Category Archives: Academic Papers

Electoral Integrity: How Gerrymandering Matters

If there has been a constant theme running through 2016 political campaigns, it is that the “system” is rigged and democratic processes no longer work. To the extent that culprits responsible for this state of affairs are identified, political activists on the Left (most prominently Bernie Sanders) point to money and the outsized influence of the 1%, while those on the Right (most prominently Donald Trump) attack “political correctness,” immigrants and minorities. Among members of the general public, dissatisfaction with the country’s current direction is attributed to a wide number of additional grievances. One such grievance that has gained traction over the past several years is the perceived impact of state-level partisan redistricting, or gerrymandering, on both state and federal elections.

The public’s widespread belief that gerrymandering is largely responsible both for “gaming the system,” via the growth in the number of noncompetitive electoral districts and for current extremes of partisanship has revived efforts to reform the way in which states handle redistricting, and has reignited scholarly disputes over the degree to which the ills ascribed to partisan redistricting are accurate. At the same time, pending lawsuits challenging both redistricting practices and certain of those reforms will soon require the Supreme Court to revisit its redistricting jurisprudence.

Popular opinion would seem to weigh in on the side of those who argue that partisan redistricting has distorted the electoral process. (Li 2015, Hulse 2015, Draper 2012) Popular concern about the deleterious consequences of partisan redistricting is augmented by activism undertaken by think tanks and good government organizations, among them the Brennan Center, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. Belief in the efficacy of partisan line-drawing is also exhibited by the political insiders who go to great lengths and significant expense to draw lines favorable to their electoral prospects. (Draper 2012)

It is thus timely to revisit not just the contending academic arguments about gerrymandering’s influence on political polarization and partisan outcomes generally, but also the existing constitutional jurisprudence and especially the issue whether political rather than racial gerrymandering is justiciable, and if so, the appropriate standard to be applied. Redistricting reforms in states like California, Arizona and Iowa have prompted efforts to revise redistricting processes in a number of other states, and cases pending before or on their way to the Supreme Court are poised to clarify the extent to which the Court will intervene in state redistricting decisions when partisan advantage, rather than race, is at issue. Finally, emerging analyses of the experiences of the states that have implemented reforms may provide evidence of the efficacy or lack thereof of redistricting reform, and confirm or fail to confirm the belief that such reforms can generate increased electoral competition, increase turnout, or decrease partisanship to any appreciable degree.

This article makes two arguments: first, that many of the data-driven conclusions of political scientists who dismiss the impact of gerrymandering —although accurate as far as they go—don’t go far enough; that is, they ignore the extent to which redistricting may be implicated in the phenomena to which they do attribute the growth in the number of noncompetitive districts; and 2) the existence of a widespread public conviction that gerrymandering is undermining democratic legitimacy by depriving voters of voice has political consequences that may be difficult if not impossible to measure, but should not for that reason be dismissed as inconsequential. (As the Supreme Court noted in Shaw v. Reno, reapportionment is one area in which appearances do matter.)


The Scholarship

There is a copious scholarly literature dealing with gerrymandering, the practice of partisan redistricting that takes its name from then-governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry. Over the years, scholars have disagreed about the actual impact of such practices. One group of researchers has argued that, although redistricting may matter at the margins, it is only one cause among many for the lack of competitiveness that characterizes state-level elections and elections for the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the most frequently cited authorities for the proposition that redistricting is not the primary cause of non-competitiveness is a study by Abramowitz, Alexander and Gunning (2006). They tested three causal hypotheses: redistricting, partisan polarization and incumbency, and concluded that only the latter two were part of the “pattern of reinforcing advantages” that had led over the years to “extraordinarily uncompetitive” elections. They particularly noted the fundraising disparity between incumbents and challengers, although they did not consider the extent to which creation of safe seats via gerrymandering might contribute to that particular advantage of incumbency. Campbell and Jurek ( 2003) also attribute the decline of competition to the fundraising and other advantages enjoyed by incumbents.

Both political polarization and the lack of electoral competitiveness have been attributed to the growth of polarization between the states (Enten 2013), to geographical self-sorting (Wasserman 2014) and to single-member Congressional districts (Drutman 2016) rather than to gerrymandering.

