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Citizen bane: the Know-Nothings always win.

In the United States, democratic theory suffers from an ineluctable weakness: the voter. Most Americans can't name the three branches of their government. Just four percent of them can identify two candidates for their district's congressional seat. And about a third believe that Karl Marx's injunction "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" appears in the Constitution.

As those unwitting Marxists might put it, what is to be done?

Don't expect miracles, Ilya Somin writes in Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter (Stanford Univ. Press). Education levels have risen, but political knowledge has remained about the same. Indeed, some evidence indicates that high school graduates of the 1940s knew as much about politics as college graduates of the 1990s.

Moreover, political ignorance has endured despite plummeting information costs. Cable TV brings Congress into the home, and anybody with a smartphone has more data at hand than the best-educated American of the 1940s. But the voters who watch C-Span and read Politico tend to be well informed to start with. When it comes to political information, the bottleneck is demand, not supply.

Even if a panacea did exist, Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, is skeptical about whether it would be adopted. Elected officials may "lack strong incentives to enact measures that will increase knowledge levels and potentially make their own reelection less likely." For their part, uninformed voters are unlikely to rise up and demand change. "Political ignorance," he writes, "could turn out to be a major obstacle to its own alleviation."

After one of Adlai Stevenson's failed campaigns for the presidency in the 1950s, a supporter tried to console him. He may have lost the election, she said, but he had succeeded in educating the country.

"Yes," replied Stevenson, "but a lot of people flunked the exam."

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Title Annotation:FINDINGS; political ignorance
Author:Bates, Stephen
Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Article Type:Brief article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
Words:308
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