Living in the United States—the nation where representative democracy was born, we view our form of government as the highest form of government—the only proper form of government for an enlightened people. We accept intuitively that with government in the hands of the people there will be liberty and justice for all. And few, if any, Americans doubt that the key to solving our political problems is more democracy—more control in the hands of the people. Following this line of thought, more democracy in the form of more elections, more direct elections, and citizen initiatives and referendums are reforms we have enacted throughout our history.

Given this trend, it is important to realize that these reforms, and thus the viability of our democracy, rest upon the assumption that we will actively participate by keeping ourselves well informed about politics and we will make good voting decisions in elections. If we fail to do these things, the most fundamental premise of our democracy is undermined and the viability of our government is brought into question. Therefore, it is important to ask—how informed are the American people about politics and how well are we participating in elections?

Citizens Are Woefully Uninformed

According to various surveys, only about 30 percent of Americans know that the term length of a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives is two years, and fewer than half can recall the name of their Representative. When asked about the voting record of their Representative, two-thirds claimed to have agreed with their Representative’s votes, yet only one in ten could cite how the Representative had voted on a single piece of legislation during the preceding two years. About half of all U.S. citizens know that there are two U.S. Senators from their state, and just over a quarter can name both of them. About two-thirds of the people can name their state’s governor, and about 20 percent know the name of their state Representative. Perhaps most surprising, less than half of all U.S. citizens can name the three branches of our government.

Another way to find out how well informed Americans are about politics is to hear what an expert in the field has to say about it. Political scientist Michael Delli Carpini, who coauthored What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters with Scott Keeter, said that, in doing research for his book, he discovered that Americans do not know many facts that seem crucial to effective citizenship. These include “definitions of key terms such as liberal, conservative, primary elections, and the bill of rights; the names or issue stands of most public officials below the level of President or Governor; candidate and party stands on many important issues of the day; key social conditions such as the unemployment rate or the percentage of the public living in poverty or without health insurance; how much of the federal budget is spent on defense, foreign aid, or social welfare; and so on.” Carpini also points out that “over fifty years of survey research on Americans’ knowledge of politics leads to several consistent conclusions. The most powerful and influential of these conclusions is that the ‘average’ citizen is woefully uninformed about political institutions and processes, substantive policies and socioeconomic conditions, and important political actors such as elected officials and political parties.”

This makes no sense. If Americans believe so strongly in democracy, why aren’t people keeping themselves informed? How can we have a democracy if people don’t know what’s going on in politics? Could it be that people like the idea of democracy but don’t like participating in it themselves? Perhaps it would help to understand the nature of what people do know about politics.

People Stay Informed About Issues That Are Personally Relevant to Them

Research by political scientists has found that on many political issues, most people know little or nothing about the topic and have put little to no thought into it, so they are naturally ambivalent about it. On issues people have thought about, rather than having explicit positions, they tend to have competing considerations and non-attitudes. When people do have a position on an issue, such as favoring an activist or minimalist government, their positions are often subject to contradictions when specifics such as individual programs are considered. The classic example is people wanting lower taxes and more and better government programs. This is in stark contrast to political elites (activists, the media, and politicians) who have strong opinions and adhere to rigid ideologies. Most people are non-ideological, with views that do not cluster together like those of elites. They favor and oppose positions across both conservative and liberal ideologies. This makes sense, since ideologies are political groupings with no logical or moral basis.

This is not to say there are no well-informed citizens. Many people enjoy following politics, much as others enjoy following baseball or celebrity gossip. But there is no reason to believe that these people are more patriotic for doing so. Some likely do so to marvel at the spectacle of politics or for the thrill of rooting for their partisan team. In any case, as political scientist Robert Entman argues in his book Democracy Without Citizens, “people who participate regularly and knowledgeably form a distinct minority.”

