Newsweek recently gave the US citizenship test to 1,000 US citizens, and 38% failed. A full 73% didn't know why we fought the Cold War; 44% couldn't define the Bill of Rights; 29% couldn't even name the vice president. "Civic ignorance is nothing new," writes Andrew Romano, but the world is "becoming more and more inhospitable to incurious know-nothings—like us." The debate over government spending "illustrates the new dangers of ignorance." Voters "have no clue what the budget actually looks like ... but politicians pander to them anyway."
A 2010 survey found that Americans want to cut foreign aid—which they believe comprises 27% of the budget—to 13% in an effort to tackle deficits. The only problem? "The real number is under 1%," Romano writes. Another poll discovered that 71% of voters want smaller government, but "vast majorities oppose cuts to Medicare (81%), Social Security (78%), and Medicaid (70%)." There is hope: As one professor's experiments in "deliberative democracy" show, "people start out with deep value disagreements over, say, government spending," but "tend to agree on rational policy responses once they learn the ins and outs of the budget." Our problem, says one political scientist, "is ignorance, not stupidity."