Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on Political Ignorance

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently gave a speech lamenting widespread political ignorance in the United States:

Two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told the crowd that packed into a Boise State ballroom to hear her Thursday.

About one-third can name the three branches of government. Fewer than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

“Less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s right there in the name,” she said.

O’Connor touted civics education during her keynote address at the “Transforming America: Women and Leadership in the 21st Century” conference, put on by the Andrus Center for Public Policy. She also described being a female lawyer in the 1950s, and challenged her listeners to help the next generation of leaders reach their goals….

“The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance,” O’Connor said.

That ignorance starts in the earliest years of a child’s schooling, she said, but often continues all the way through college and graduate school.

O’Connor argued that learning about citizenship is just as important for American children as learning multiplication or how to write their names.

“We have to ensure that our citizens are well informed and prepared to face tough challenges,” she said. “If there is a single child not learning about civics or not being exposed to what they must do as citizens, then all our lives are poorer for that.”

Having just written an entire book on the dangers of political ignorance, I completely agree with Justice O’Connor that this is an important problem. She is performing a useful public service by calling attention to it. But I am more skeptical than she is that we can raise political knowledge substantially by reforming civics education, an issue that I cover in more detail in Chapter 7 of my book. And even if improved education does make the public significantly more knowledgeable than it currently is, they still are unlikely to know enough to understand more than a fraction of the numerous functions of today’s massively large and complex government. Moreover, those voters who do have relatively high levels of knowledge often do a poor job of using it.

That is not to suggest that we should simply give up on efforts to increase political knowledge. It may be possible to increase it at the margin by improving education, or by other means. But we should combine such reforms with efforts to shrink and decentralize government, so that we can make more of our decisions by “voting with our feet,” and fewer at the ballot box. Foot voters have stronger incentives to acquire relevant information and evaluate it rationally than ballot box voters do.

UPDATE: I have deleted a minor but annoying technical glitch from the block quote taken from the article on Justice O’Connor’s speech.