Are Americans Apathetic and Ignorant? What Surveys Tell Us

May 28th, 2013
in Op Ed, syndication

Written by , Morss Global Finance


For more than a year, I have been documenting that special interests groups rather than the will of the people determine what the US does domestically and internationally. It does not matter whether it is health policy, bank reform, global warming/energy policy, or where/when the US launches the next war: special interests end up deciding what is done. But there is another important issue: Elected officials are supposed to represent the will of the people; Question: Do Americans' have a "will" or are they ignorant/apathetic about government actions? Sadly, there is much evidence supporting the ignorance/apathy hypothesis. The evidence is presented below.

Follow up:

US Foreign Policy

Gabriel Almond[1] and others have documented that most Americans have little idea of what is happening in the rest of the world or US foreign policy and. A study was made of how US citizens' knowledge of what is happening in other countries compares with other nations[2]. The conclusion: Germans are most informed followed by Britain, Canada, and France. Americans had the least knowledge. To work effectively, democracies require an informed public.

A recent poll found that large US minorities continue to believe that Iraq was providing support to al Qaeda and that Iraq had a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program or actual WMDs. Before the war, 26% of Americans believed Iraq either had actual WMDs or had a major program to produce them (21%). After the US went in, 16% of Americans said they were found in Iraq. 46% thought Iraq gave al Qaeda substantial support (31%) or thought it was directly involved in 9/11 (15%).

When it comes to US foreign policy, the evidence is clear: Americans know very little. That means they will go along with what special interest groups tell political leaders to do.

Health Care

Forget about the provisions of ObamaCare and how citizens might take advantage of them. A recent poll indicates that 40% of Americans don't know that "ObamaCare" has been enacted. Some think it has been repealed by Congress. 15% thought the Supreme Court rejected most of its provisions while 30% said they did not know. The Supreme Court? 65% of Americans cannot name a Supreme Court Justice.

It is shocking that Americans know or care so little about a program that is so important to them. But it explains how it is that interest groups and politicians with axes to grind are able to gain political support for their proposals[3].

Bank Reform

I start by quoting from a report on bank reform:

"Our analysis unveils a critical paradox of banking reform. On the one hand, a series of critical economic factors - the propellants of reform - push for reform of the deposit insurance system and the financial system to avoid further debacles. On the other hand, the political factors - the political impediments to reform - seem to prevent meaningful reform of the financial intermediary system. The debacle occurred through the conjunction of three separate events, all economic consequences of political choices: first, regulatory-induced market segmentation that exposed the industry to risk from an abrupt rise in interest rates: second, the sudden rise in interest rates in the early 1980s that wiped out the net worth of the industry; and third, the failure of elected officials to respond adequately to the problem.... Few members of the public, however, perceive the problem to be the result of politics. As a consequence, circumstances similar to the debacle could occur for other financial services, such as commercial banks, pension funds, and government-sponsored enterprises.

This unfortunate possibility is due to general public ignorance of the political and economic forces bearing on a given industry. That ignorance, in turn, allows elected officials to devise programs that benefit certain constituents while hiding some of the costs in the form of future liabilities. To the extent that the latter are difficult for the public to perceive, officials are better off, as are the favored constituents. Of course, the general taxpayer may well have to pay for the liabilities if they are realized.

By that time, however, few taxpayers will associate these liabilities with the structure of the regulatory regime itself, and hence they will not blame the politicians who created the potential for the problem in the first place. Thus one of the worst financial disasters to befall a major nation could well repeat itself."

This report[4] was published in 1992 in the aftermath of the Savings and Loan crisis. The authors say "general public ignorance" was the cause of the S&L crisis. It was and it also led to the recent US banking collapse resulting in a worldwide recession.

Global Warming

Global warming is an interesting case study in public ignorance/apathy because of the nearly complete scientific consensus that it is real. According to numerous surveys of scientists[5], 97% of all scientists believe that global warming is real and things are getting worse. As a point of reference, getting 97% of scientists to agree on anything is very high - consider on-going debates amongst doctors over how different diseases should be treated.

So with virtually all scientists agreeing that global warming, what do the public think?

According to polling from the Pew Research Center, when asked, "From what you've read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, or not?", 27% said no, 1% said that the evidence was mixed, and 4% said that they didn't know or refused to answer the question. And while the percentage of scientists who view the problem as real and serious, the percentage of Americans who say it is a very serious problem has slipped six points, from 39% to 33%, since last October. That is down significantly from May 2009 when 47% of Americans viewed global warming as serious.

Political divisions on this issue are significant: almost twice as many Democrats (87%) as Republicans (44%) say there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been rising. Democrats are three times as likely as Republicans to say that human activity is mostly causing global warming (57% vs. 19%). There was a similar gap with regard to the seriousness of global warming: 48% of Democrats regarded it as very serious but only 19% of Republicans agreed.


The evidence on the question raised at the outset is quite clear: while Americans are intelligent, they don't care to be informed on issues of great consequence to them. If they have views, they often reflect the simple-minded polar views of their favorite entertainment news TV station. Americans are willing to leave public policy issues to their elected officials to work out with the assistance of special interest groups.

1. Gabriel Almond, The American People and Foreign Policy, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1950.

2. Stephen Earl Bennett, "Citizens' Knowledge of Foreign Affairs", The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics March 1996.

3. Jeffrey Friedman, "Public Ignorance and Democracy", Cato Policy Report, July/August 1999, Vol. 21, No. 4.

4. Kenneth E. Scott and Barry R. Weingast, Banking Reform: Economic Propellants, Political Impediments, Hoover Institution Press, 1992.

5. E.g., Cook et al (2013) and Skeptical Science.

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