Why We Need An Informed Citizenry

Saturday, November 15, 2003
One of the more disturbing pieces of news about the Iraq war in the last few months was the revelation that 69 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had close ties to the September 11 terrorists. There is no evidence for such a link. 

You can pass this off as simple confusion, or the result of misleading statements by those with a vested interest in pursuing the war, but it’s nothing to be shrugged away. In a democracy, public misperceptions carry an enormous cost. 

Consider the federal budget. If you look at polls surveying how Americans think Congress spends their money, you'll find that several programs top the list. Alongside spending on defense, people often believe that foreign aid or subsidies such as housing programs eat up a huge proportion of the budget. This is just plain wrong. 

In truth, the largest single portion of the overall federal budget—a full 38 percent of it in 2002—goes to programs for seniors: Medicare, Social Security and other retirement benefits. This is followed by defense, which gets 17 percent of the budget; welfare, including food stamps and unemployment insurance, at 11 percent; health care—most of which is Medicaid spending—at 9 percent; and interest payments on the federal debt, at 8 percent. Community development spending, which includes mortgage assistance and housing insurance, clocks in at just over half a percent, while less than one percent of the budget goes to foreign aid. So when someone stands up at a public forum and suggests cutting foreign aid as a way of getting at the budget deficit, the truth is that it wouldn't get us very far. 

You could argue that this mismatch between the facts and Americans' beliefs doesn't really matter, so long as representatives in Congress understand what's what. But it's not a very big step from there to suggesting that we should forget all this talk of democracy and leave the difficult art of governing in the hands of our betters. 

The truth is, for our democracy to work it needs not just an engaged citizenry, but an informed one. We've known this since this nation's earliest days. The creators of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 thought the notion important enough to enshrine it in the state's founding document: "Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people," they wrote, are "necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties." 

Getting the basic facts right is essential to governing well. One of the most critical jobs facing political leaders in a society as complex as ours is to forge a consensus among many people and interests holding competing views. This is difficult enough to do when everyone agrees on the underlying facts; it is virtually impossible when there is no agreement on them. Voters' misperceptions, in other words, can become formidable obstacles to the functioning of our representative democracy. 

Misperceptions develop for many reasons. It can be wearying to sort through all the sources of information—the media, advocacy groups, the Internet, politicians, commentators—on any given subject. And there are always political leaders, lobbyists and others who are willing to let misperceptions linger. After all, if you're opposed to spending tax dollars on foreign aid, it doesn't hurt your cause if people believe we spend 10 or 20 times as much on it as we actually do. 

By the same token, there is no single fix. Part of the answer lies with members of Congress and other public officials, who have a responsibility to correct public misperceptions. Part of it lies with the media, which in recent years has shown a worrisome tendency to downplay its role as even-handed, in-depth civic educator and to focus on entertainment or once-over reporting. Part of it lies with civic groups—some of them do their level best to counter the flood of misinformation, but they often seem outmatched. 

In the end, the burden lies with each of us as citizens. A lot of powerful groups and interests in this country try to manipulate public opinion, and they're very good at it. Yet a democratic society depends on its citizens separating the wheat from the chaff, forming good judgments, and putting pressure on their representatives to act accordingly. If ordinary people can't do this or don't want to devote the time and energy, the country suffers. No matter how good our leadership, if we don't have discriminating citizens, this nation will not work very well. 

There is an old observation that a society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves. Living in a democracy may be a basic right, but it is also a privilege, and it is one that must be earned by living up to the fondest dreams of our founders for a well-educated and knowledgeable citizenry. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)