What explains the public’s low levels of political information? Some studies focus on sociological factors, the most important being education and, today at least, age. Since 1940, the average adult’s formal schooling has risen from eight-plus to thirteen-plus years, but there is good evidence that political information has not increased accordingly. Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter compared questions posed in the 1940s and ’50s with nearly identical ones asked in 1989 and found that little had changed. Herbert Hyman and Paul Sheatsley found that 32 percent of the 1946 public were know-nothings, and I have found that 33 percent of the 1994 public were also know-nothings.
Comparing information questions posed in the 1940s even with identical ones today can be problematic. Recall that in 2004, 86 percent of the public knew Cheney was vice president. A 1952 Gallup poll found that 67 percent of the public knew Alben W. Barkley was vice president that year. But the vice president’s position is much more visible today than it was in the 1940s and ’50s, so even the same item may not be as demanding now as it was half-century or so ago.
Some items, however, seem relatively comparable from the 1940s to today. A 1947 Gallup poll found, for example, that 63 percent of the public knew the Republicans had the most seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and 56 percent knew the GOP controlled the Senate. By comparison, in 2004, 56 percent knew the GOP had the most seats in the House, and 51 percent knew the GOP controlled the Senate. On these items, at least, today’s public is slightly less informed than Americans were in the late 1940s.
Between the 1930s and the early 1970s, age had little impact on political information. A 1990 study by the Times Mirror Research Center for The People & The Press found that from the 1930s to the mid-1970s, young people were just as politically informed as their “elders.”
Now age makes a difference. In 2004, for example, the mean score on the PI scale for persons eighteen to twenty-nine years old was 3.7, compared to 4.8 for those over fifty. On some of the information items, young people’s ignorance was breathtaking. Only 16 percent of those between eighteen and twenty-nine knew William Rehnquist’s political job, for example, and only 4 percent knew Hastert was Speaker of the House. Furthermore, increased educational attainment did less to improve young people’s political information than it did for their elders.
One concern frequently expressed about survey items of this type is that they do not probe the panoply of what people know about public affairs. One frequently hears that it is possible to form all sorts of well-grounded policy opinions without knowing, for example, who is vice president or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As Philip Converse noted in 1975, the problem with this argument is that it does not come to grips with the fact that many of the same people who lack information about these kinds of questions are ignorant about more fundamental political questions as well.
What explains young people’s ignorance of public affairs these days? Rutgers University professor Cliff Zukin focuses on this age group’s avoidance of the news media, while University of Minnesota professor Wendy Rahn notes that many young people do not even think of themselves as Americans. Both these conditions sap their engagement in and knowledge about U.S. public affairs.
Why focus on young people? Actuarial tables tell us that Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” or Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s “long civic generation”—that is, people born around 1920 who tend to be among America’s most politically engaged and knowledgeable today—won’t be with us much longer. Today’s young will, and their apathy and political ignorance do not bode well for the future of democracy.