Monday, April 21, 2008

Youth, Knowledge, and Turnout

Voter turnout among young people has increased dramatically this campaign season, no doubt in part to Obama's candidacy and his theme of change. He appeal skews younger, more upper class, than does Clinton. That'll be the stuff of future political science journal articles, but here I'm more interested in the relationship between turnout and knowledge.

Younger people tend to score less well on tests of public affairs knowledge. The Pew Center documents this fully. Scroll down and you'll see only 15% of those ages 18-29 are categorized as "high" in knowledge. Ages 50-64 do a helluva lot better, scoring at 47%.

A doctoral student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill says: so what?

In a column published April 18 in the News & Observer, Justin Martin argues that the kind of knowledge tapped in these questions. Rather, he says "Young Americans are actually quite informed about issues that matter to them."

The Pew questions focus on who is president of Russia and whether Chief Justice John Roberts is conservative and a host of other points. As Martin argues:

Knowing who is the president of Russia or which party controls the House isn't a prerequisite of political participation. Many young people aren't interested in Russia, or in the bipolar nature of our two-party system.


Do not despair. Waves of youthful ignorance aren't going to wash down the democratic lighthouse. Quite the opposite. As young people choose what issues are important to them in the information age, we're seeing democracy become more precise, for citizens can easily acquire knowledge of issues they care about and specify the reasons they want to be part of democracy.

I kinda agree and sympathize with is position. He quotes Doris Graber, who along with V.O. Key are political scientists who argue that the people are not the dolts some make them out to be. But you'd hope that young people could at least do better than older respondents on at least some of the questions that do not involve American Idol, like how many troops are in Iraq, how many have died, or what's the difference between Sunni and Shia. This is not textbook civics, this is real world stuff. And it matters.

Back to my opening, about youth turnout. Most of that is powered by 18-29 year olds with a college degree or in college. Indeed, 79% of Super Tuesday young people attended or are attending college. No doubt the Obama effect again, but also hopes that a younger electorate might also be a better informed electorate.

We can only hope.

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