• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Don’t Know Much About Foreign Policy

A new Pew study on the media habits of the American people finds that people who rely on a combination of traditional news sources and the Internet are smarter and more affluent than those who rely on either alone and, not surprisingly, “spend more time with the news on a typical day.”

What’s people’s favorite news topic?  The weather, of course, which outpolls its closest competitor, crime, by twenty points.

This sets the stage for a more general, if obvious, finding: most Americans have an interest in news directly in proportion to how it impacts their daily lives:

Most Americans follow local news, few care about international eventsA 57% majority follows local community news closely most of the time, whether or not something important is happening. Similarly, 55% follow national news most of the time. By contrast, only 39% follow foreign news most of the time, and the majority (56%) follows it only when something important is happening.

I should note that I’m a distinct outlier, in that I’m only peripherally aware of local news even though I’m an avid consumer of national and international news.   And, again, these trends vary demographically:

While interest in local news is fairly consistent across major demographic groups, interest in national and international news is driven in part by socioeconomic factors. College graduates are significantly more likely than those who never attended college to follow both national and international news most of the time, not just when something important is happening. In addition, those with higher annual incomes follow national and international news on a more consistent basis.

There’s also a huge gender gap:

Men are particularly drawn to news about science and technology, sports, business and finance, international affairs, and Washington politics. For example, fully 71% of those who follow science and technology news very closely are men, while only 29% are women.

Women, on the other hand, make up a disproportionate share of the audiences for celebrity and entertainment news, health news and news about religion. Among those who follow health news very closely, 64% are women while 36% are men. In addition, women outnumber men among those who closely follow news about the weather, travel, culture, and community news.

Can Larry Summers have his job back, now?

Given that only a slight majority of the public follows national news regularity and that two-thirds tend to ignore international news, would it surprise you to learn that people are generally ignorant on these subjects?  Me neither.  For the record, though:

About half of Americans (53%) can correctly identify the Democrats as the party that has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. In February 2007, shortly after the Democrats gained control of the House after a dozen years of GOP rule, many more people (76%) knew the Democrats held the majority.

The public is less familiar with the secretary of state (Condoleezza Rice) and the prime minister of Great Britain (Gordon Brown). About four-in-ten (42%) can name Rice as the current secretary of state. The public’s ability to identify Rice has not changed much over recent years: In April 2006 and December 2004, shortly before she was sworn in, 43% could correctly identify her.

The prime minister of Great Britain is not well known among the public. Just more than a quarter (28%) can correctly identify Gordon Brown as the leader of Great Britain.

Overall, 18% of the public is able to correctly answer all three political knowledge questions, while a third (33%) do not know the answer to any of the questions.

Steve Benen doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Maybe my perspective is skewed because I just finished reading Rick Shenkman’s “Just How Stupid Are We?” but at a certain point, the political world is going to have to come to grips with the fact that a striking percentage of the electorate has no idea what’s going on.

That’s been the case since, oh, Walter Lippman’s day.

I argue that representative government, either in what is ordinarily called politics, or in industry, cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions. I attempt, therefore, to argue that the serious acceptance of the principle that personal representation must be supplemented by representation of the unseen facts would alone permit a satisfactory decentralization, and allow us to escape from the intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs. It is argued that the problem of the press is confused because the critics and the apologists expect the press to realize this fiction, expect it to make up for all that was not foreseen in the theory of democracy, and that the readers expect this miracle to be performed at no cost or trouble to themselves. The newspapers are regarded by democrats as a panacea for their own defects, whereas analysis of the nature of news and of the economic basis of journalism seems to show that the newspapers necessarily and inevitably reflect, and therefore, in greater or lesser measure, intensify, the defective organization of public opinion.

The mass of people have never been particularly informed about the world around them.  While news junkies may sneer at those who don’t share their avocation for public affairs, the fact of the matter is that there’s not much reason for the average American to spend his precious free time reading about, say, the intricacies of the situation in South Ossetia.  Not only does it have a negligible impact in his life, his knowing much about that topic would have precious little impact on public policy.

For that matter, those who spend their lives making it their business to know about such things wildly vary in their opinions about them!  Even those at the highest levels — former secretaries of state, national security advisors, and the like — share no consensus at all about what to do about these matters or, in some cases, rather fundamental facts about them.  What hope does an amateur have of mastering such a subject?

Related Posts:

About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Tlaloc says:

    I should note that I’m a distinct outlier, in that I’m only peripherally aware of local news even though I’m an avid consumer of national and international news.

    Ditto, but I keep meaning to pay more attention to local news and blogs. It just seems so trivial though. I mean how can local zoning ordnances compare to issues of Pakistani succession when you know the incoming president has a small nuclear arsenal, a long established national emnity with (also nuclear) India, a country with plenty of fundamentalists just waiting for a chance to grab power or sow chaos, and an intelligence agency that seems to be an outreach program of Al Qaeda?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. sam says:

    [T]he fact of the matter is that there’s not much reason for the average American to spend his precious free time reading about, say, the intricacies of the situation in South Ossetia. Not only does it have a negligible impact in his life, his knowing much about that topic would have precious little impact on public policy.

    Ilya Somin, who posts regularly at the Volokh Conspiracy, has written extensively about this topic. He refers to it as “rational political ignorance.” See his recent post on British ignorance of American political institutions. He writes:

    None of this means that the British public (or the American one) is “stupid.” Political ignorance is not stupidity. Rather, the problem is that it is perfectly rational for even most highly intelligent citizens to be ignorant about politics.

