The Mindless Middle

By Schoen, Douglas E. | Newsweek, April 4, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Mindless Middle


Schoen, Douglas E., Newsweek


Byline: Douglas E. Schoen

Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats both held their own, but our pollster shows that a large swath of the political center has tuned out.

When it comes to ignorance, not all questions are created equal. While a hefty 38 percent of Americans couldn't correctly answer the six out of 10 basic questions required of immigrants to become citizens, their collective knowledge base diverged. When it comes to the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens--such as freedom of speech or serving on a jury--and integrated civics, which is geography, landmarks, and holidays, Americans knew two thirds of the answers.

But government and history? Basic knowledge of the Constitution, the three branches, the wars we've fought? Fewer than one third of those questions were answered correctly.

In the same way, a schism emerged about who knew what. Republicans did better than Democrats, with two thirds of Republicans passing vs. only 53 percent of Democrats. But liberals ( 64 percent) did better than conservatives ( 62 percent).

Parsing those numbers further, what we see is engagement at each party's base. A solid 70 percent of conservative Republicans passed, followed by 61 percent of GOP moderates and 55 percent of GOP liberals. For Democrats, it was the opposite: liberals and moderates proved better informed, with 62 percent of both groups passing, but just 36 percent of conservative Democrats did so. In other words, conservative Democrats pulled down the numbers for both their ideology and their party, while the centers of both parties were the least engaged.

This illustrates something quite dangerous. The operative theory about America's political situation holds that the fringe of each party is poorly informed, and the middle possesses the wisdom, but our numbers show it's actually the extremes that are engaged--and thus, up on their facts--while the middle is relatively ill informed.

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