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America's Ignorant Voters

Nov 02, 2014




America's Ignorant Voters Author(s): Michael Schudson Source: The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring, 2000), pp. 16-22 Published by: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Stable URL: Accessed: 31/07/2010 09:24Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]

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AmericasVoters IgnorantThis year'selection is sure to bringmorelamentationsabout voterapathy. No less strikingis the appalling political ignoranceof the Americanelectorate. by Michael Schudson

week, the Tonight Show's Jay of Leno takesto the streets LosAngeles with some simple to quiz innocentpassersby questions:On what bay is San Francisco located?Who was presidentof the United StatesduringWorldWar II?The audience roarsas Leno's hapless victims fumble for answers. Was it Lincoln?Carter? No pollster,let alone a college or high school history teacher,wouldbe surprised by the poor showingof Leno'ssample citizens. In a national assessment test in the late 1980s,only a thirdof American17-year-olds could correctlylocate the Civil War in the period 1850-1900; more than a quarter placed it in the 18th century. Two-thirds knew that Abraham Lincoln wrote the which seems a Proclamation, Emancipation respectableshowing,but what about the 14 percentwho saidthatLincoln wrotethe Bill of Rights,the 10 percent who checked the MissouriCompromise, the nine percent and who awarded Lincoln royaltiesfor Uncle Tom's Cabin? Asking questions about contemporary affairsdoesn't yield any more encouraging results.In a 1996 national public opinion poll, only 10 percent of American adults could identify William Rehnquist as the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In the same survey, conducted at the height of Newt Gingrich'scelebrityas Speakerof the House, only 59 percent could identifythe

job he held. Americanssometimesdemonstratedeeperknowledgeabouta majorissue beforethe nation,such as the VietnamWar, but most could not describethe thrustof the Clinton health care plan or tell whetherthe the supported SandiReaganadministration nistas or the contrasduring the conflict in Nicaragua(andonly a thirdcould place that countryin CentralAmerica). It can be misleading to make direct comparisonswith other countries,but the in generallevel of politicalawareness leading overseas does seem to be liberaldemocracies much higher. While 58 percent of the Germans surveyed, 32 percent of the French, and 22 percent of the Britishwere as Boutros-Ghali secable to identifyBoutros retary generalof the UnitedNationsin 1994, only 13 percent of Americanscould do so. Nearlyall Germanspolledcould name Boris Yeltsin Russia's as leader,as could 63 percent of the British,61 percentof the French,but only 50 percentof the Americans. can the United Statesclaim to be a model democracy if its citizens knowso little aboutpoliticallife?That quesand tion has arousedpoliticalreformers prescientistssince the occupied many political withearly20th century.It can'tbe answered out some historical perspective. Today'smantra that the "informedcitizen" is the foundationof effectivedemocra-

16 WQSpring 2000

ets," listing only their own candidatesfor cy was not a central part of the nation's vision. It is largely the creation office. A voter simply took a ticket from a founding of late-19th-century and Progres- partyworkerand deposited it in the ballot Mugwump sive reformers, who recoiled from the box, withoutneeding to readit or markit in of powerfulpolitical partiesusing spectacle anyway.Votingwasthusa publicact of party as a job bank for their friends affiliation. government Beginningin 1888, however,and and a cornucopiaof contractsfor their relaspreadingacross the country by 1896, this tives. (In those days before the National systemwas replacedwith government-printfrom Endowment for the Arts, Nathaniel Hawed ballotsthat listed all the candidates each eligible party.The voter markedthe thorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman all subsidizedtheir writingby holding ballotin secret,as we do today,in an act that down federal patronage appointments.) affirmed voting as an individual choice Voterturnout in the late 19th centurywas rather than a social act of party loyalty. rouand Politicalparades otherpublic spectacles extraordinarily by todays standards, high tinely over 70 percent in presidentialelecgave way to pamphletsin what increasingly free reformers dubbed "educational"political tions,and thereis no doubtthatparades, once little jobs, whiskey, money,patronage free-floating campaigns.Leadingnewspapers, and the pleasures fraternity of all played a big part in the political enthusiasmof ordinaryAmericans. The reformers saw this kindof politicsas a betrayal of democraticideals.A democratic public, they believed, must reason together. That idealwasthreatened mindby less enthusiasm, the wily maneuvers of political machines, and the vulnerability of the new immigrant masses in the nation's big cities, woefully ignorant of Anglo-Saxon traditions, to manipulation partyhacks. by E. L. Godkin,foundingeditor of the Nation and a leading reformer,argued that "there is no cornerof our systemin choices wasn t which the hastilymade and A tradition of ignorance? Making sober political the top priority of these Kansas Territory voters in 18S7. ignorant foreign voter may not be found eatingawaythe more than organs of the political parties, political structure,like a white ant, with a of natives standing over him and group began to declaretheir independenceand to commerhim." themselvesas nonpartisan encouraging portray cial institutions public enlightenmentand of was in 1893, by which point a public-mindedcriticism. Public secondary in whole set of reformshad been put educationbegan to spread. These and other reformsenshrined the place. Civil service reformreduced patronalteredthe act informed citizen as the foundation of age. Ballotreformirrevocably of votingitself.Formost of the 19thcentury, democracy,but at a tremendouscost:Voter elecdistributed the pollstheirown "tickat turnoutplummeted.In the presidential parties

IgnorantVoters 17

tion of 1920, it droppedto 49 percent, its lowestpointin the 20thcentury- until it was matchedin 1996. Eversince, politicalscientistsand othershavebeen plumbingthe mystery created by the new model of an How can so many,knowinformedcitizenry: ing so little, and voting in such small numbers, build a democracythat appearsto be successful? (relatively) to areseveralresponses thatquestion. The firstis thata certainamount of political ignorance is an inevitable byproduct of America's unique political environment.One reasonAmericanshave the so much difficulty grasping politicalfacts life is that their political system is the of most complex.Askthe next political world's science Ph.D. you meet to explainwhatgovernment agencies at what level- federal, for state,county,or city- take responsibility the homeless.Or whom he or she voted for in the lastelection for municipaljudge.The answers mightmakeJayLenos victimsseem No less ridiculous. Europeancountryhas as elections, as many elected offices, as many governmencomplexa maze of overlapping as tal jurisdictions, the Americansystem.It is U.S. to simplyharder "read" politicsthanthe of most nations. politics The hurdleof politicalcomprehensionis raised a notch higher by the ideological of inconsistencies Americanpoliticalparties. In Britain,a votercan confidentlycasta vote withoutknowinga greatdeal aboutthe paron ticularcandidates the ballot.The Labor can candidate generally be countedon to folto low the Laborline, the Conservative follow the Toryline. An Americanvotercasting has a ballotfora Democrator Republican no such assurance.Citizens in other countries need only dog paddle to be in the political swim; in the United States they need the skillsof a scubadiver. of If the complexity U.S. politicalinstitutions helps explain American ignoranceof domestic politics, geopolitical factors help in explain American backwardness foreign

affairs. There is a kind of ecologyof political ignoranceat work.The United Statesis far from Europe and bordersonly two other With a vastdomesticmarket, most countries. of its producers have relatively dealings few with customersin othercountries,globalization notwithstanding. Americans, lackingthe form of governmentthat preparliamentary are vailsin mostotherdemocracies, alsolikely to find much of what they read or hear about the wider world politically opaque. s Andthe simplefactof America politicaland limitscitstatusnaturally cultural superpower izens' politicalawareness. as employees Just gossipmoreaboutthe bossthanthe bossgossips about them, so Italiansand Brazilians know more about the United States

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