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Commentary: Why Are We So Stupid?

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If Barack Obama and Mitt Romney hope that Americans will make well-informed decisions when it comes time to vote in November, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 47 percent of Americans didn’t know which political party supports reducing the size and scope of the federal government. Forty-two percent didn’t know which party usually supports reducing military spending. Thirty-nine percent didn’t know which party generally favors restrictions on abortion.

Pew asked 1,000 adults a series of very simple multiple choice questions about politics. All the questions had followed almost the same format: Is this policy or person or symbol more associated with the Republican Party or the Democratic Party?

You can take an online version of the Pew test yourself. It’s only 13 questions, and you’re likely to find that you score in the top percentiles. I got all the questions right — not because I know a lot about politics but because the questions are really, really easy.

Once you get past the veneer good news — the majority of Americans can correctly identify the relative positions of the Republicans and Democrats on issues of the day — the results are pretty jarring. There’s a substantial ignorant minority on almost every issue.

Thirty-five percent of Americans correctly answered only six or fewer questions, which is worse than random guessing, as blogger Steve Sailer points out.

Some of the intersections of ignorance and demographics are quite surprising. Forty-four percent of women, for example, did not know Nancy Pelosi is a Democrat (fewer men, 33 percent, got this wrong). Fifty percent of women didn’t know what John Boehner’s party. (For the benefit of those who got it wrong, including 40 percent of men, the answer is Republican.)

Overall, men scored better than women, Republicans better than Democrats, older people better than young people.

There are some interesting exceptions. For example, the 18-29 cohort scored better than older folks when it came to knowing the Democratic party is more aligned with cuts in defense spending, creating a “path to citizenship” for illegal aliens and expanding the rights of gays of lesbians.

One way of reading these results is as an indicator of what people care about. You probably know a bit more about the issues that concern you. If that’s right, younger people are far more engaged by the issues of defense, immigration and gay rights, and less engaged by partisan identifications. People ages 50 and up are engaged by taxes and partisanship (70 percent correctly identified the party affiliation of Pelosi, 72 percent correctly identified which party is known as the G.O.P.).

As an employee at a cable news stations, I should point out that it’s not clear that my colleagues do much to ameliorate ignorance. Thomas Edsall at The New York Times recently reported on the top 10 television shows that appeal to Democrats versus those that appeal to Republicans.

The Democratic shows were: “Washington Week,” “Tavis Smiley,” “Late Show with David Letterman,” “The View,” “PBS NewsHour,” “NOW” on PBS, “House of Payne,” “ABC World News Now,” “60 Minutes” and “Insider Weekend.” That’s a pretty heavy roster of public policy and news oriented shows.

The top-10 Republican shows were “The Office,” “Rules of Engagement,” “The Mentalist,” “New Yankee Workshop,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Castle,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Dancing With The Stars,” “The Biggest Loser” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Not one public policy or news oriented show was on the list.

Republicans, however, outscored Democrats on every question on the Pew Test other than the one about defense spending. Perhaps this makes sense. Democrats may watch a lot of news and public policy programming in an attempt to overcome their ignorance. Republicans already know enough, so they can spend their time watching stars dance.

Follow John on Twitter. (Market and financial news, adventures in New York City, plus whatever is on his mind.) You can email him at john.carney@nbcuni.com.

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