Tuesday, October 19, 2004

During this soon-to-be-over (thankfully) political season, some, in the heat of debate, have told people of a different political persuasion, “You don’t know what you are talking about.” There is now evidence to back up that claim.

A new Cato Institute study by Ilya Somin, an assistant law professor at George Mason University, concludes voters are ignorant about the candidates and their positions and do not know enough about the issues to make an informed choice.

Mr. Somin has compiled his analysis from several studies, all of which reveal a lack of knowledge by a majority of voters. He cites one study showing 70 percent of respondents did not know Congress recently passed and President Bush signed a Medicare prescription drug benefit. And 58 percent said they knew “nothing” or “very little” about the controversial USA Patriot Act, despite a slew of TV commercials by the American Civil Liberties Union denouncing it.

How can people in a free society properly judge candidates, policies and issues if they know little or nothing about them beyond the images concocted by skilled media manipulators?

Mr. Somin writes, “Informed voters must have at least substantial understanding about which of the available policy options are most likely to advance their goals.”

Mr. Somin adds: “Particularly significant is the fact that, on many issues, the majority is not only ignorant of the truth, but actively misinformed. For example, 61 percent believe that there has been a net loss of jobs in 2004, 58 percent believe that the administration sees a link between Saddam Hussein and September 11, [2001] and 57 percent believe increases in domestic spending have not contributed significantly to the current federal budget deficit.”

The Bush administration has repeatedly denied a link between September 11 and Saddam, but does not get through to most voters. And job growth continues upward.

Widespread voter ignorance is not a recent phenomenon. One month after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, polls showed 57 percent of Americans had never heard of the architect of the takeover, Newt Gingrich, despite massive press coverage. In 1964, at the height of the Cold War, only 38 percent were aware the Soviet Union was not a NATO member.

“Most of the time,” writes Mr. Somin, “only bare majorities know which party has control of the Senate, some 70 percent cannot name either of their state’s senators and the vast majority cannot name any congressional candidate in their district at the height of a campaign.”

Mr. Somin then makes this shocking and depressing statement: “Overall, close to one-third of Americans can be categorized as ‘know-nothings’ almost completely ignorant of relevant political information.”

Politicians know this, and so they often seek to restrict the flow of information to voters, preferring poll-tested buzzwords and assertions about the patriotism, faith or honesty of the other candidate. But, as Mr. Somin concludes, “Ill-informed voters attempting to make political judgments on the basis of personal experience may fall into egregious errors.”

Most people feel overwhelmed when they think about government. Government, especially the federal government, is so large and seemingly remote from average people (except when it wants our money) that most people apparently believe neither their thoughts nor their votes can change much. Perhaps if government were smaller, more manageable and more citizen-friendly, more people would care.

The Cato study is a shocking revelation of the lack of political depth in the country at a time when knowledge was never more needed. “An informed electorate is a prerequisite for democracy,” writes Mr. Somin. It follows that the opposite, ignorance, is the prerequisite for domination by the few. This is why pollsters need to go deeper when they ask voters their opinions on issues and candidates. Are their positions informed, or are they reacting to images and impressions?

If ignorance is bliss, there will be a lot of happy voters Nov. 2. Such ignorance has serious implications for the health and welfare of a constitutional republic.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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