A widely-cited article by McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal (2006) also dismissed the importance of gerrymandering to political polarization. (Finding “little evidence” for such a link, they did note that gerrymandering operates to increase Republican seat share in the House of Representatives, but concluded that this fact was not an important source of polarization.) However, their final paragraph is worth quoting, because it recognizes both the role of gerrymandering in reducing competition and the importance of public perceptions of legitimacy:

“Nothing we say should be interpreted as contentment with congressional districting as it is currently practiced. The protracted political and legal battles over the boundaries cannot help but diminish the legitimacy of American democracy. And redistricting does appear to have a negative value on electoral competition. There are many reasons to do something about gerrymandering. But reducing polarization is not one of them.”

Other researchers and political figures have connected gerrymandering to both non-competitiveness and polarization. Carson, Crespin, Finocchiaro and Rohde (2007) concluded that redistricting is one among other factors producing polarization in the House of Representatives; former Congressman Lee Hamilton (2000) has written that the way in which congressional districts are drawn contributes to the “overwhelming” advantages enjoyed by incumbents; and Sam Wang of Princeton’s Program in Law and Public Affairs has statistically calculated the number of voters effectively disenfranchised by gerrymanders (Wang 2013). In 2006, Thomas Mann implicated gerrymandering in the polarization of the House of Representatives, and in a book co-authored with Norman Orenstein (2008), Mann argued that the decline in electoral competition and the entrenchment of partisan behavior has diminished incentives for compromise and bipartisan behaviors.

Interestingly, one of the most complete reviews of recent scholarly literature on the effects of partisan redistricting appears in an amicus brief filed by Mann and Orenstein on behalf of Arizona’s independent commission in Harris v. Arizona Redistricting Commission. Mann and Orenstein are political scientists who have written extensively about redistricting, and about “packing” (creating districts with supermajorities of the opposing party) “cracking” (distributing members of the opposing party among several districts to ensure that they don’t have a majority in any of them) and “tacking” (expanding the boundaries of a district to include a desirable group from a neighboring district). They cite to studies tying redistricting to the advantages of incumbency (Hirsh 2003, Issacharoff and Nagler 2007, Kang 2006, Levitt 2011), and also note that the reliance by House candidates upon maps drawn by state-level politicians operates to reinforce partisan rigidity.

Mann and Orenstein also cite to a 2009 article by Oedel, Lynch, Mulholland and Edwards, in which the researchers investigated whether representatives from districts drawn by independent commissions become less partisan.

“Contrary to the initial expectations of the authors, the evidence reviewed here suggests that politically independent redistricting seems to reduce partisanship in the voting behavior of congressional delegations from affected states in statistically significant ways.

There is a copious literature examining numerous other aspects of redistricting: questions of compactness and respect for communities of interest, the legal requirements imposed by various states, the mechanics of line-drawing, and especially the ways in which the mandates of the Voting Rights Act, both before and after its partial evisceration by the Court in 2013, interact with redistricting. Those issues are important, but ultimately tangential to the questions of competition, partisanship and perceived legitimacy considered here.

Whatever the scholarly doubts about the effects of partisan redistricting, a number of states are engaging in efforts to address the perception that district boundaries drawn as a result of political bias allow officeholders to choose their voters rather than the other way around, thus diminishing the integrity of the democratic process. The major challenge reformers face is the absence of judicial agreement on a standard of measurement that can be applied by mapmakers and courts to determine whether a given district’s boundaries have been drawn so as to make them constitutionally improper.


The Jurisprudence

The question whether gerrymandering violates the Constitution did not arise until 1962, when the Supreme Court decided Baker v. Carr, often referred to as the “one person, one vote” decision. In Baker, Tennessee citizens eligible to vote brought suit to redress what they alleged was a deprivation of their federal constitutional rights. Under the terms of a 1901 statute, Tennessee had apportioned seats in the state’s General Assembly and had subsequently failed to reapportion them, despite substantial growth in and redistribution of the State’s population. The plaintiffs asserted that , as a result, they suffered a “debasement of their votes” and were denied the equal protection of the laws. Lower courts had dismissed the suit on the grounds that political reapportionment was not justiciable, but the Supreme Court reversed, holding that an apportionment case may be reviewed on Fourteenth Amendment grounds, so long as these grounds are independent from questions clearly assigned to political decision-makers.

Subsequently, the Court has heard cases involving both racial and partisan gerrymandering; however, only two of those cases—Davis v. Bandemer and Vieth v. Jubelirer—focused exclusively on the issue of partisan redistricting. (A third case, League of American Citizens v. Perry (LULAC), challenged the propriety of a mid-decade redistricting in Texas, the only purpose of which, plaintiffs alleged, was to expand partisan advantage.)

