Back in 2016, both major parties nominated unlikable candidates “who favor policies that gravely endanger liberty and the free market“. And 2020 was not any different. Democracy is supposed to be ruled by the people, for the people. However, voters need to be knowledgeable about basic civics. The rise of the current crop of political candidates says a lot about us as a society. Society once viewed civic knowledge as an attractive characteristic. Today, many young adults aren’t even familiar with the term “civics.”
Perceptual bias is easy to fall into and increasingly amplified in the digital and social media age.
In a 2018 ACTA survey, researchers found only 17% of schools require a course in U.S. government and history, and 3% require a basic course in economics.
Citizens who lack civic knowledge can be easily manipulated by politicians.
Are Citizens Civically Uninformed?
We live in an age where lack of civic knowledge is a major issue. When voters take their lack of civic knowledge into the voting booth and cast their ballot, it creates problems. However, voting is much more than we think. John Stuart Mills once observed this about voting. Voting is “the exercise of power over others.” When we as citizens vote, we are electing candidates to occupy positions of power. These individuals don’t just rule over those who voted for them but also rule over those who didn’t.
However, when we exercise power over others in that way, voters have a civic duty to be at least reasonably informed about civics.
The typical voter, both with college degrees and those without, cannot answer simple questions, not only on high-profile public policy issues but also about the basic fundamental structure of government. To compound this issue further, social media has created an echo chamber for individuals to learn and obtain information that confirms one’s own bias. In today’s world, we have our own facts and believe in our own truth.
In the Journal of Politics, scholars Jennifer Jerit and Jason Barabas call this “perceptual bias”. They observe:
“Perceptual bias occurs when beliefs deviate from reality. The result is a selective pattern of learning in which partisans have higher levels of knowledge for facts that confirm their world view and lower levels of knowledge for facts that challenge them.”
Perceptual bias is easy to fall into and increasingly amplified in the digital and social media age. It is far easier to quickly scan a headline, a brief comment to easily curate information to affirm one’s own pre-existing beliefs, and give us the easy emotional and psychological reward for feeling right and self-righteous that we are right on an issue. Unfortunately, the world is not as ‘black and white’ as we think. The issues we face and the world we live in is complex.
This affirmation process includes what news outlets we read, what groups we join, and the friends we surround ourselves with, and this is what is termed tribalism. Take a second and look at your group of friends, colleagues, etc. How many have a different point of view than yourself? Do you actively try to get outside of your tribe or even question thoughts and beliefs ascribed to your own tribe? My guess is the answer is probably ‘No’. How often do you actively try to understand those who believe differently than yourself, before condemning?
Both conservatives and liberals accuse one another of being politically biased. According to a comprehensive meta-analysis by a team of social psychologists, they concluded conservatives and liberals are equally guilty of being motivated by reason and political bias, and their thinking is equally impaired by robust tribalism. Essentially, no one is above being motivated by bias.
How Important is Civic Knowledge?
The persistent evidence of citizens’ lack of civic knowledge is concerning. When I was a child, we would learn the basics about civics in elementary and high school, then move on in college to learn deeper about the theories and philosophy of government. But civic education today has virtually disappeared from too many of our schools and universities. In a 2018 ACTA survey, researchers found only “17% of schools require a course in U.S. government and history, and 3% require a basic course in economics.” Without such an education how can we expect citizens to understand what a politician is proposing in their public policies and to be adequately informed to cast a vote?
Here are some examples of gaps in basic civic knowledge from various civic studies between 2016 and 2020:
2 in 5 American adults (39%) can correctly name the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial)
46% of college graduates do not know the election cycle for the U.S. Congress (six years for senators, two years for representatives).
15 percent identified correctly that James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution.”
38 percent knew that the Constitution, along with federal laws and treaties, was the ultimate law in the U.S.
Half of Americans think the following phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” appears in the US Constitution. If you have not already guessed, this statement is from The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
When people read the aforementioned data, one will think voters are stupid, or that information is not available to them. This is simply not the case. Evidence strongly suggests that “aggregate IQ scores have gone up in the last 40 or 50 years”. Additionally, it makes no sense to argue that information is not available to people to make an informed decision.
With the internet, information is more easily available than ever before in human history. I wish Google or Wikipedia were around during High School! The problem isn’t that voters are stupid or information is not available, they are simply not using their intelligence to learn the information out there, and instead cutting corners and not doing their research.
I would stress that President Donald Trump is far from the first and only candidate to exploit voters. Politicians on both sides of the spectrum have been doing this for decades with their emotional appeals and crafty, poll-tested talking points when discussing particular policy issues on the campaign trail. This is why political ads are so effective.
Why This Matters
When citizens are knowledgeable of basic civics, they are empowered to overcome and resist the self-serving, ambitious political elites and groups and can act in their own self-interest. An informed citizenry would reverse the current dichotomy and preserve our country’s freedom and constitutional rights, and produce effective governance. However, we are far from achieving this.
Until citizens are knowledgeable enough to responsibly vote and evaluate candidates’ positions in an unbiased, informed, and objective way, citizens will continue to fall prey to tribalism, bad policy decisions, and manipulation by power-hungry politicians, activists, and special interests groups.
The simple fact is the American people are woefully ill-informed to vote and be a guardian to protect democracy. And regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, it further laminates the destructiveness caused by ill-informed voting.
How much do you know about our system of government? Take this quick civics quiz to find out! It takes only 2 minutes, is completely anonymous, and doesn’t require your email address or other personal information.
Michael Price is a Founder and editor for ThinkCivics. He has been writing about politics, government, and culture for over a decade. He has a BA in Political Science and an Masters in Public Administration.