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By Global Public Square staff
Americans voted on Tuesday for big change. But did they understand the facts that they wanted to change? Not according to a groundbreaking new survey.
You see, Americans think the unemployment rate is much higher than it is, that there are many more immigrants and pregnant teens than there actually are, and that the population is much older than it actually is.
Now maybe this gap between perception and reality is because of American ignorance or hyper-partisanship. Except, we’re not alone.
In the first international study of its kind, the U.K. research firm Ipsos MORI highlights the political “ignorance” of participants across 14 countries. Here are some of the findings from Ipsos MORI’s quiz:
When asked what percentage of people are unemployed or looking for work, Americans guessed 32 percent. The U.S. unemployment rate is actually closer to 6 percent, of course. In fact, we could only find one country on the planet – Macedonia – which has had more than 30 percent unemployment in recent years according to IMF data. It turns out every country over-estimated its unemployment level.
So, what about immigration levels? Well, there, too, the participants of every single country imagined that they are being overwhelmed by foreigners. Italians think 30 percent of the population is comprised of foreigners, when it's really closer to 7 percent. Americans think it's 32 percent. The actual number in America is more like 13 percent.
How many people did respondents think identified as Muslim in their countries? Here, the French embellished the most, reporting that 31 percent of the population was probably Muslim, instead of the actual 8 percent. Americans think it's 15 percent. It's really just 1 percent. Overall, the Swedes fared the best in the study.
And the most ignorant, most oblivious nation in the world? Nope, it’s not America. It's actually Italy. But don't celebrate yet – the United States ranked second in Ipsos MORI’s "Index of Ignorance."
Why does it all matter? Well, if there is a chasm between perception and reality, then this does have huge implications for elections and policy making. Politicians are then left to deal with false assumptions, or over imagined issues, many of which they, by the way, created or at least exacerbated.
If a nation's citizens are convinced that illegal immigration is a bigger problem than it actually is, they will push their elected officials to spend billions on fortified walls and deportations. If they think the government is spending a disproportionate amount of money on foreign aid for example, they will advocate sharp cuts in what is actually a small aid budget.
Sadly, pervasive ignorance is hardly a new phenomenon, as scholar Ilya Somin points out in his book Democracy and Political Ignorance. He notes that only 38 percent of Americans knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO in 1964, at the height of the Cold War. In 1986, a majority of Americans were unable to identify Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev by name.
Now, Somin concedes that it's rational for people to not worry about acquiring the knowledge to vote smarter because the chances of a single vote counting are negligible. But in the aggregate, it's scary when more than half of Americans don't know whether the Senate or House are controlled by Democrats or Republicans...which is the case, according to a recent poll from the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
We all worry about the quality of politicians in today's democracies. But what about the quality of voters? How can we make decisions about war and peace, expenditures and values if citizens are totally wrong about the basic facts involved?
America’s Founding Father James Madison, perhaps, put it best: “Popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”