I’ve always been interested in political knowledge as a research topic. As an undergrad, I was surprised to learn that most people lack basic knowledge about politics. Perhaps it was the idealist in me that found it surprising. But even after years of skepticism and abysmal statistics, it’s still resonates with me for whatever reason.
Political knowledge is a basic predictor of political engagement. People who are politically knowledgeable are more likely to participate in politics. This is a no brainer. Knowledge is power.
Political knowledge has been extensively examined and tested in political science. It’s difficult to have an objective measure of any sort of intelligence; this is a common problem that we face in standardized testing for example. In 1993, Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter came up with a five-item index that is a reasonably good measure of political knowledge. These five questions include:
- Do you happen to know what job or political office is now held by Joe Biden?
- Whose responsibility is it to determine if a law is constitutional or not… is the president, the Congress, or the Supreme Court?
- How much of a majority is required for the US Senate and House to override a presidential veto?
- Do you happen to know which party had the most members in the House of Representatives in Washington?
- Would you say that one of the parties is more conservative than the other at the national level? Which party is more conservative?
My dissertation was a large-n survey of donors to political campaigns. When it came to political knowledge, they were ideal. Around 90% of people could answer most of the knowledge questions correctly.
Comparing this to the national population, only 76% of the general public identified the party controlling the House, and 69% correctly identified Joe Biden as vice-president in the House (PEW). The insinuation here is that knowledge and participation go hand-in-hand. The more participatory sample knows more about politics than the general population. Whether this relationship is endogenous, is beside the point of this post.
In the last couple weeks, I’ve seen some interesting numbers about what voters want to know about politics. Namely, there are two articles here and here. The topics of the two polls are far different, but highlight an interesting point about political knowledge. First, the Washington post surveyed Americans about the state of campaign finance. Citizens United is changing the game, and has serious implications for how elections are run. Nonetheless, an alarmingly large number of people have no opinion about the increased spending by outside groups.
The Washington Post later asks respondents to define a Super PAC and only 40% of the public can do so successfully. A crude, but more appropriate question may be “Do you care about campaign finance?” or “Do you think campaign finance affects election outcomes?” Furthermore, it would be interesting to see if voters think they need to know more about campaign finance OR whether they already know what they need to know. It seems that most Americans would seem to be indifferent to learning more, although it’s clear that most Americans are fairly unknowledgeable.
PEW put out an unrelated poll on the upcoming presidential election asking people what they wanted to know about the Romney and Obama campaigns. With three months left before the election, the results were somewhat surprising. 69% of people already believe that they know enough about Mitt Romney. When it comes to specific issue positions, the numbers are even more disappointing.
I know the answer to why this happens is tied up in a myriad of explanations including polarization. And then there is the question of whether or not Americans really do need to learn more about politics. However, I think a pervasive sense of indifference is probably responsible for low levels of political knowledge. Although the benefits of political knowledge are real and plentiful, it seems that most people don’t even care or think that they’re already knowledgeable enough.