During every election season we can count on a round of hand-wringing over the deplorable state of civic knowledge among American citizens. Here’s an example. The writer makes a good case that when it comes to both current political events and the system of government we live under, more than half of Americans range from ignorant to completely clueless.
The writer concludes with the usual lament:
What we are left with, then, is a citizenry woefully ignorant of its civic institutions, morbidly unaware of the surrounding world, and irrationally misguided in the voting booth. How is democracy to succeed?
Is this the right way to frame the question? The majority of Americans appear to be competent to deal with life as it actually confronts them. And if I were to rank knowledge according to its potential for improving the average American’s life, I would rank political knowledge far below, say, financial knowledge or nutritional knowledge. It may be that the average American pays just about as much attention to civics as is useful to him, namely not at all.
Why does no one ever think to blame the system? If our representative democracy as it actually exists is unable to drum up the knowledgeable citizens our theories tell us are needed for its success, then perhaps that tells us it isn’t a proper system for governing three hundred million independent-minded people, and perhaps we ought to go in search of an alternative that has some hope of working in practice.