The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently released a survey, undertaken in 2012, of a representative sample of 2,200 Americans concerning their scientific awareness and knowledge. The results were not encouraging. Twenty-six percent of those responding to the NSF poll indicated that the Sun orbits the Earth. Just 39 percent correctly answered that, "The universe began with a huge explosion." Meanwhile, less than a majority, 48 percent, of survey respondents suggested rightly that, "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." In addition, a little more than half of those completing the poll indicated correctly that antibiotics are not effective in treating viruses.
While these results are surely discomfiting, other surveys report a similar lack of knowledge among Americans concerning the nation’s politics and political institutions. In 2011, for example, Newsweek asked a sample of 1,000 United States citizens to complete this nation’s citizenship test and 29 percent of those undertaking the exam could not name the country’s Vice President while 73 percent could not say why the U.S. engaged in the Cold War. Forty-four percent of those who undertook the examination could not define the purposes or purport of the Bill of Rights. The Public Broadcasting System and the Christian Science Monitor have offered similar tests in recent years and with very similar results.
By any measure, this lack of knowledge in the body politic generally, and in its awareness of the nation’s regime especially, is disconcerting. For governance, it suggests that a share of the voting population is unaware of even the most basic elements of the Constitution and of the basic premises and institutions under which they live. This dearth of political knowledge is per se problematic for the maintenance of democratic institutions because these depend for their vitality on a reasonably well-informed populace willing to hold their elected and appointed officials to account for their actions. Ignorance is no friend of democracy and freedom.
While this scenario is certainly difficult, it is made more challenging by the fact that while a share of Americans lack even a rudimentary understanding of their country’s governance institutions and officials, other citizens have become convinced to hate their leaders and the institutions they serve. For me, the extreme ugliness and completely nonsensical character of this tendency among some in our population was symbolized by the recent comments of rock musician Ted Nugent concerning the President of the United States:
I have obviously failed to galvanize and prod, if not shame, enough Americans to be ever vigilant not to let a Chicago communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel like the Acorn community organizer gangster Barack Hussein Obama to weasel his way into the top office of authority in the United States.
Nugent is surely entitled to believe what he wishes, but what is of interest here is that the lion’s share of this screed bears no relationship to reality. Nugent may be more vicious and able to gain media attention more readily than other Americans who are equally uninformed, but he is surely not alone in attacking the symbolic leader of the regime and on grounds that echo Third Reich propaganda besides. The animus and almost complete lack of understanding these remarks reveal raises afresh just how important it is that the citizenry have ways and means by which to obtain basic information concerning their regime’s foundations. While it will always be the case that reasonable people in a heterogeneous democratic society will disagree concerning possible government policies, that is a far different question than attacking the fundaments of governance itself or maligning one’s elected leaders on utterly fallacious grounds.
That is, today, not only does a portion of the American population lack knowledge of even the most basic elements of their governmental system, a share of citizens, as evidenced by some in the Tea Party movement and other strident conservatives in the Republican Party, are unwilling even to legitimate elected leaders or the actions of their government that may, on whatever grounds, real or imagined, displease them. This penchant is exemplified by Nugent’s comments and also by the votes of many GOP congresspersons to send the nation into default last year in a near political and economic calamity of their own making concerning the nation’s debt ceiling. It is also neatly captured in today’s politics by the position of many in the GOP-controlled House that immigration policy reform is not possible because the executive branch (controlled by the hated “other”) cannot be trusted to implement the laws of the United States faithfully— for which contention, it should be said, there is no evidence.
Democratic regimes have ever depended on a reasonably well-informed citizenry to ensure their successful maintenance against the claims of tyranny of individuals, beliefs or interests over time. Without that bulwark, democracy’s citizens are always subject to the vagaries of charlatans’ appeals, whether to discriminate against some in their number or to imagine that they need not assume responsibility for their own collective governance. Today’s ignorance among many U.S. citizens of the fundaments of their Constitution, the long-term attacks on the legitimacy of government itself by some partisans and high levels of citizen privatism provide fertile ground for just such ugly appeals. Small wonder Nugent’s paranoiac style of extremist demagoguery has emerged at this time.
Unfortunately, lovers of democracy and freedom have still more about which to be concerned than these difficult trends. That fact is revealed when one ponders why it is that so many Americans are so woefully uninformed about their governments in the first place. The answer in part is that a share of U.S. citizens has little or no knowledge of their government because civics has been too often covered poorly or addressed superficially in secondary school curricula. Put simply, Americans today have less opportunity to understand how and why their political institutions were designed as they were and how they are meant to operate. More, as noted above, many citizens have grown up in a time when a neo-liberal frame, which celebrates the market as superior to democratic decision-making, has held sway and dominated popular discourse, leading many to imagine simplistically that markets can govern and that politics exists to advance possibilities for personal consumption and not to ensure individual freedom. In addition, many citizens today obtain their knowledge of politics from sources with little interest in providing balanced information and much more in offering events coverage that mobilizes individuals to support specific political choices. One may not look to a large share of the media to right the current growth of political ignorance and willful malignance among many Americans. And since so many citizens have now defined the very contours of knowledge as whatever they believe the market demands, it seems unlikely that such partisans will begin to emphasize robust civics education any time soon. Finally, and for a complex variety of reasons, many individuals are either apathetic or complacent in their orientation to the nation’s politics. Whether they do not care or choose not to engage, the result is a portion of the citizenry without effective voice and who de facto are unavailable to help to ensure democratic possibility and accountability.
Taken together, these long-term tendencies appear to be creating a privatized public sphere increasingly populated by a strong and perhaps growing share of citizens lacking rudimentary knowledge of their governance institutions who are frequently unwilling to engage in the hard work of collective self-governance. Unfortunately, these difficult trends now look set only to persist with many elected officials now leading the way in calls not only for their continuation, but also for their deepening. To suggest this turn is troublesome for our politics is to understate its possible implications considerably.