    The cited article has links that will take you to some fleshing out of what he means by “rational political ignorance.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the default position of the American people is isolationism. It can take the form of disinterest or it can take the form of the sort of internationalism that basically boils down to “let George do it” but it’s isolationism nonetheless.

    Unfortunately, we’re about 70 years past the time when isolationism was a practical paradigm for the United States.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. mannning says:

    Few news stories appearing in the MSM are presented in an unbiased manner, unless, of course, it is about sports. It is hard to twist the basic facts about a 47-14 loss by some football team. Even there, some writers try to boost the loser or overpraise the winner, it seems. At times, it takes from 72 to 144 hours for the full basics to be brought to our attention. Some stories never do get coverage by the MSM.

    With these understandings, I find it extremely difficult to keep up with significant events in anything like “real time”, and from the data shown in the post here, it seems not to make very much difference to many of us.

    This was brought sharply to my attention when I was privy to the President’s Daily Briefing for a short time. A number of situations were being tracked there that had not seen and never did see the MSM spotlight. We live surrounded by circumstances and events that we have no knowledge of, and that would scare the daylights out of us if we did know.

    Many of these events and situations shape future outcomes very directly, yet we the public do not get the facts, or get a boiled down, sanitized version that removes much of the alarming aspects. I do not think it is a matter of “protection” of the fragile public’s sense of security that causes these stories to be muffled, but more that the rolling on of events and decisions most of the time changes the situation for the better or worse before a sensible presentation can be put together to inform the public in a forthright and meaningful manner.

    Then, all hell breaks loose!

    We the public are not kept informed, and do not usually have access to the sources that are well informed and have valid opinions on a critical situation, except by accident or unusual circumstance. We live by the ragged tidbits that happen to fall off the table much of the time, and are then spun up for publication by the MSM.

    Today, it is blogs run by news junkies and a few highly connected and perceptive individuals and specialists that find stories, break them, and persist in following them until they are given fuller treatment in the media. More power to them!

    We are thus asked to make our voting decisions in the presence of significant noise and uncertainty, and to form our opinions on the performance of our representatives without full possession of the facts, quite often with a time delay of months or years–if ever.

    But we try: we read the papers; we watch TV news; we listen to radio commentators; we buy books; and eventually we think we know enough.

    We do not, and never will.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Patrick T McGuire says:

    …I’m only peripherally aware of local news even though I’m an avid consumer of national and international news.

    You and me both, brother.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Bithead says:

    While news junkies may sneer at those who don’t share their avocation for public affairs, the fact of the matter is that there’s not much reason for the average American to spend his precious free time reading about, say, the intricacies of the situation in South Ossetia. Not only does it have a negligible impact in his life, his knowing much about that topic would have precious little impact on public policy.

    Which to bend the topic just a little, is why issues such as gas prices are so important for the Republicans just now. To get a rise out of the electorate, there is a need to pick issues that directly affect them, and fuel prices certainly do that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. PD Shaw says:

    There was a similar discussion on a sports talkshow on ESPN this morning. How can 20% of Americans not currently know who Brett Favre is? They ran through some other non-sports celebrities and concluded that there is 20% of the population who don’t know who anybody is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. Bithead says:

    Added thought; It’s also why trust of one or the other candidate on foreign policy raks so high on concerns. Voters will pick the person they trust more to handle such matters because they don’t know much about it, themselves, having been, I think, isolated form it, since ‘nam.

    Well, that’s TWO thoughts. OK, sue me. ;-D

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. FireWolf says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the default position of the American people is isolationism. It can take the form of disinterest or it can take the form of the sort of internationalism that basically boils down to “let George do it” but it’s isolationism nonetheless.

    I agree wholeheartedly with you here Dave. Being someone who relished his politics and global history classes, I can tell you I stood alone with enthusiasm for these courses. I am no history or political science major, I just love global current and historical events.

    Most of the students I personally talked to about these subjects couldn’t wait for the semesters to be over with. That fact (as I see it) is a sad state of affair not only internally for our country and its citizenry but also externally when it pertains to foreign policy.

    Unfortunately, we’re about 70 years past the time when isolationism was a practical paradigm for the United States.

    This is where I disagree. Isolationism should never have been a foreign policy and I can say that knowing hindsight. In my personal view, I think that if you wanted to remain involved in global affairs you need to be in them. I believe a pivotal moment in U.S. history came when Harry Truman decided that the Soviets were not worth dealing with because they were “Commie Bastards”.

    That belief began a decades poor foreign policy belief that communism could be won by building bigger weapons, rather than trying to appeal to people by diplomacy, cooperation, joint interests.

    Just my two cents. :)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. just me says:

    I am a bit of an outlier myself.

    I am a woman, but my reading preferences are more in line with what type of news men read than women.

    I really have no interest in celebrity gossip-although I would probably stink at naming sports celebs as well. I read sports, but tend to follow the local stuff-I don’t care much for professional sports.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. Tlaloc says:

    Ilya Somin, who posts regularly at the Volokh Conspiracy, has written extensively about this topic. He refers to it as “rational political ignorance.”

    It is essentially the same paradigm as third parties-
    “I won’t vote for a third party because they can’t win. They can’t win because people like me won’t vote for them.”

    Tautalogies are always rational, they are just also vapid. People have no control over national foreign policy because not enough will become educated enough to express strong preferences to their elected officials.

    So it goes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0