Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.

Looking at Political Apathy and Ignorance  | e-mail post

In my recent post about the nature of the political divide, I basically suggest that there really isn't as much of a divide as people would suggest, and attributed the appearance and sense of a divide to a fairly comprehensive set of factors. I claimed that the fertile soil in which the problem starts is the evil twins of political apathy and political ignorance. Hopefully I won't have to defend the claim of political apathy when we are talking about this year's "very high" election turnout still bringing less than 60% of the voting age population to the polls.

Whence Political Apathy?

A combination of positive and negative factors has created a significant (and generally growing) level of political apathy over a period of decades, but I think the major ones are:
Political ignorance is both a cause and an effect of political apathy, creating a snowball effect. Citizens uninterested in public affairs will not become informed, and politically ignorant citizens are going to be as apathetic about an election campaign or outcome as the typical American (even a cosmopolitan blue-stater) would be if plopped down to watch an India vs Pakistan cricket match.

Political Ignorance

For an overview of the extent, root causes (other than apathy), and implications of political ignorance, I suggest GMU law professor Ilya Somin's "When Ignorance Isn't Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy." Also, if you're a Kerry voter thinking that political ignorance must be a big problem since Bush won, you might want to slow down and see Ilya Somin's breakdowns on political ignorance by party affiliation.

I can't help but think that contributing to political ignorance is the decline in both the consumer's demand for public affairs news and the resulting decline in the supply of that news. Pew's 2002 survey on news consumption indicated that 20% Americans didn't expose themselves to any news in the prior day (controlled for weekdays), that's double the 1994 result when only 10% skipped news. And while television news (primarily local) is still the largest source of news for people, the average American was watching less than 30 minutes a day. In terms of topical interest in news, people are more likely to follow "community," health, crime and sports news very closely than news of local goverment, international affairs or Washington politics and policy.

Highlighting of the mutual reinforcement of ignorance and apathy, the poll also found that even among "heavy" news consumers (those spending at least one hour on news in the prior day) approximately 40% of them said they would often lose interest in news stories because they lacked the background context to understand them. Consider that if this number of people have a difficult time keeping up with the news

Believer me, the media isn't helping, but that criticism will have to wait for another post.

"But I'm Not Ignorant, I Keep Up With The News" - Yeah, Right

Even more disconcerting than how little news people do consume is how much people appear to overestimate their level of attention to the news or their understanding of news the claim to follow. (I hope you are sitting down for this.) While 65% of respondents claimed to follow both international affairs and national politcal news somewhat or very closely:
It is also interesting that 20% of people thought they knew the answer to the Israel and Secretary of Defense questions, while 30% thought they knew who Arafat was. I guess I should not have been surprised, I am sometimes dumbstruck at the level of ignorance exhibited by some people who claim to "be up on things."

I wanted to try to get a better understanding of just how bad this situation is, so I actually downloaded the 2002 media survey data set from the Pew Research Center's data archive. They release the complete SPSS data files (.sav) for their surveys six months after they release their findings. If you know how to use a stats package like S-plus, SPSS, SAS or R, you can go nuts with them. By the way, if you don't know about Pew Research, they are a non-profit, and their lead pollster, Andrew Kohut, was something of a minor celebrity after the election this year, having nailed the prediction of the final national vote tally. He was also critical of the inclusion of the "moral values" question on the exit poll and the amount of attention given the results.

You'll have to wait for the next post for the results. I can tell you already that they're really pretty depressing. And for all you partisans out there, I did run some partisan segments, but I don't think anybody will be claiming bragging rights, at least on the small analysis I am doing.
e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  |  | Thursday, November 25, 2004
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