking and writing. Its endurance through such a long and troubled history, and its significance as a model for other nations that yearn to have ordered liberty, cannot be underestimated. For good reason, it has been called America’s sacred text, a secular Bible of sorts, the centerpiece of our civic religion.

So why are so many Americans so ignorant about the Constitution?

A study recently published by the Annenberg Center yielded appalling results when Americans were asked about the provisions of the Constitution. Some of the findings about constitutional rights:

  • 37% couldn’t name a single one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Of those who could identify some First Amendment rights, only 15% named freedom of religion, 14% freedom of the press, 10% right to assemble, and 3% right to petition the government.
  • On the slightly brighter side, 48% could identify freedom of speech.

When it came to the structure of our government, things weren’t much better:

  • Only 26% could name all three branches of government.
  • 33% could not name a single one of the three branches.
  • 27% could only name one branch.

These results confirm what political scientists have long known — the great majority of people lack basic knowledge about how our government works and what it does. For example, the Pew Center periodically surveys people about current events, and the results are regularly dismal. Less than half of Americans can identify significant public officials and even fewer know important facts, like the approximate unemployment rate or that the government spends more on Social Security than foreign aid or that only about 13% of Americans are foreign-born.

This is a grave problem. It is true that a great deal of political ignorance is normal and rational — most political issues have little direct relevance to or impact on people’s lives. Yet the health of democracy depends on people knowing a certain amount of basic, common information if we are going to have anything like a rational public discourse.

The dangers of this political ignorance can be seen all around us. The tribalistic nature of modern partisanship is a clear example. More and more, people can be easily manipulated by demagogues or misled by propaganda that appeal to emotion rather than fact-based reason. Studies are showing that people with less political knowledge are easily swayed by changing positions of their party or leaders, instead of holding them accountable for breaking promises or betraying key principles. The scourge of racism and xenophobia is a direct result of political ignorance. In a society that inundates us with information, ignorance prevents us from sifting the wheat from the chaff.

There is a basic civic duty to be an informed citizen. It is bizarre to me that we require all applicants for citizenship to pass a civics test, but anyone can vote regardless of how much they know or care. For goodness sake, we require more knowledge to get a driver’s license than we do from voters. That civics test is really not that hard ( you can try a sample test here). Is it really too much to ask that people pass the test in order to qualify to vote?

Political ignorance is also a very big deal for us Catholics. Ignorance about constitutional rights is dangerous at a time when our religious liberty is under pressure. Anti-Catholic bigotry flares up regularly, fueled by the stereotypes that come from ignorance.

We also have a very grave moral duty as Catholics to become well-informed citizens and voters. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it very strongly:

414. Information is among the principal instruments of democratic participation. Participation without an understanding of the situation of the political community, the facts and the proposed solutions to problems is unthinkable.

Unfortunately, what is “unthinkable” is all too common in our nation. The cost of this ignorance is the debased politics that is so dispiriting to watch. On this anniversary of our Constitution, it would be a good time to be highly resolved that “we the people” will remedy this and become well-informed, morally-responsible citizens and voters.

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