In Davis v. Bandemer, Plaintiffs alleged that Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature had gerrymandered state legislative districts after the 1980 census.

The Court narrowly held claims of partisan gerrymandering justiciable under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, but found that the mere fact of an adverse effect on proportional representation (the discrepancy between the percentage of votes garnered by a political party and the number of seats that party ultimately won) was not a sufficient standard to demonstrate both partisan purpose and effect.

The problem identified by the Court was the lack of a reliable standard for determining when a district had been intentionally gerrymandered for partisan advantage. Justice White led a plurality of the Court in holding that plaintiffs would be required to prove both discriminatory intent and discriminatory effect, and that “unconstitutional discrimination occurs only when an electoral system is arranged in a manner that will consistently degrade a voter’s or a group of voters influence on the political process as a whole” (at 132). The plurality’s standard thus required evidence of continued frustration of the will of the majority or continued frustration of the ability of an identifiable minority to influence the political process. The Bandemer challenge lost because only one election had been held since redistricting.

As one legal scholar noted,

“In terms of a legal standard, requiring litigants to suffer a continued burden makes sense, as a single election cycle has too many variables to definitively show that gerrymandering caused the election outcome. Conversely, if there has been a constitutional violation, requiring litigants to continue to suffer the violation seems like a perverse result.” (Butera 2015)

The standard applied by the plurality in Bandemer did not survive the Court’s analysis in Vieth v. Jubelirer. In that case, Democratic voters challenged the legislative districts drawn by Republicans in Pennsylvania following the 2000 census. There was agreement that Justice White’s standard was unworkable, but there the agreement ended. The four conservative judges argued that redistricting is a political question, and should not have been held to be justiciable; the four liberals argued that the Equal Protection Clause should apply; and Justice Kennedy disagreed with both positions. Kennedy rejected the Plaintiffs’ gerrymandering claim, but also rejected the argument that the issue was non-justiciable. The problem, for Kennedy, was the inability of litigants or members of the Court to devise a workable standard for determining whether a gerrymander had occurred. (Interestingly, the four Justices who believed the issue to be justiciable proposed three separate standards, none of which has been adopted.)

Even in LULAC, where the highly irregular mid-decade redistricting would seem to be convincing evidence of a partisan motive, Kennedy found legitimate legislative objectives sufficient to uphold the validity of the new districts.

In the wake of LULAC, a number of social scientists and lawyers have tried their hand at devising a standard that the court—and especially Justice Kennedy—will see as workable. Two cases, the Arizona case previously discussed and another from Maryland, may offer the Court opportunities to consider two very promising efforts to fashion such a standard.

In “Partisan Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap,” Stephanopolous and McGee (2014) proposed a standard incorporating the concept of “wasted votes.” As Stephanopolous has described this standard, the efficiency gap is the difference between the parties’ respective wasted votes in an election, divided by the total number of votes cast. “Wasted” votes are ballots that don’t contribute to victory for candidates; they may be lost votes cast for candidates who are defeated, or surplus votes cast for winning candidates in excess of what they needed to win. When a party gerrymanders a state, it tries to maximize the wasted votes for the opposing party while minimizing its own, thus producing what Stephanopolous and McGhee call an efficiency gap. In a state with perfect partisan symmetry and no gerrymandering, both parties would have the same number of wasted votes. As a matter of simple arithmetic, the efficiency gap is equal to a party’s undeserved seat share.

In their paper, Stephanopolous and McGhee go through several calculations based upon recent elections to demonstrate the relative simplicity and reliability of the efficiency gap.

Another proposed standard has been offered by Samuel Wang, in a paper for Princeton’s Program in Law and Public Affairs (2015). Wang observes that identification of partisan asymmetry requires examining all of the districts in a state, and says “this is a job for statistics.” In a New York Times op-ed explaining the approach developed in his paper (2016), Wang writes:

“An easy test is available that directly measures overall bias: the difference between the average and the median. This century-old statistic uses math that is in the Common Core standards for sixth grade. It also won this year’s competition for a gerrymandering standard sponsored by the nonpartisan organization Common Cause.”

