Ignorance Kills Democracy

In 2011, Newsweek asked 1,000 Americans to take the standard U.S. Citizenship test, and 38 percent of them failed. One in three couldn’t name the vice-president. A 2009 study in the European Journal of Communications looked at how informed citizens of the U.S., UK, Denmark and Finland were of the international news of the day, and the results weren’t pretty (PDF).

“Overall,” the scholars wrote, “the Scandinavians emerged as the best informed, averaging 62–67 percent correct responses, the British were relatively close behind with 59 percent, and the Americans lagging in the rear with 40 percent.” We didn’t fare much better when it came to domestic stories.

Widespread ignorance of objective reality poses a genuine threat to democracy. The people of the United States have ignorance in abundance.

The way representative democracy is supposed to work is pretty simple: you protect the fundamental rights of the minority (so it doesn’t become two wolfs and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner), and then the majority of citizens, acting in their own rational self-interest, elect representatives who will pursue the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens.

That’s the theory, but “rational” is a key word in that formulation. What happens when lots of citizens don’t have a solid grasp of what’s going on in the real world?

Consider some examples that are especially relevant to our current political scene…


The American education and media systems must have failed.


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