At least three misjudgments are common around American Independence Day: thinking one’s feet are faster than the fuse on a bottle rocket, believing there’s always room for one more “freedom dog,” and hailing the colonial past as a civic golden age. We conjure images of illustrious ancestors holding forth in packed town halls, declaring independence, and debating the Constitution. Citizens today, in contrast, are dolts—distracted, politically ignorant, and apathetic.
April’s Pew Research Center survey, “What Americans Know: 1989-2007” doesn’t support that view, though superficially the findings do seem bad. Despite “news and information revolutions,” the number of people who could name the vice president dropped from 74 percent of respondents in 1989 to 69 percent today. Similar falloffs were found in the number of people who could name their state governor (down from 74 to 66 percent) or the president of Russia (down from 47 to 36 percent). Some readers quickly judged this a tumble in public knowledge. (Wonkette: “Americans are just getting dumber overall.”)
But the Pew authors rightly conclude that, across all the questions examined, there is “little change in overall levels of public knowledge.” They might have added that the survey is consistent with a more comprehensive study, What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters (1996). In the earlier work, the co-authors Michael Delli Carpini, now dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, and Scott Keeter, today Pew’s research director, discovered that citizens of the 1980s and early 1990s demonstrated “about the same” levels of political knowledge as citizens of the 1940s. Putting the two studies together, one can conclude that the American mind holds as much (or as little) political knowledge in 2007 as it did in 1947, and the question of whether that’s good or bad is a matter of perspective. Either Americans are hopelessly ignorant despite much higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance, or else they are steadfastly knowledgeable despite the proliferating distractions of cable, video games, computer games, and instant messaging.
It’s worth remembering that God and Thomas Jefferson didn’t sit down over tankards of rum punch and create a nation rooted in rational debate and wise self-government. Our society was never as democratically pure or participatory as we often imagine. For example, far from being models of democracy, those famous New England town meetings were relatively counterfeit affairs, restricted to property-owning white males and scripted by social elites.
Nor was voting an act of pure democracy. Early Americans voted by lining up behind established gentlemen “standing for office,” intoxicated less by the spirit of democracy than by alcohol lavished on them by the candidates. George Washington’s own ledger books show that one year the father of our country doled out a quart-and-a-half of liquor per voter. Not until the 1890s did state-printed secret ballots replace party-printed voting tickets to make a relatively uncorrupt vote possible.
That may put Pew’s data in perspective. Testing public knowledge is worthwhile, but it needs a context. Quizzes that focus on often-trivial facts about American government and society, rather than asking more meaningful questions of processes and values, are arguably poor measures of the nation’s democratic health.
What information does one really need to be a “good citizen”? We’ve never actually decided. Much like sex in Victorian times, the subject elicits strong opinions and moralizing but is rarely discussed in explicit terms. The founding fathers were surprisingly silent on the specifics of what Americans should know. They were suspicious of lay political debate. In a letter to a friend, President Washington asked if anything could be “more absurd, more arrogant or more pernicious to the peace” than political discussion groups that presumed to make suggestions to government. So, what should we make of the Pew data concluding that citizens have lost some ground in their ability to name state governors or gained ground in identifying the Speaker of the House? Are these really the things that a good citizen needs to know? Now that’s a question worth polling the people on.