The average-median difference is simple enough that a busy judge can calculate it in the margin of a brief. Here’s how it works. First, calculate the targeted party’s median vote share, which is defined as the middle district on a list that is sorted in order of increasing party vote share. If the targeted voters have been packed into a few districts , they are counted in the average but have little effect on the median. Thus, perhaps counter-intuitively, it is possible for more than half the districts to have a below-average number of partisan supporters.

Wang applied his standard to the Arizona district that is at issue in the case pending before the Supreme Court and concluded that the median Democratic vote share was less than the average by 3.3 percentage points, “a direction that slightly benefitted the Republicans….If the Commission was trying to show special favor to Democrats, it did a poor job.” (In that case, Republicans are claiming that one of the districts drawn by Arizona’s nonpartisan commission intentionally and unconstitutionally favored the Democrats. The Commission attributed the population discrepancy to requirements of the Voting Rights Act, and defended its magnitude as falling within allowable bounds, a defense with which Wang agreed.) In Wang’s paper, he supplements this first statistical test with two others, and demonstrates that the tests can be used singly or in tandem, to determine the statistical likelihood of a particular outcome, that is, whether the outcome falls within or outside of what Wang calls “the zone of chance.”

The Arizona challenge is to the state’s use of an independent commission, and is unlikely to involve a direct consideration of potential standards. However, a case working its way to the Court from Maryland may offer an opportunity to directly evaluate the utility of various proposed standards. Shapiro v. McManus challenged Democratic redistricting in that state. The District Court dismissed the challenge as insubstantial without convening a three-judge panel, despite the fact that the rules call for such a panel unless the case is “obviously frivolous.” The Supreme Court reversed, finding that a three-judge panel should have heard the arguments. That ruling was procedural, and did not address the merits, but Court observers are cautiously optimistic about the case’s potential to resolve the standards issue, because rulings by three-judge panels go straight to the Supreme Court, bypassing the usual appeals process. The Maryland case could thus give the Court its first opportunity in nearly a decade to revisit the issue of partisan gerrymandering.

Another case, from Wisconsin, is also in the pipeline, albeit further from Supreme Court consideration; in Whitford v. Nichol, Democrats are challenging a 2012 redistricting plan that they allege is the product of extreme gerrymandering, and they are relying upon the efficiency gap test to demonstrate the accuracy of that allegation. The District Court declined to dismiss the claims, despite noting that plaintiffs will face significant challenges proving their case.


Reforms and Consequences

Over the past several years, a number of organizations and citizen groups have worked toward redistricting reform. In addition to the Brennan Center, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, mentioned earlier, organizations like Fair Vote, End Gerrymandering, Ballotpedia, Redistricting Online, the National Council of State Legislatures, and the Public Mapping Project all maintain active and informative websites devoted to providing information and assistance to grassroots reform efforts.

Complicating these efforts is the fact that state redistricting procedures vary widely. Even the six states with independent commissions have varying membership requirements and procedural rules governing the establishment of boundaries for both state legislative and congressional districts. Although a number of other states have advisory commissions with varying degrees of input in the process, the six states that have thus far committed the redistricting process to independent commissions are Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington.

Despite the continued insistence of many social scientists that gerrymandering is not a significant causal factor in non-competitive districts or political polarization, the early results of redistricting reforms have been salutary. This article has previously cited Oedel, Lynch, Mulholland and Edwards, who were surprised to find that redistricting reform moderated the partisanship of Representatives. Stephanopoulos has found that the use of neutral institutions such as commissions produces fairer and more competitive elections. (DATE) In a 2008 study, Mark Dunkelman calculated that truly competitive House districts could generate up to eleven million additional votes, and that those votes would come disproportionately from states with particularly egregious gerrymandering practices. There is also emerging research supporting the proposition that redistricting reforms reduce the incidence of uncontested elections and increase the likelihood of a quality challenger entering the race (Cottrill 2012). At Lead or Leave, an Indiana Foundation formed to advance redistricting reform, Iowa is held up as a success story; in the wake of its redistricting reforms, elections in that state have more closely reflected the actual partisan preferences of Iowa voters (Zellner and Nierzwicki, 2014).


The scholarship may be contested, but if the numerous citizen organizations, editorials and letters to the editor are to be believed, the public is convinced that partisan redistricting is a major contributor to democratic dysfunction. It is difficult to quantify the extent to which perceptions of gerrymandering contribute to voter cynicism and apathy, but that difficulty does not justify dismissing the importance of those perceptions to political legitimacy.

