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Citizens? tend to make political decisions that are affected by their understanding of political institutions. People with a full understanding of political institutions have conceptual maps of the world that are less uncertain. Without this knowledge people see economic and social change as more uncertain and unexplainable. Any discussion of citizen competence must acknowledge the importance of political knowledge in helping people to evaluate politicians and policies. Citizens? limited knowledge of political institutions and the effect on their world-views are particularly strong because Americans have little knowledge about their own government and the institutions that rule their society. It has been demonstrated that knowledge about government affects not just how well people respond to their leader’s or how well they identify their interests and whether or not they vote. The less a person knows about government, the more likely it is that the voter will judge representatives by their personal character and the less a voter knows, the less likely it is that he or she will vote.

Given the limited knowledge about government, which most citizens possess, realizing which issues will matter in any election is problematic. It is not the importance of a policy, or even the extent to which politicians differ on it, that determines when an issue will become relevant to voter decision making. What makes it key will be the availability of information people have about the issue. Mostly, the manner in which their own ideas and beliefs about how the world works to connect an issue to their own life situation and the candidate and party they are voting for. It is important to concentrate on the role that understanding political institutions play when citizens decide whether to vote and evaluate candidates and policies.

The knowledge of the institutions of government is called cognitive engagement. People who do not know about institutions and how they work cannot incorporate these institutions in their thinking about news of the world. However, a focus on political communication reveals how people with different levels of institutional knowledge think about the world. It is important that a citizen will form a solid opinion on an issue of political debate. Cognitive engagement, and knowledge about the basic structure of politics, is directly related to the probability of understanding the politicians? messages. The less informed people don?t understand the message, uncritically accept it, or relate to the message according to partisan cues. People, who do not know as much about the structure of political institutions, do not think like the more knowledgeable, they are less clear on principles. When people evaluate news and think about politics, their representations of the world are the foundation upon which they build. Their level of cognitive engagement has two clear implications for how they make use of information. First, information affects the cues that will be vital and the kinds of information people will use to evaluate candidates and parties. People who process news with and without institutional familiarity follow stories differently.

Citizens with low levels of institutional information are more likely to use assessments of personal character as means for evaluations of a candidate’s positions or party affiliation. Candidate-centered politics, and the emphasis on scandal, are both, in part, consequences of low levels of political information in the citizenry. They will also be less able to perceive differences between candidates and parties, non-voting, results from a lack of knowledge about government and the platforms of parties and candidates.

To directly assess the changes in civics knowledge, which we call cognitive engagement, since the 1940s, a national survey has been conducted by two sociologists: Scott Zeeter and Michael Delli Caprini, asking the same basic questions that were asked in the 1940s. They replicated questions testing knowledge of certain basic facts, such as which party now controls the House of Representatives, what the first ten amendments to the Constitution are called, the name of the vice-president, the definition of a presidential veto, and how much of a majority is required for the Senate and House to override a presidential veto. Overall, they found, “the level of public knowledge of some basic facts has remained remarkably stable.” That the overall extent of cognitive engagement has remained stable despite increases in education emphasizes that specific knowledge of political institutions is conceptually invariable from education.

Reactions to the house banking scandal demonstrate how cognitive engagements affects whether people evaluate their representatives in personal or political terms. The level of cognitive engagement is directly and dramatically related to both knowledge of the scandal and to attitudes towards the representatives involved. This scandal mattered most to people with the least knowledge about politics, and the least ability to judge candidates on other grounds. Personal character matters to principals when they must choose agents for jobs in which the agent will have a great deal of leeway. Personal character, as Aristotle noted, makes a speaker credible. “We believe good men more readily and fully than others; this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.” We care more about the character of a baby-sitter with whom we leave a baby than we do about the character of the person from whom we buy the child’s clothing.

Votes in Congress are based upon a hard-to-decipher mixture of compromises between ideal positions and practical realities. Watching candidates perform and make promises in situations full with compromises and role playing, people will wonder whether a candidate’s support for a cause was strategic or reflected a true commitment. Because of uncertainty, they will wonder whether the candidate is sincere about his or her concerns, whether there is congruence between avowed and actual feelings. Did the representative do his or her best and what will he or she do next time? Voters with institutional knowledge of politics can better sort through the pretentiousness of candidates and use supporters and issue cues to evaluate incumbents. Voters less able to use these cues rely on estimates of personal character instead of on attitudes about parties and issues. In other words, reliance on personal character as a proxy for political character is related to uncertainty and uncertainty is related to a lack of understanding about politics. The persons for whom the scandal mattered most should be those with the least information about government and therefore needed most to rely on personal cues about the candidates. The House Banking Scandal contributed to the largest turnover of representatives since 1948. After a six-year period in which 90% of all representatives had been reelected, over 25% in 1992 either retired, was defeated in primaries or lost to an opponent in November.

While cognitively engaged persons are more aware of the scandal than those with low levels of cognitive knowledge about government, they are far less likely to think that the scandal mattered enough to warrant punishing bouncers. Among all persons who knew about the banking scandal, 45.1% took a hard-line position that check-bouncing incumbents “should be voted out of office.” The banking scandal is a classic example of an information shortcut, using estimates of personal character to assess public character. That persons with less information about government took the hardest line on check-bouncers demonstrating how levels of engagement affect the types thinking that citizens adopt. Candidate-centered politics, and a focus on the personal character as opposed to the political character of candidates, is in part a function of low information about the structure of government. Less-engaged people used evaluations of personal character — evidence of the arrogance and privilege referred to by Rush Limbaugh — as a substitute for information about the political character of incumbents. The persons most concerned about personal character and integrity, who were the most outraged about the privilege and arrogance reflected in the scandal, were precisely those who were least able to infer the candidate’s true commitments from his or her past votes. The political and theoretical implication of this analysis also suggests why Watergate, or the confrontation between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings turned off so many voters. For persons with low levels of cognitive knowledge of institutions, in particular, there are no white knights once the dirt hits the fan. That is, when two groups engage in a long series of charges and countercharges, most people lose track of the issues or principles behind the skirmishes; what might have started as good guys versus bad guys soon becomes nothing more than a mudslinging free-for-all in which everyone looks bad. To persons who understand the institutions of politics, a long set of exchanges between, say, Bill Clinton and Robert Dole, can be as clear as a sustained volley in tennis; to persons without any knowledge of institutions their exchange is hard to follow and becomes indistinguishable from a food fight or mud slinging.

In summation, citizen competence (citizen engagement) is vital to the life and survival of political knowledge and involvement. The two are interchangeable, and reliant upon each other. The more the people know of political details, the higher the involvement will be.

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