Monday, December 8, 2014

The Politicization of Political Knowledge

We used to think of political knowledge as largely independent of politics, that what people know is a basic, almost fundamental concept. We were wrong.

Everything today seems politicized. Take, for example, the recent HuffPo/YouGov survey on knowledge about the Benghazi report. The Republican House committee investigating Benghazi quietly released its report on a Friday afternoon, a report that essentially found no significant wrongdoing despite all the GOP posturing and Fox News coverage.

Most people knew nothing about the report (the joys of a late Friday release). As you might by now suspect, partisan differences exist. Thirty-eight percent of Republicans thought the report included wrongdoing or intelligence failures (it found none), while 15 percent of Democrats thought so. Check out the link above to learn more. What's interesting about this is Republicans tend to perform slightly better than Democrats on tests of political knowledge, except, it seems, when the knowledge is not what they want it to be.

Okay, so what? Like belief in conspiracy theories, there is a partisan belief system at play. One good theoretical base for this is motivated reasoning -- the notion that people believe what they want to believe, the facts be damned. Another good theoretical approach is selective exposure. Those who rely on Fox News would've been hard pressed to find news about the Benghazi report and an arched eyebrow or tone of coverage by Fox may have sent mixed signals, not unlike how Fox viewers were more likely to continue misbelieving that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

There still are neutral measures of political knowledge, but it's easy to see how even they may be laced with partisan overtones. Take, for example, the standard question of who controls the U.S. House or Senate. Ask that this electoral cycle and GOPers, happy at their wave, will likely be even more accurate. I suspect a lot of Dems tuned out once it became clear they were about to be overwhelmed at the ballot box. So a neutral measure of political knowledge, one used so very often, may not be so neutral after all.

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