During the federal government's first shutdown last fall, CNN sent a reporter out to get the proverbial man-in-the-street's thoughts on the subject. The reporter roamed what's usually referred to as "the affluent Westside" of Los Angeles, asking people why the government was closed and what Congress and the president were arguing about.
Not surprisingly, they didn't have a clue. The best answer was a vague reference to Medicare. All in all, these seemingly well-educated, well-to-do Americans had absolutely no interest in Beltway disputes and, with one exception, they weren't ashamed to admit it.
Washington viewers undoubtedly chalked up this ignorance to Southern Californians' notorious propensity to ignore weighty issues--we're reputedly all airheads out here in the sunshine. But while it's true that Los Angeles is less politically intense than many cities, those men and women in the street could have been just about anywhere.
In late December, what used to be called the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press released a compilation of six years of research on what news stories Americans followed, and how closely, and on what facts people know. (Thanks to budget cutting at Times Mirror, as of January 1 the center has become the Pew Research Center.) The results: People pay attention to disasters, natural and man-made, and wars involving U.S. troops. They pretty much ignore everything else. And they know precious few facts about national issues.
For example, write the researchers, "an August 1995 survey about Congressional issues found that among the public at large, 21 percent knew at least three out of four well-reported facts: 1) that the House had passed more legislation than the Senate, 2) that the telecommunications bill would deregulate the telephone industry, 3) that Medicare's long term solvency was in question, and 4) that Clinton opposed GOP proposals to lift the Bosnian arms embargo."
Ignorance declined with age, with 30 percent of those over 65 knowing three out of four facts, versus a mere 8 percent of those under 30. And women were particularly ignorant: Only 12 percent knew three out of four answers, compared to 30 percent among men. These results do not exactly suggest a well-informed American public.
Indeed, despite reports in major newspapers and on cable and broadcast TV, the Times Mirror survey itself hasn't penetrated the popular imagination. Even the most informed political junkies seem not to have discovered it.
How else can we account for the continuing credibility reporters attribute to poll results? The Washington Post's Thomas B. Edsall, for instance, confidently writes that "[t]he clearest finding" in polls "is that Republicans have not succeeded in winning majority support for their budget plan, or, more especially, their approach to Medicare." And ABC's Forrest Sawyer confidently tells Nightline viewers that "an overwhelming 78 percent say the shutdown is a bad thing."
These results aren't statements of feeling, like the president's or Congress's general approval ratings. They don't capture attitudes (agree or disagree: "The federal government controls too much of our daily lives"). They imply a knowledge of facts. They assume the public knows what the Republicans' approach to Medicare is, or can assess the effects of a government shutdown. Pollsters are asking people questions they aren't equipped to handle but are too embarrassed not to answer. Then both reporters and politicians are making a big deal of the response.
The dirty little secret of American politics, laid bare by the Times Mirror study, is that most Americans don't know enough to form an intelligent opinion on specific issues. Our political discussion takes place among self-selected elites; they may not be any smarter than the rest of the country, but they pay more attention to the news.
Invocations of grassroots sentiment and appeals to polls, at least on issues rather than general attitudes, are disingenuous at best. Elites use "public opinion" as a prop when they don't want to make arguments. "Do what I want," goes the subtext, "or lose the next election." Never mind whether what I want is a good idea.
The conventional wisdom blames public ignorance, when it's acknowledged at all, on alienation from politics caused by divisive rhetoric, superficial news reports, and big-money campaign donors. It's a plausible story. But the Times Mirror numbers suggest something a little more complicated. People also don't know much about business or science news, in which political alienation plays little role, and women in particular know very little about stories that don't center on a person. Abstract news bores most people. The stories that rivet the nation's attention are dramatic--the Challenger explosion, the Los Angeles riots, or little Jessica falling down a well. They take place in real time. The scripted drama of Washington press conferences, whether it's talk of "revolution" or sob stories about how Medicare cuts will hurt Jane Smith, doesn't cut it.
Attention is our scarcest resource, and most people are too busy getting on with their lives to devote their limited attention to dull news they cannot affect. "Rational ignorance," the economists and political scientists call it.
If the public doesn't know much about political issues, one solution seems obvious: We can hand over power to the experts and effectively disenfranchise the masses--they can vote, sure, but the real decisions will be made by bureaucrats. This is the approach taken by turn-of-the-century Progressive technocrats and, much more extensively, by Japan and France. In America, however, with its strong culture of social equality and "get out of my face" natural liberty, technocracy breeds not respect for government but a mixture of fear and scorn.
It produces the attitudes lamented by Richard Cohen in a January Washington Post column. Cohen excoriates intellectuals, and the public at large, for seeing the budget negotiations as a childish exercise--a tantrum thrown by immature politicians. "Is it, in fact, asking too much of everyone, especially intellectuals, to characterize a budget impasse as a clash of ideas or principles and not, solely, as a battle of egos?" he writes.