The Right Coast

September 16, 2004
Political Ignorance and the Presidential Election II: Things the Voters Don't Know that Might Hurt Them
By Ilya Somin

Although the current presidential election has stimulated tremendous involvement on the part of political activists, most of the public remains shockingly ignorant about many of the major issues involved. Here are a few survey results from polls taken during the last few months, taken from a forthcoming Policy Analysis that I am writing for the Cato Institute I will e-mail cites to specific polls to anyone who contacts me and wants them:

70% of American adults don't know that Congress passed a prescription drug benefit (54% actually believe it DIDN'T, while the rest say they "don't know").

68% don't know that Social Security is one of the two largest expenditure categories in the federal budget.

65% don't know that Congress passed a ban on partial birth abortion (48% actually believe it DIDN'T, while 17% say they don't know).

64% don't know that there has been a net increase in jobs this year(61% believe there has been a net decrease).

61% don't know that increased domestic spending has made at least "some" contribution to the increase in the deficit in the Bush years (57% believe that it made little or no contribution).

I could list many more figures like this, but the key point is that the majority of the public is simply unaware of some of the most important new policies of the last 4 years. They don't realize, for instance, that the Bush administration has presided over a massive increase in domestic spending, of comparable magnitude to the increase in defense spending. Moreover, most are unaware of the every existence of the administration's prescription drug bill, not to even mention the fact that it is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next few years, and even more thereafter.

Being ignorant of the very existence of massive increases in domestic spending, the public can't even begin to hold politicians accountable for dealing with the serious issues this spending raises.

An obvious counterargument is that voters are focused on the war rather than on domestic policy. Perhaps, but runaway domestic entitlement spending is the greatest longterm threat to America's ability to continue bear the fiscal burden of the large defense establishment necessary to fight the war. Moreover, even in wartime, domestic policy remains important in its own right. After all, the costs of the vast increases in entitlement spending will be borne by taxpayers for decades.

It would be easy to blame the media for this widespread ignorance. But whatever the sins of Dan Rather & Co., they did provide extensive coverage of many of the issues, including the prescription drug bill, Bush's spending increases, and even this year's job gains. The problem is not that the information isn't out there, but that most of public isn't paying attention to it. What they don't know is all too likely to hurt them - and all of us.