In a 2012 paper delivered to the Western Political Science Association, James Cottrill made an important and frequently overlooked point: there are consequences of redistricting reforms that scholars have overlooked, because they are difficult or impossible to measure.

“In an era of heightened mistrust of government, there may be intrinsic benefits to redistricting reform that are not directly related to electoral outcomes, such as greater trust in government and increased political participation.”

Marc Hetherinton (1998) has also assessed the importance and role of political trust in the electoral process.

If the Supreme Court accepts one of the proposed standards for evaluating whether a gerrymander has occurred, we may have the opportunity to find out whether those benefits are real, and if so, how extensive they may be. As this is written, pundits are attributing the appeal of extremism and support for “outsider” candidates in the 2016 election cycle to voter anger and frustration. To the extent that gerrymandering contributes to voters’ cynicism, reforms that encourage more competition and less partisanship, while no panacea, couldn’t hurt.


Abramowitz, A., Alexander, B., & Gunning, M. (2006). Incumbency, Redistricting and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections. The Journal of Politics, 68, (1), 75-88.

Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, 576 U.S. ___ (2015)

Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962)

Butera, J. (2015). Partisan Gerrymandering and the Qualifications Clause. Boston University Law Review, 95, 303-334.

Campbell, J. E., & Steve J. J. (2003). The Decline of Competition and Change in Congressional Elections. In Congress Responds to the Twentieth Century. Ahuja and Dewhurst, eds. (pp. 43-72) Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Carson, J.L., Crespin, M., Finocchiaro, C.J., & Rohde, D.W. (2007). Redistricting and Party Polarization in the U.S. House of Representatives. American Politics Research, 35 (6), 878-904.

Cottrill, J. B. (2012, March) Non-Legislative Redistricting and the Public Trust: The Indirect Benefits of Electoral Reform. Paper presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Portland, OR.

Davis v. Bandemer, 478 US 109 (1986)

Draper, R (2012, October). The League of Dangerous Mapmakers. The Atlantic,

Drutman, L. (2016, February 14). The clever strategy that could stop the polarization of American politics. Quartz.

Dunkleman, M. (2008). Gerrymandering the Vote: How a ‘Dirty Dozen’ suppressed as many as 9 million voters. Democratic Leadership Council.

Enten, H. J. (2013) Why ‘gerrymandering’ doesn’t polarize Congress the way we’re told. The Guardian,

Hamilton, L. (2000) Noncompetitive Elections for Congress. The Center on Congress at Indiana University.

Hulse, C. (2016, January 25). Seeking to End Gerrymandering’s Enduring Legacy New York Times, January 25, 2016. Retrieved from

Hetherington, M. J. (1998). The Political Relevance of Political Trust. The American Political Science Review, 92 (4), 791-808.

Hibbing, J.R. & Theiss-Morse, E. (1995) Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes Toward American Political Institutions. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Hursh, S. (2003). The United States House of Unrepresentatives: What Went Wrong in the Latest Round of Redistricting. Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy, 2 (2), 179-216.

Issacharoff, S., & Nagler J. (2007). Protected from Politics: Diminishing Margins of Electoral Competition in U.S. Elections. Ohio State Law Journal. 68, 1121-37.

Kang, M. S.\ (2006). De-Rigging Elections: Direct Democracy and the Future of Redistricting Reform. Washington University Law Review, 84, 667-716.

League of American Citizens v. Perry, 548 US 399 (2006)

Levitt, J. (2011). Weighing the Potential of Citizen Redistricting. Loyola Law Review, 44 (2), 513-544.

Li, M. (2015 July 13). State Gerrymandering Reforms Start to Show Results. Retrieved from

Li, M. (2015 December 11). Could Partisan Gerrymandering Be Headed Back to the Supreme Court? Retrieved from

Mann, T. (2006). Polarizing the house of representatives: how much does gerrymandering matter? In Brady, D. & Nivola, P. Red and blue nation? Characteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics, (Vols. 1 pp. 263-282). Baltimore, M.D.: Brookings Institution Press.

Mann, Thomas and Norman Ornstein. Brief for Amici Curiae in Support of Appellees, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. 2015.

Mann, T. & Ornstein, N. (2012) It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Mann, T. & Ornstein, N. (2008) The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track. New York, NY: Basic Books.

McCarty, N., Poole K.T., & Rosenthal H. (2006). Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization? American Journal of Political Science 53 (3), 666-680.

