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What to Do About an 'Unwise Public'

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On the American Prospect blog, Jamelle Bouie cites the latest Pew survey of public knowledge (only 38% of Americans can identify the incoming House Speaker; only 14% know what the inflation rate is) and concludes, "If there's a pundit trick that annoys me the most, it's the tendency to attribute particular ideological views to the public at large. In reality, the public doesn't actually know very much and isn't particularly ideological." His advice for politicians: "The best anyone can do is to meet the needs of your constituents, work on economic growth, and maintain good relationships with party leaders and activists. In the end, it's probably not a good idea to try to divine the "wisdom of the people; from an election outcome, because by and large, the people don't have much wisdom."

But what happens if politicians don't try to meet the real needs of their constituents and don't take steps that will actually promote economic growth or other goods, such as security, freedom, sustainability, and equity? According to Joseph Schumpeter and kindred thinkers, that won't be a problem because the voters can judge overall success in periodical elections. They need not master specifics; they must simply assess their own circumstances and fire the incumbents if things go badly. Then the incumbents will be motivated to do a good job and can ignore citizens' advice about how to go about it.

This is not a crazy theory, and it rests on the valid premise that Bouie cites: "most people aren't terribly interested in public affairs or the minutiae of politics and come to their views by way of partisan affiliation and broad heuristics about the world." But clearly our Constitution is not designed for Schumpeterian politics. Division of power, staggered elections, bicameral legislatures, judicial review, and federalism all dilute and check the power of any particular incumbents and make it impossible to remove the people responsible for poor performance--unless voters are well informed about "the minutiae of politics." For example, in the last election, voters probably fired the Democratic majority because unemployment was stubbornly high. That was a smart and helpful move if the Democratic congressional majority was responsible for high unemployment. I think not, but I could be wrong. The important point is that our system makes it foolish to vote on overall performance.

So we need people to know enough to be wise. Some candidates for what we should know or understand as citizens include: the Constitution, statistics, the carbon cycle, the Holocaust, the positions of powerful politicians, the chief principles of Islam, the biography of Abraham Lincoln, macroeconomics, the Atlantic Slave Trade, accounting principles, the geography of Afghanistan, the contents of the recent health care reform, the major components of the federal, state, and local budgets, evolutionary biology, the tenets of classical liberalism and civic republicanism, Spanish, what causes AIDS, the rudiments of criminal procedure, important interest groups, the mechanics of voting, Keynes versus Hayek, Brown v. the Board of Education, how a bill becomes a law, the King James Version, our rights, the fact that half the world's population lives on less than $2/day, Letter from Birmingham Jail, and how to moderate a meeting.

That's a long list that could be much lengthened. I think we all need to avoid the kind of argument that runs: "People are ignorant of the things I know. That's why I vote right and they vote wrong." Liberals are deeply invested in that argument right now, and the relevant evidence is the public's ignorance of climate science, the composition of the federal budget, and the actual contents of the recent health care reform. But conservatives can play the same game with equal sincerity. For instance, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute regularly surveys college students and finds (to their way of thinking) woefully low levels of knowledge of the following issues on elite campuses: why capitalism allocates resources efficiently; what Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas thought about natural rights; how the Soviet Union dominated other nations; and the origin of the notion of separation of church and state.

I'd like to change the subject. Our system does require public knowledge and virtue. Schools should teach all of the topics mentioned above, along with civic values. There is room for improvement in public education, but we cannot expect everyone to learn and permanently retain the entire corpus of modern knowledge. My own understanding is profoundly limited.

Thus we must identify the most important knowledge and find ways to teach it that go beyond schools. We need "lifelong learning." Although I respect many other kinds of knowledge, I most want citizens to possess a set of considered judgments about how public institutions should run. People can and should disagree about that question, but everyone's judgments should be based on informed and reflective thoughts about how to balance equity, participation, minority rights, and efficiency; how much to reward innovation and hard work versus protecting people against failure; when to preserve traditions and when to innovate; how much to demand of individuals and when to leave them alone; and how to relate to newcomers and outsiders. They should also know how to participate in constructive debates about such issues when people disagree.

To some extent, those matters can be discussed in classrooms and informed by readings. But much of our learning is experiential. From Jefferson's idea of a ward system to Tocqueville's observation that juries and associations were schools of government to John Dewey's notion of democracy as a set of learning opportunities, our wisest thinkers have always understood that the American system depends on knowledge and virtue that must be learned through experience.

Unfortunately, we have lost several of the most important venues for civic learning.

  • Because of the consolidation of school boards, water boards, and other local governmental bodies and the replacement of citizen boards with expert managers, opportunities to serve on such bodies have fallen by about 75% since the mid-1900s.
  • Because of the collapse of traditional civil society, the proportion of Americans who said they had attended a local meeting fell smoothly from about 65% in 1976 to about 35% in 2005.
  • Because of the standards and accountability movement, citizens' participation in debates about schooling have become increasingly marginal.
  • Because of the mobility of capital, local governments are no longer able to make their own decisions about how to balance the interests of businesses against those of the community. Business that don't get what they want can simply leave.
  • For reasons that I don't fully understand, the proportion of children who participate in extracurricular groups has fallen.

Empowered associations, boards, meetings, and community debates are schools for democracy, and we are in serious danger of losing them. That's a very different complaint from "the public is unwise," and it suggests very different responses.

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