Who's in Control? Many Don't Know or Care

Richard Morin and Dan Balz, 29 Jan 1996, Washington Post

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Second in a series

Edward Howey of Gordo, Ala., is one of democracy's bystanders. He doesn't know the name of the vice president of the United States. He can't name his representative in Congress or his two senators. He doesn't know whether the Republicans—or is it the Democrats?—control Congress these days.

"Politics doesn't interest me," said Howey, 45, who owns a soap-making plant. "I don't follow it, don't vote, don't care. Never had time for it. Always had to make a living."

Howey is not alone. Whether uninterested, uninformed or simply ignorant, millions of Americans cannot answer even basic questions about American politics, according to a new survey by The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.

On the surface, it may seem regrettable but inconsequential that many Americans don't know that Republicans control Congress and most cannot name their representatives or senators.

But knowing basic facts about politics does matter. The survey suggests that information is one of democracy's golden keys: Without basic facts about the players and the rules of the game, Americans tune out politics and turn off to voting.

In addition to not voting, the survey found that these less informed Americans are far more likely to believe their country is in decline. They consistently say that the country's biggest problems have worsened in recent decades, including air and water quality that actually have improved. And they are less likely to know that the annual budget deficit and the number of federal workers have gone down—not up—in recent years.

As a consequence, less knowledgeable Americans are much more likely to believe that actions by the federal government invariably make every problem worse, a rigid cynicism that the survey found transcends party identification or political ideology.

"Lack of knowledge has a practical short-term political effect," said Robert J. Blendon, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and an adviser on the survey project. "It makes it more difficult for the president or Congress to get credit for efforts they have made; thus it supports the sense that neither group ever gets anything done."

Similarly, less informed Americans are more inclined to see the world as an especially cold and threatening place, a view that directly shapes their attitudes toward defense spending and America's place in foreign affairs. Less knowledgeable Americans also find it hard to sort through and decide which candidates and policies best reflect their own interests and beliefs. In the extreme, this confusion even leads some misinformed Americans to support candidates and policies that actually work against their own interests.

Elusive Elementary Facts

"Greater knowledge about the political process helps a person figure out what kinds of government policies are likely to be most beneficial to them, and then what political behavior on their part is most likely to further their interests," said political scientist Scott Keeter of Virginia Commonwealth University, who has studied the impact of information on political decision-making.

To measure how much Americans know about politics and the political system, The Post, the Kaiser Foundation and Harvard interviewed 1,514 randomly selected adults in November and December. These Americans were asked 18 general knowledge questions about how their government works and who their leaders are. An additional 21 political knowledge questions were asked in four other national Post polls.

The surveys revealed a knowledge gap that is deep and wide.

Two-thirds of those interviewed could not name the person who serves in the U.S. House of Representatives from their congressional district. Half did not know whether their representative was a Republican or a Democrat.

Many Americans cannot name the people who hold some of the country's most important leadership positions in government.

Who's the vice president of the United States? Four in 10 Americans surveyed did not know, or got it wrong. Two out of three could not name the majority leader of the U.S. Senate (Robert J. Dole of Kansas, a Republican candidate for president). Nearly half—46 percent—did not know the name of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (Newt Gingrich, whom Time magazine crowned "Man of the Year" for 1995).

It's not that Americans merely have trouble with names. Many do not know elementary facts about how the political system works. Nearly half did not know that the U.S. Supreme Court has the final responsibility for deciding whether a law is constitutional. Three out of four were unaware that U.S. senators are elected to serve six-year terms.

Many don't know basic facts about the political parties. Four in 10 Americans were unaware that Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Three in 10 did not know which party favored making greater reductions in the growth of Medicare spending, a pivotal issue in the ongoing budget debate.

Americans are largely misinformed about how their federal government spends tax dollars. Nearly six in 10 incorrectly believed that the government spends more on foreign aid than on Medicare. And when asked to guess, they estimated that on average foreign aid accounted for 26 percent of the federal budget (military and development foreign aid amounts to less than 2 percent of the budget, while Medicare accounts for about 13 percent).

Ironically, when survey respondents were asked how much of the budget should be allocated to foreign aid, the average response was 13 percent, or fully six times more than what the government actually spends.

What do Americans know about politics and government? The overwhelming majority knew there is a limit on the number of terms in office a president can serve; they also knew that Richard M. Nixon was president during the Watergate scandal. Nearly nine in 10 knew that President Clinton belongs to the Democratic Party. And eight in 10 were aware that Congress had passed legislation requiring businesses to give family leave after birth of a child or a family emergency.

Family leave is "the issue that touches people's lives directly, one that they're most likely to discuss with people in the cafeteria or in the workplace because many people have an older parent, a youngster, a mate that might be ill," Harvard's Blendon said. "The dilemma is that many people only know or care about those issues that directly affect their lives and not those that are of broader importance."

Overall, the survey found that men know more about politics than women, a gender gap that persists even among college-educated twentysomethings interviewed in the poll. Whites know more facts about politics and government than do blacks. Rich people are more informed than the poor. Republicans are better informed than Democrats. And better educated Americans know far more than those with less formal schooling.

And with knowledge comes the power to influence what government does and does not do. "The evidence is very compelling in this area," Keeter said. "The better informed are more likely to participate in politics, more likely to vote, more likely to contribute money and the like. Whatever their opinions are, they're more likely to be heard and reflected in the political system."

Still, there are more theories than answers to explain why many Americans don't know more about their government. Some experts suspect that today's schools are teaching fewer basic facts about politics and government, a view supported by the survey.

Overall, surveys indicate that Americans know about as much about politics and government today as they did during the 1940s. But these results hide a more distressing trend: In the past 50 years, the average number of years an American spends in school has increased from less than nine to more than 12, yet political knowledge has not grown.

But education is only part of the explanation. Some experts suggest that demands of modern life have left many Americans with little time to follow politics, keep up with the news or participate in civic affairs.

"It's time-consuming . . . nobody has the time to sit down and read Time every week to find out what the government's doing," said Jay McCracken, 34, a technical adviser and part-time college student living in Clifton, N.J., and one of 10 participants in a focus group led by two Washington Post reporters. "People don't have the time to sit down and deal with it every day."


This page assembled by jnr, February 14, 1996
rev: February 14, 1996