The issues people do tend to be informed about are issues that directly affect them. Fishermen tend to have a keen interest in issues related to catch restrictions and seafood imports. Senior citizens tend to follow issues related to the availability of health care and extending their nest egg. Bankers naturally have strong views on banking regulations. And nearly everyone takes an interest in whatever is going on in their immediate environment. If the crime rate goes up in their community, people take notice and are willing to take action. If a major road construction project is proposed that will affect them, most people will pay attention. If schools are bad and kids are getting a lousy education, parents will be the first to know.

Staying informed about politics requires a lot of effort. Most of what government deals with is boring and has no clear relevance to the daily lives of most citizens. With an endless stream of issues in the news, trying to absorb it all can be like trying to take a drink from Niagara Falls. We are constantly bombarded with information coming at us from all directions. People have busy lives with many other important and more interesting things to do, so we must filter and pay attention only to those things that are clearly relevant to us. The cost of staying informed is high in terms of time and energy, and the benefits are low. Therefore, it seems logical and rational that most people wouldn’t put much effort into it.

Americans are failing to keep themselves informed about politics, and this is completely understandable. It is human nature for people to stay informed about things that are personally relevant to them and to ignore everything else. Expecting people to follow political issues that are outside of their natural sphere of interest is unrealistic. It’s the unrealistic expectation that makes no sense. Since meaningful participation in our political system assumes an understanding of issues outside of the natural sphere of interest of most people, most people are effectively excluded from participating in politics.

Most Americans Rarely Vote, or Don’t Vote at All

If people aren’t informed about politics, the votes they cast could easily be contrary to their own self-interest. But no one seems to be complaining about this, so perhaps it’s not a problem. It’s their right to vote however they please. Perhaps being informed isn’t what’s important, but rather the act of voting. In this case, we could assume that as long as people are voting we have a healthy democracy and everything is fine. So how well are Americans turning out to vote?

In recent Presidential general elections, between 50 and 62 percent of citizens who were eligible to vote actually turned out. When we think of turnout, this is what we tend to think of—turnout for a single election focused on a single office. This is because the Presidential general election is our only national election and is the biggest media event in America. But restricting our view of turnout to this singular event is a terrible mistake. In a nation of 312 million people, the Presidential general election is a contest between two people—hardly a choice at all. In recent Presidential primary elections and caucuses, the turnout rates were generally between the single digits and the teens. In 2012 there are no Democratic primaries and caucuses, and as of this writing, Republican primaries and caucuses have had a turnouts ranging from 0.6 percent in Maine to 31.1 percent in New Hampshire, with all states but New Hampshire falling below 22 percent. Source

The vast majority of political power in America resides not in the President, but in all of the other lower profile offices—national and state legislatures, Governors and Mayors, city and county councils, and many others. Yet in non-Presidential general elections the turnout rate drops significantly, and in all elections, many people skip voting for the lower profile offices. In non-Presidential years, the general election turnout ranges from 30 to 40 percent. State (Governor, U.S. Senator, etc.) and local primaries have a dismal turnout. In 2006, turnout in the 38 states that held state primaries averaged less than 16 percent. Turnout in local primaries often falls into the single-digit range.

In areas where one party dominates—which is much of the country—the winner of the primary election typically becomes the de facto winner of the general election. The story of John A. Perez, as told in the book California Crackup by political scientists Joe Matthews and Mark Paul, is an interesting example. Mr. Perez, who is from a heavily Democratic district in Los Angeles, won election in 2008 to the California State Assembly after getting only 4905 votes in his primary election, which is about 1 percent of district voters. Then, in 2010, with the support of his Democratic colleagues, he was elected speaker of the Assembly—a body representing 38 million people. As Matthews and Paul point out, this is no anomaly. Many people are getting elected with no real administrative experience and are running complicated bureaucracies with multimillion-dollar budgets. And these people in turn become the most likely contenders for higher office.

Apparently Americans aren’t interested in voting. We allow a tiny part of the population to determine who will control our government. And studies have shown that those who do turn out tend to be the most extreme partisans and representatives of special interest groups.