The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that some 33 percent of American 8th graders give survey answers indicating that Canada, France, and Australia are dictatorships. Only 54% chose the most correct of the available answers—that these nations' governments all have "constitutions that limit their power":
According to the U.S. government's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 33 per cent of American eighth graders currently believe that Canada is a dictatorship….
"What do the current governments of Canada, France, and Australia have in common?" reads the multiple choice question.
Of the four potential answers, "They have leaders with absolute power" was selected by 23 per cent of respondents.
Another 10 per cent of students said: "They are controlled by the military," while 12 per cent chose "They discourage participation by citizens in public affairs."
This survey result is probably somewhat less bad than it seems. it is likely that many of the 33 percent who picked multiple choice answers suggesting it was a dictatorship or a military despotism were not people who really thought it was, but were just guessing. Students learn early on that it's often strategically better to guess on a multiple choice question than leave it blank. In addition, some people prefer to guess rather than admit they don't know the answer to a question. Classic studies find that many survey respondents will express opinions about nonexistent legislation such as the "Metallic Metals Act" rather than admit they have never heard of it. Of course, the point about guessing to some extent cuts both ways. Some of the 54 percent who got the correct answer probably also did so by guessing. Moreover, students would not have had to resort to guessing if they had known the right answer to begin with.
This survey is just one of may results showing widespread ignorance in the United States about political issues, geography, and foreign countries. But studies also show extensive political ignorance in many other democracies. Surveys on political ignorance in Britain, for example, often find results that are strikingly similar to those in the US.