Some students of political ignorance among both young and old focus on the mass media. Consumers of print media—especially newspapers—are better informed than those reliant on electronic media—especially TV. In 2004, newspaper-reading was the only media-exposure variable to affect what people knew about politics. But newspaper readership is declining, particularly among the young, who are not likely to pick up the “newspaper habit” as they grow older.
The 2004 ANES also showed that strong partisans, intense ideologues, and, especially, those who are very interested in politics are much more informed than their opposites, even when other factors affecting information are considered. But attachment to the parties has weakened, most Americans are not ideologues, and many are apathetic.
In 2004, for example, 28 percent of respondents told the ANES they followed what went on in government and politics “most of the time,” and 32 percent could be classified as politically apathetic. (These people said they followed public affairs either “hardly at all” or “only now and then.”) Roughly two-fifths (41 percent) of the public said “some of the time.”
Being interested in public affairs makes a big difference in how well-informed one is. In 2004, for example, those who said they followed public affairs most of the time got an average of 5.8 points on the PI scale, compared to an average of 3.2 for the politically apathetic. Those who said they followed public affairs some of the time got an average of 4.5 points on the scale.
Unfortunately, several aspects of American politics and campaigns contribute to indifference rather than to interest. Harvard professor Thomas Patterson pointed out that lengthy election processes, and especially the “front-loaded” party nomination procedures, result in apathy, which prevents learning. Carleton College professor Steven Schier established that the parties’ tendency to target only small segments of the electorate excludes others from taking part in electoral politics, which also contributes to indifference and ignorance.
The well-informed citizen is a different political actor than the poorly informed one. Those who are well-informed about politics participate more, although it is also possible that taking part in politics enhances political information. In addition, better-informed citizens are more likely to express attitudes about political issues than the less well-informed. The preelection wave of the 2004 ANES elicited attitudes about eight policies. The items were coded so that persons who gave nonsubstantive answers—that is, “don’t know” or “I haven’t thought much about this”—were coded 1, while those who expressed an attitude were coded 0.
Nonsubstantive replies (NSRs) ranged from 4.5 percent (for women’s role in society) to 15.6 percent (for the tradeoff between the environment and jobs), and averaged 10.8 percent. A “don’t know” scale was created, tabulating the number of NSRs given on the eight issues and ranging from 0 to 8. The average score was 0.87.
Even though some people who were uninformed were reluctant to express NSRs on the eight policies, the average number declined from 2.4 for those who got all eight information items wrong to 0.20 for those who scored eight on the PI scale. Among respondents at the mean on the PI scale (4.5), the mean number of NSRs was approximately 0.80.