Oedel, D.G., Lynch, A.K., Mulholland, S.E., & Edwards, N.T. (2009). Does the Introduction of Independent Redistricting Reduce Congressional Partisanship? Villanova Law Review, 54 (1), 57-90.

Opdycke, K., Segura, P. & Vasquez, A.M. (2013). The Effects of Political Cynicism, Political Information Efficacy and Media Consumption on Intended Voter Participation. Colloquy, 9, 75-97.

Shapiro v. McManus, 577 US _ (2015)

Shaw v. Reno, 509 US 630 (1993)

Stephanopolous, N.O. (2013). The Consequences of Consequentialist Criteria. U.C. Irvine Law Review, 3, 669-715.

Stephanopolous, N.O. & McGhee, E.M. (2015). Partisan Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap. University of Chicago Law Review. 82, 831-900.

Vieth v.Jubelirer, 541 US 267 (2004)

Wang, S. (2015, December 05). Let Math Save Our Democracy. New York Times. Retrieved from

Wang, S. (2013, January 02). Gerrymanders, Part 2: How Many Voters Were Disenfranchised? Retrieved from

Wang, S.S.-H., (2015) Three Tests for Practical Evaluation of Partisan Gerrymandering. Program in Law and Public Affairs and Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Princeton University. Advance online publication doi:

Wasserman, D. (2013) Introducing the 2014 Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index. Cook Political Report. Retrieved from

Whitford v. Nichol (W.D. Wisconsin)

Wittman v. Personhuballah

Zellner, S. & Nierzwicki, F. Drawing Lines in the Sand: Redistricting Commissions in the United States. Unpublished manuscript. School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis, Indiana.














Is Low Civic Literacy a Wicked Problem?



In 1973, Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber published an influential article on the nature of social problems. Titled “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” the article focused upon the difficulty of solving what they dubbed “Wicked Problems,” and triggered an ongoing scholarly discussion about the nature of such problems and the differences between efforts to craft social policies addressing them and the “tamer” and more linear approaches appropriate to the solution of scientific problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

As Rittel and Webber (1973) defined them, stubborn (“Wicked”) problems are those implicating value judgments and perceptions of equity. Given the pluralist nature of contemporary democratic societies, those values and perceptions will be heterogeneous, making even agreement on policy goals a contested exercise. Furthermore, wicked problems are by definition systemic, and efforts to address them will have “waves of repercussions that ripple through such systemic networks” (p. 156).

“One of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies). In turn, and equally intractable, is the problem of identifying the actions that might effectively narrow the gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be” (p. 159).

Rittel and Webber (1973) proceeded to identify ten characteristics of wicked problems, and subsequent scholarship has elaborated on them (Richey 2005, 2011; Weber and Khademian 2008; Conklin 2001). Indeed, a robust and widely diverse scholarly literature has developed in which the notion of problem “wickedness” has been applied to everything from ecological challenges and environmental degradation (Brennan 2004; McKinney and Harmon 2004; Frame 2008; Frame and Brown 2008; Rayner 2006), to business and manufacturing (Camillus 2008; Conklin 2005; Powell, Kopet and Smith-Doerr 1996), to democracy, citizenship and politics (Barabas, Jerit, Pollock and Rainey 2014, Mathews 2008; Chrislip and Larson 1994) to public administration and governance (Head and Alford 2013; Feldman and Khademian 2002; Kettl 2003, 2202; Bardach 2001; Evans 2000; Klijn and Koppenjan 2000; Agranoff and McGuire 1998) to general organizational theory (Kedia and Mukherji 1999; Susskind, McKearnan and Thomas-Larmer 1999; Behn 1998), among many others.

A scholarly literature particularly relevant to problem “wickedness” is network theory, which has grown significantly since the introduction of the concept of “wicked problems.” As Weber and Khademian have documented (2008), the study of networks has augmented, and arguably is replacing, prior scholarship focused upon hierarchies and markets. Networks have come to be seen as an effective means of addressing complex problems and achieving collective goals. (Peters 2001 Podolny and Page 1998; Kickert, Klijn and Kippenjan 1997; Powell, Kopet and Smith-Doerr 1996). Weber and Khademian define effectiveness in this context as collaborative capacity, improved policy performance, and accountability, and argue that addressing the special attributes of “wicked problems” requires the sorts of collaboration and knowledge sharing that networks make possible.

