The Mindless Middle

Illustration by Josh Mckible

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.

More than lacking knowledge, a lot of Americans, particularly in the middle, have completely tuned out. And given how little they know, it will be hard to get them back. Here's the most telling number: Americans who vote regularly in elections tested above average—68 percent passed—but among the one in 10 who told us they weren't interested in exercising their franchise, just 26 percent would qualify to be citizens of their own country.

It's scary enough that so many Americans don't know how the system is supposed to work, since that ignorance facilitates cynicism. But when so much of the problem stems from an apathetic middle, it makes it far harder to build the consensus necessary to move America forward as the challenges mount.

We face fundamental questions about how to balance our budgets, reduce our deficits, educate our children. Yet the ends of each political spectrum—the ones more interested in fanning flames and less motivated to find solutions—are the ones arming themselves with knowledge, while the center, where consensus stems from, is tuning out or turning off.

The country's Founders understood the need to bridge the passions of divergent philosophies. "I see the necessity of sacrificing our opinions sometimes to the opinions of others," said Thomas Jefferson, "for the sake of harmony." But Jefferson's vision of compromise was built on an underlying assumption: an informed electorate. "Whenever the people are well-informed...[if] things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right." Based on our test, those positioned to set things right have ceded the knowledge advantage to those who have little interest in doing so.