Cats and Kardashians

Just because you’re not interested in politics doesn’t mean politics isn’t interested in you.  Americans seem to have forgotten this dictum.

A brand-new poll, taken in the form of an online survey, was just issued by the Pew Research Center.  It paints a melancholy picture about the abysmal state of knowledge the U.S. public possesses on public affairs – the more so when you reflect that self-selection was probably present.  In other words, you probably are brighter than Joe Sixpack if you could be bothered to take the test in the first place.

Most people knew who Martin Luther King was, and most could identify Kim Jong-un, the demented dictator of North Korea.  But when you get to the less obvious media-centered identifications, the knowledge base of Americans starts to dry up. 

More than a quarter couldn’t identify the controversial Keystone XL pipeline’s projected route through the nation.  Only 72% of those asked could pick out the nation’s unemployment rate from an unmarked graph.  Only half the national sample could correctly identify the U.S. Senate breakdown by party ID – wait, does this mean that half the voters don’t actually know that the Republicans control the Senate?  Why, yes, that’s exactly what it means.  And half don’t know who liberal lioness Sen. Elizabeth Warren is.  A whopping 67% can’t say how many women are on the Supreme Court.

Other surveys have borne these conclusions out in spades.  A 2006 Zogby poll found that only 42 percent can even name the three branches of the federal government.  In fairly consistent findings, 70 percent of Americans cannot actually name their two senators.  A majority apparently cannot identify major states like New York on a map.

Even at the height of the Cold War, in 1964, only 38 percent of Americans knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of the NATO Alliance.  But hey, when Gallup finds that 20 percent of the public rejects the Copernican Revolution and instead believes that the sun revolves around the Earth, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

Are we actually getting dumber?  No, the Flynn Effect purports to show that mean IQ scores have been steadily rising over the decades, even in the USA.  The results do mean that despite all the billions of dollars spent on American education at all levels in the last generation, we are as flat-out ignorant of our government as we ever were.  It also means that despite the new omnipresence of the internet and smartphones, and the multitude of 24/7 cable news sources, we still have nothing to show for it in our respective cerebrums.  We look at cats and Kardashians instead.

Imagine that the U.S. economy suffers a near-collapse, as it did in September 2008.   Which candidates should we vote for to get us out of the mess?  Hard to tell: only one third of the country believes that free trade agreements are good for the economy.  Imagine a terrible war with Iran breaking out over that nation’s nukes.  Do we call our congressman to support or oppose it?  Can’t be too sure – most Americans can’t place the country on a map of the world.

The obvious solution is to improve schools so that basic civics knowledge will actually be taught instead of touched upon.  It also seems that the mainstream media bears a primary responsibility for the ensuing national intellectual catastrophe.  Focusing on celebrities instead of soldiers and the banal instead of the important, interviewing each other instead of experts, the MSM is itself in dire need of a new Copernican Revolution.

Christopher S. Carson, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, holds a masters’ in national security studies from Georgetown University.