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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Americans Illiterate Politically, Study Says

WASHINGTON -- Most Americans have a distrustful view of each other, their government and their future, according to a new survey that also uncovers a broad lack of knowledge about government.


If the results are accurate, a majority of Americans don't know who represents them in Congress, how long they'll be in office, the name of the nation's vice president or even which major party is the more conservative.


On top of that, 63 percent think most people can't be trusted, only one in four has consistent trust in the national government, and only 10 percent express confidence that life for their children will be better than it has been for them.


The study conducted by Harvard University, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post provides one of the most pessimistic views yet of the mood of this politically polarized country. The Post, with a series of five front-page headlines last week, devoted several pages to the report which suggests that much of the anger that has shaken up American politics may be based on ignorance.


This is particularly true of foreign policy views, including the strong tide against foreign aid, against support for the United Nations and against cuts in defense spending.


The survey provides the latest evidence that Americans have little understanding of how many of their tax dollars go into foreign aid or what progress has been made toward world peace.


Asked whether the federal government spends more on the health program Medicare or on foreign aid, 58 percent said foreign aid. In fact, Medicare accounts for about 13 percent of the federal budget, while all foreign assistance amounts to less than 2 percent.


Asked to guess the amount of foreign aid, responses averaged 26 percent. And asked how much it should be, the average of all answers was 13 percent.


Taken alone, it could be said that Americans would like to see foreign aid increased more than sixfold. But that obviously is not a sentiment many would express.


The findings are not new, but the fact that they were compiled by a prestigious university, a reputed research organization and a major American newspaper gives them impetus in the national debate.


The Post reported: "Less informed Americans are more inclined to see the world as an especially cold and threatening place, a view that directly shapes their attitudes toward defense spending and America's place in foreign affairs.''


Analysis of the survey showed that 30 percent of those with low knowledge of government believe the threat of a major war has increased in the last 10 years, while only 10 percent of those with a higher knowledge hold such a belief.


Even more striking, 52 percent of the less-informed believe the United States should stay out of world affairs, while only 22 percent of those who showed more basic knowledge about their government share that view.


Post columnist Richard Cohen said the report would lead to the conclusion that "America is not only the last, best chance of mankind but also the dumbest nation on earth. It is peopled by dolts who bellow at their government but know next to nothing about it.''