Monthly Archives: October 2009

Pew Research: What Does the Public Know? Not That Much

http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1378/political-news-iq-quiz

Pew Research has released a study, which you can participate in if you’d like, on what the public knows and what it doesn’t know about current events. I’m frankly not sure what to think about the results.

First of all, what I am sure of is what everyone will be sure of, which is that the results are pretty dismal for a democracy.  For example:

  • Only 23% of American adults know that “cap and trade” refers to energy and environmental legislation.
  • 58% of Americans think that Iran and Israel share a border.
  • Only 33% of Americans know that Ben Bernanke is the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
  • Only 33% know that the Dow is in the range of 10,000
  • 82% do not know that Max Baucus is Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that has been working on healthcare legislation.

Here are some real kickers:

  • Only 40% of Americans know that Glenn Beck is a TV and radio talk show host
  • 44% of American adults do not know that the “public option” has to do with health care

There are also some non-surprises.  Older people know a lot more about current events than younger people, and more educated people know a lot more about current events than less educated people.

What I’m not sure about is whether this changes my world view of politics.

After untold hours of arguing with conservative friends about the entire array of issues and philosophies wrapped up in politics, and having only ever convinced one or two to change their opinion on anything, I’ve come to believe that expending a lot of energy on convincing people of anything is futile.  Calories are far better spent finding the people who already agree and convincing more of them to get their asses off the couch to vote and make phone calls than the other side.  Turn out is everything.

Do these numbers challenge that?  Could it be that if we can explain cap and trade to the 77% of Americans that don’t know what it is before the other side can, we actually have an opportunity to win them over?  Could it be that the 77% of people who think cap and trade has to do with health care, or unemployment, or banking and finance reform can not be convinced otherwise?  Or could it be that the 77% of people who don’t know this are just way more interested in who is winning Dancing with the Stars and they are never going to be an important political force whether they understand or don’t understand because they are never going to vote anyway.  I’m not sure.

Aside from the obvious, as stated above, what do you think this study means for the pragmatic practice of politics?

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