Are Americans dumb?

Retiring congressman Gary Ackerman thinks so -- is he right?

Published June 22, 2012 8:07PM (EDT)

In an exit interview with Bloomberg Businessweek published yesterday, retiring New York Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman griped about the state of Congress today. Beyond blaming it on the two-party system or the decline of objective journalism or the broken campaign finance system, Ackerman blamed you --  the public.

“It used to be you had real friends on the other side of the aisle. It’s not like that anymore. Society has changed. The public is to blame as well. I think the people have gotten dumber. I don’t know that I would’ve said that out loud [prior to] my announcement that I was going to be leaving. [Laughter] But I think that’s true,” Ackerman said.

The intelligence of the electorate is certainly a common debate among both liberals and conservatives, though perhaps one rarely articulated by members of Congress, but is it true? First of all, let's assume Ackerman means ignorant, rather than stupid, implying people just lack knowledge, not capacity to understand. There’s no question that the electorate is ignorant about a lot of the minutiae of politics (And why shouldn’t we be? We're busy having jobs and lives), but have we become “dumber” than we used to be?

We turned to Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, who wrote the book on this subject: "What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters." Carpini is now the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and Keeter directs survey research at the Pew Research Center. Their book came out in 1997. Has anything changed? “I don’t think there is any evidence that the public is dumber now than in the past,” Keeter told Salon. “It’s actually quite difficult to gauge this, given that many of the facts people need to understand current politics are constantly changing as new issues and personalities emerge. Still, efforts to measure changes in knowledge over time, such as those that Michael and I undertook in the 1980s and 1990s, and a more recent study we did here at the Pew Research Center, have found relatively little change.”

Arthur Lupia, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who also has done research in this area, agreed. “I doubt that Ackerman can find credible evidence to support his claim,” he told Salon. In fact, Lupia noted that, thanks to the Internet and the proliferation of cable news, there is actually far more information available to people today than there ever was in the past: “In the aggregate, today’s citizens convey and use much more information about politics than was possible for any previous generation.”

The problem with this, the scholars said, is that it allows people to access only the information they’re interested in. So while we know more things, we all don’t know about the same things. “I think that it would be more accurate to say that some people are much more informed than was possible in the past, and that, for others, it has become easier to become informed by ignoring points of view with which one does not agree,” Lupia said.

“From the 1940s through the 1980s, all Americans were exposed to a relatively common point of view when watching news. With changing economies of scale in news production (manifest in the emergence of cable and then the Internet), more specialized and partisan news outlets could survive and cultivate loyal audiences,” he noted.

Keeter added that one could argue that the fact that our information level has remained constant actually represents a decline, given all the new information available. There’s also a big and potentially growing information gap. “You can interpret the results from either the half-full or half-empty perspective,” Keeter said. “Our most recent effort in this area shows that most people have a pretty good sense of the relative positions of the two political parties on major issues, but many don’t ... There are very sizable differences between the better-educated and the less-educated in this kind of knowledge, suggesting that a lot of people who aren’t well educated may have trouble identifying which political [party] is the best fit for their own personal values and views," he explained.

Incidentally, Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels tried to model what a fully informed electorate would look like in 1996. In the alternate universe, he found that, “on average, Democrats do almost 2 percentage points better and incumbents do almost 5 percentage points better than they would if all voters in presidential elections were, in fact, fully informed.”

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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