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Are Americans Too Stupid For Democracy?

How can we rationally pursue our self-interests when we don't know what's going on?

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What's driving that disconnect? Simple ignorance. A recent poll conducted by Bloomberg News found that “the size and trajectory of the U.S. deficit is poorly understood by most Americans, with 62 percent saying it’s getting bigger, 28 percent saying it’s staying about the same this year, and just 6 percent saying it’s shrinking.”

Foreign Aid Is Pocket Change

The age-old conundrum in terms of the public's view of fiscal priorities is that Americans want lower taxes, less government and lower deficits, but oppose cuts to any specific programs other than “defense.”

How does one square that circle? By noting how out of touch most people are with how their tax dollars are spent. A 2011 poll conducted by CNN found that Americans, on average, think we spend 10 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid, and one in five said we spend 30 percent or more helping others abroad. The actual figure: about one percent.

The average American also thinks we spend 5 percent of the budget on public broadcasting, when in fact it's just one tenth of one percent.

According to a 2011 Gallup poll, “Americans on average say that the federal government wastes 51 cents of every tax dollar, the highest level ever recorded since the poll was first taken in 1979.”

Waste is a subjective term, but here's where your dollars go, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

So, Should We Just Give Up On Democracy?

Winston Churchill is thought to have said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (He did say it, but he was quoting a predecessor at the time.) The problem isn't the form of government, but the ignorance of our polity. And that's a problem that can be addressed.

The study cited above which found that people in the UK, Denmark and Finland are significantly better informed about the issues of the day noted that some of the differences can be attributed to various models of media funding. The three European countries all have more public television and radio, which the researchers found offered more hard news and analysis, and less puffery.

Education is another big difference. In those countries, spending on education is more or less uniform between schools and school districts. In the U.S., the amount spent on education varies wildly by school, district and state. And while it's in vogue to blame teachers and their unions for what ails our educational system, the reality is that poverty and inequality are the driving forces behind our kids' relatively low educational outcomes.

As Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford, recently told AlterNet, “students in American schools where fewer than 10 percent of the students live in poverty actually are number one in the world in reading. The place where we really see the negative effects are in the growing number of schools with concentrated poverty, where more than 75 percent of children are poor. The children in those schools score at levels that are near those of developing countries.”

Joshua Holland is Senior Digital Producer at BillMoyers.com, and host of Politics and Reality Radio. He's the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter

 
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