Political Ignorance and the Federal Budget

Fred Barbash of CQ Weekly recently published an interesting article about public ignorance of the federal budget, and its implications for the current political conflict over government spending:

With Washington tied in knots over the budget deficit, pollsters lately have been trying to get a sense of exactly where voters stand on the issue. What they’re finding would not be terribly helpful to those trying to solve the problem.

That’s because many Americans’ perception of how federal spending is divvied up is just plain wrong. In fact, if their answers about the federal budget were even close to correct, slashing the deficit would be a breeze.

In a recent CNN-Opinion Research survey, 30 percent of the respondents guessed that a fifth or more of the budget goes for foreign humanitarian and development aid. The real figure is closer to six-tenths of 1 percent.

In a Bloomberg survey, 70 percent said cutting foreign aid would make a large dent in the deficit. Fewer than half said the same about cutting Medicare.

About 22 percent of the respondents, when surveyed, thought the Corporation for Public Broadcasting consumes more than a tenth of the budget. The reality is closer to a hundredth of a percent…..

At a time when the deficit is driving every debate in Washington, the fiscal intelligence of the citizenry is troubling but not surprising to experts on public opinion. Mostly, pollsters say, people are in a state of confusion on a broad variety of issues.

It isn’t that they don’t care. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of those responding in most surveys see the deficit as a “major problem.” It’s that they don’t know….

Failed quizzes about the budget only scratch the surface. Research demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings across the spectrum about across the spectrum about government, about which level of government does what and which official is accountable for what. Presidents get blamed for local problems, mayors for national problems. Incumbent office holders can even get a boost on voting day if their local team wins a major championship just prior to an election.

This ignorance creates a vacuum that politicians and activists are all too happy to fill — with their own spin.

The article incorporates comments by various scholars of political knowledge, including yours truly. I previously blogged about public ignorance of the federal budget in this post.