Ignorance Isn't Bliss—It's Frightening

How dangerous is American anti-intellectualism?

Posted Sep 14, 2017

U.S. Government photo, public domain
Senator Jim Inhofe holds a snowball as evidence that global warming is a hoax.
Source: U.S. Government photo, public domain

If you believe that a healthy democracy requires an informed and engaged electorate, you should be very concerned about recent polling released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. No matter how you look at the numbers, the inescapable conclusion is that huge segments of the American population are clueless about even basic concepts of civics.

Consider, for example, that more than one in three Americans (37 percent) could not name even one right guaranteed by the First Amendment. (Those rights include free speech, religious freedom, free press, the right to assembly, and the right to petition the government.) Even fewer – only 26 percent – could name all three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial), while one-third (33 percent) could not name any of the branches.

One could easily argue that these dismal numbers help to explain the state of affairs in the United States today. Facts, alternative or otherwise, would seem to have little relevance in a landscape populated by citizens who wouldn’t know the Bill of Rights from the Magna Carta.

In fact, the survey data itself reveals the danger of an uninformed public. One in four of those polled, in direct contradiction to freedom of the press, stated that they support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on any issue of national security. Note that these numbers come not at a time of severe crisis, when one might expect some public sympathy for authoritarian measures, but at a time of relative ordinariness. As such, imagine how easy it will be for an opportunistic tyrant to thwart basic freedoms if and when an actual threat ever materializes, or is even perceived.

And not surprisingly, the numbers suggest that the danger is even worse for immigrants. Over half of those polled stated, incorrectly, that undocumented immigrants have no constitutional rights at all.

I’ve said before that Anti-Intellectualism Is Killing America, and these number bear it out. With survey results like this, it's little wonder that much of the public is still doubtful about climate change, for example, even though the scientific community long ago reached consensus on the issue. The photo above of Sen. James Inhofe, using a snowball as evidence to challenge global warming, is a sad reminder of the representation that is produced in this kind of environment. Uninformed voters are easily misled, incapable of critically analyzing issues, and vulnerable to demagoguery. 

If there's a silver lining in this polling, it's that we can learn from it. If we ever wish to have rational, human-centered public policy, we need to start with a public that can demonstrate it deserves it. 

On Twitter: @ahadave