In a conversation earlier this week about polls showing that large numbers of Republicans don't believe Barack Obama was born in the United States, I wondered how many of those respondents might not know that Hawaii is a state. That wasn't a shot at Republicans; I just think people in general know less about their country than we tend to assume.
The next day, The Washington Independent's David Weigel -- whose birther coverage has been indispensable -- pointed out a new poll showing that 8 percent of North Carolinians (and 11 percent of McCain voters in North Carolina) either think Hawaii is not part of the U.S. or are not sure.
Think about that for a minute. One in 10 McCain voters in North Carolina doesn't know that Hawaii is part of the U.S.
Does that surprise you? It shouldn't.
The simple fact is that a heck of a lot of Americans don't know much about their country or the basics of how government works.
In 2007, the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of Americans could not name the current vice president. Fifty-one percent could not identify Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Twenty-four percent did not know which political party controlled the House of Representatives -- just months after Democrats took control, when the information should have been fresh in people's minds.
My favorite example of the fact that a great many people don't know the basics is the poll that showed that during then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley's unsuccessful 1994 re-election campaign, 30 percent of his constituents thought that if Republican George Nethercutt defeated Foley, Nethercutt would become speaker. Given that Nethercutt eked out a win with 51 percent of the vote, it isn't at all hard to imagine that Foley might have been re-elected had voters understood the clout their district stood to lose by replacing him. (Of course, Foley wouldn't have remained speaker anyway, as Republicans won control of Congress.)
If so many voters are wrong about basics like whether Hawaii is part of the U.S. and whether the representative from Washington's 5th Congressional District is automatically the speaker of the House, imagine how little they must know about complex public policy questions.
To be clear: Much of this ignorance is not the result of stupidity, and it is not the result of lack of interest. The details of public policy are quite complex. The vast majority of Americans simply don't have the time or the resources to develop a clear and thorough understanding of Medicare reimbursement rates, nuclear proliferation policy, the intricacies of the tax code, and the hundreds of other topics that affect their lives. That is, after all, one of the reasons we elect representatives.
Even citizens who make a significant effort to educate themselves about a given topic are unlikely to succeed. Give most people a week to read a 700-page piece of legislation, and they're no more likely to understand it than I am likely to be able to fly the space shuttle after reading an operating manual. And for precisely the same reason: These are highly technical things, requiring a great deal of specialized knowledge to properly understand.
Most people do not possess that specialized knowledge. Most people do not fully understand their own health care plan -- so why on Earth would we think they would know anything about health care policy and proposed insurance reforms, even if they had read some legislation (which, of course, 99.9 percent of them have not)?
Now, this doesn't have to be a problem -- which is great, because it's pretty much unavoidable. We choose a government to represent our interests, and we look to another institution, the media, to help us understand the issues well enough to make decisions about who should represent us.
Obviously, there are a few kinks in that system.
One of those kinks -- one that doesn't get much attention -- is the extent to which the media (and politicians and the people who work for them) overrate the amount of knowledge most voters have about politics and policy. You see it when they use insider jargon and acronyms in their reporting, assuming readers and viewers know what they mean. Do they? Do they really know what FISA is? Pay-Go? "Judicial activism"?
This overestimation of how much knowledge most people possess is one of the causes of the media's failure to clearly and consistently report the facts about health care. They don't understand how necessary it is. They think they can focus on horse-race political coverage of the debate. They think if they report the facts once, that's often enough. They think the fact that people are satisfied with their health insurance tells us something about the quality and reliability of that insurance -- though it clearly doesn't.
So the public, which -- again, understandably -- doesn't know much about a complex policy and lacks the time and resources to find out for itself, is exposed to a nonstop barrage of spin, misinformation, and outright lies about health care. And the media, overestimating how much people actually know, don't think they have to make the facts clear every day, over and over again. Is it really any wonder that people believe things that aren't true? Do we really need to relive the run-up to the Iraq war all over again?
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.