I've been skimming a new book by David Jones and Monika McDermott (image to the right) that looks at Americans and Congress and how the two interact. Chapter 3 is of particular importance to me since it explores what people know about Congress and the consequences of that knowledge.
You can typically divide scholars of political knowledge into two camps. There are those who think the public fails to meet its democratic responsibilities of being informed, and there are those who think the public manages quite nicely, thank you very much, and any failure has more to do with the kinds of questions we ask or the ways we ask them.
Jones and McDermott fall into the second group.
The authors make some good points in criticizing the kinds of questions used to tap the public's knowledge, but these criticisms are nothing new. Even people who use them are critical of their limitations. I'll probably discuss the book again this week, but one point sticks out in my mind, that of the traditional which party controls Congress question often used in creating an index of political knowledge. They make a good point that the post-election surveys that ask people to remember which party controlled the House or Senate back before the election is probably an unfair test. People do lousy on these, and with good reason. "Such a retrospective fact question is a particularly challenging test for respondents," they write on page 47.
This gets into models of how people learn, remember, and retrieve information. A better question, they argue, is the prospective one that asks which party is about to control Congress. "The information is salient," they say, "having been amply covered in the media as well as very recent, and should therefore still be readily available to citizens."
Their analyses "provide at least a ray of hope" in the public's ability to perform its democratic duties, they conclude. The book's overall conclusions are equally optimistic. If time in a busy semester allows, I'll dig deeper and write more. Or you can just get the book yourself and check it out.