Democracy requires civic engagement
James Madison wrote that "a popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."
In the centuries since, despite marked expansions of education levels among the populace, the communications revolution with all its gadgetry and instant news, and the shrinking globe of reciprocal influences, the average citizen is hardly more informed. Availability of information was less the problem than our interest in it.
The good news is most Americans can list their basic civil rights. The bad news is that few know the status of those rights, how to exercise them, and who and what actions currently affect them.
Over 50 years of survey research as compiled in 2005 by University of Pennsylvania professor Mitchell McKinley concluded that Americans are no more informed than we were in 1950. In fact, he concludes the average citizen is "woefully uninformed about basic political institutions and processes, and important political officials."
Survey after survey shows that Americans can more easily identify TV personalities than which party is in control in Congress, a Supreme Court justice, or their own state representatives, let alone the British prime minister.
Consider the findings of a report by the Center for the Study of Communication at the University of Massachusetts: While 86 percent of voters in the 1992 presidential race knew Millie was the Bush family's dog, only 15 percent knew the candidates' positions on the death penalty. Only 5 percent knew that both had proposed cuts in the capital gains tax.
Remember the Reagan-Gorbachev summits on the nightly newscasts? A 1986 ABC/Washington Post poll reported that as they concluded, a majority of Americans could not name the leader of the Soviet Union. In 1991, a New York Times article reported that New York state senators were flooded with calls asking for certain votes on the Clarence Thomas nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. They misdialed; the Constitution names the U.S. (not state) Senate as the body confirming Supreme Court nominees.
More recent surveys sadly confirm our ignorance. An October 2008 LiveScience survey showed only 18 percent of Americans can correctly name the current secretary of state. Don't get me started on how much less we read books and newspapers as statistically compared to our counterparts in Europe.
Such paucity of knowledge of basic civics prompted former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to start a Web site for students, teachers, and anyone else who wants to brush up. If you get past the cartoon figures, the information on icivics.org is solid. Students and teachers can be president or a member of Congress for a day; learn about the branches, their functions, and current issues; discuss national priorities with Justice O'Connor and read stories about politically active youth. The goal is to provide accurate information and engage youth in a lifetime habit.
If we dislike the current state of politics, these statistics suggest we share the fault. To be successful, a democratic form of government requires well-informed participation.
We're lucky to live where we do, so even if it means starting over like students, America would do well to seek a little more knowledge and a little less entertainment.
Sholeh Patrick is an attorney and a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Sholehjo@hotmail.com