"If you don't know what you're talking about," South Park co-creator Matt Stone recently told Rolling Stone, "there's no shame in not voting." The comment upset actor-activist Sean Penn, who scolded Stone for "not mentioning the shame of not knowing what you're talking about."
When it comes to politics, Americans who don't know what they're talking about have a lot of company. In fact, as George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin shows in a Cato Institute paper published last month, they represent a majority of voters.
Somin reviews survey data from the 1950s on that indicate "most individual voters are abysmally ignorant of even very basic political information." Furthermore, "a relatively stable level of extreme ignorance has persisted" despite rising education levels and increased availability of information.
How extreme? A survey conducted last April, Somin notes, found that 70 percent of Americans did not know about the ballyhooed, budget-busting Medicare drug benefit, "the largest new federal entitlement in decades, and arguably the most important piece of domestic legislation adopted during the administration of George W. Bush." In a February survey, more than 60 percent of respondents did not realize increases in domestic spending under Bush have contributed substantially to skyrocketing federal budget deficits.
A month and a half after Congress passed the "partial birth" abortion ban, 65 percent of survey respondents did not know about it. As of April, 58 percent admitted to knowing "not much" or "nothing" about the PATRIOT Act.
Unlike Sean Penn, Somin is not optimistic that Americans can be shamed into learning more. "Perhaps the most fundamental cause of ignorance resides in the collective action problem created by the insignificance of any individual vote in determining an electoral outcome," he writes. "Acquiring significant amounts of political knowledge for the purpose of becoming a more informed voter is, in most situations, simply irrational."
Not only does learning about politics require a substantial investment of time and effort; it is also, for the most part, really boring. If there's anything duller than Social Security, it's listening to Bush and Kerry drone on about their good intentions instead of answering straightforward questions about how they plan to deal with the system's looming fiscal crisis. It was only a sense of professional obligation that kept me from blowing off the latest debate in favor of the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" episode that's been sitting on our TiVo for three weeks.