While the literature of network theory has seen a copious expansion, scholarship applying the concept of problem wickedness to education, and especially to citizenship education, has remained relatively sparse. Educators and educational philosophers have begun to investigate the intersection of growing complexity and the transmission of civic knowledge (Hipkins 2010; Kress 2008; Gilbert 2005; Boyd, Bolstad, Cameron, Ferral, Hipkins, DcDowall et al 2005; Westheimer and Kahne 2004) but none have as yet applied the lens of “wickedness” to the specific challenges of civic education.

In order to determine whether the transmission of civic knowledge is a wicked problem, and whether the stubbornly low levels of American civic literacy can properly be categorized as “wicked,” it is necessary to determine how many of the problems faced by civic educators match the characteristics of wickedness enumerated by Rittel and Webber.

A caveat is important here: most wicked problems will not exhibit all ten of wickedness’ defining characteristics. Scholars are in agreement, however, that the greater the number of such characteristics, the “wickeder” the problem. The elements of wicked problems, as Rittel and Webber catalogued them, are: no agreed-upon formulation/definition of the problem; no “stopping rule” (solutions can always get better); solutions will not be true or false, but rather good or bad; there is no immediate and no ultimate test of solutions; every solution is a “one-shot” because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error; there is no enumerable or exhaustively describable set of potential solutions; every wicked problem is essentially unique; every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem; discrepancies can be explained in numerous ways; and the planner (or problem solver) has no right to be wrong.

“So what is the problem that the term “wicked problem” addresses? The common sense approach to WPs is fairly straightforward: As stated above, WPs are about people – the most “complex adaptive systems” that we know of. They are subjective problems. Everything that has to do with people and society is ultimately subjective. Above all, WPs are about people as stakeholders: competing and cooperating, vying for position, willing to reflect, and to change their positions on the basis of this self-reflection. This is why such problems do not have stable problem formulations; do not have pre-defined solution concepts; and why their course of development cannot be predicted. This is also why attempting to causally model or simulate the paths of development of such problem complexes is often worse than useless” (Richey 2005).

Weber and Khademian (2008) offered a somewhat abridged description of the elements of wickedness, summarizing the more elaborate ten-characteristic typology offered by Rittel and Webber into three major dimensions: wicked problems are unstructured (their precise causes and effects are difficult to isolate, the problem-solving process is fluid, and there is little or no consensus on problem definition or solutions); they are cross-cutting (having multiple stakeholders with diverse perspectives, requiring trade-offs among competing values); and above all, relentless (there is no finish line).


Civic Literacy and Civic Skills


As used in this analysis, civic literacy refers to knowledge of America’s history, governing philosophy and structures. It is different in kind from the sort of “civic intelligence” addressed by Douglas Schuler and others (Schuler 2014) and indeed, would seem to be far more concrete than the social impairments that work against achievement of such civic intelligence.

At first blush, low civic literacy, defined as widespread ignorance of basic civic knowledge, would not seem to be a wicked problem. If people lack information about their history and government structures, if they lack the tools to understand the roots and/or nature of the issues they face, the solution seems simple enough: they should be educated, and provided with that information and those tools, preferably in school. It is only when we look more closely at the nature of the problem that we begin to understand the multiple ways in which the challenge presented by the deficit of civic knowledge may be wicked. To begin with, the educational process itself has multiple characteristics of wickedness.

For example, it’s often said that the education problem can’t be solved until the poverty problem is addressed. These two problems are intertwined not only with each other, but with many other social issues such as crime, child care, health care, and unemployment. These entangled problems are made even more complex because they are values-laden. It’s impossible for everyone to reach consensus about how they should be addressed. There is no right or wrong answer, and each attempted solution will give rise to other anticipated, unanticipated, and delayed wicked problems. Furthermore, each wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another wicked problem because of their interconnectedness. Wicked problems are never solved once and for all, just re-solved over and over again. Hence, the current state of affairs in education (McMahon, 2011).

When we focus upon education in service of civic participation, we encounter still other aspects of wickedness. Although there is significant debate about causation–about which comes first, lack of knowledge or lack of engagement– there is substantial evidence of the correlation between civic ignorance and civic apathy and disengagement (Delli Caprini, Keeter and Scott 1996; Levine 2011).

There is also ample research confirming the existence of what has been called a “civic deficit” (Delli Caprini, Keeter and Scott 1996; Galston 2001, 2004, 2007; Intercollegiate Studies Institute 2008, 2011; Schudson 2000; Torra & Novarro, 2008; Fleming 2012; Levine 2011). A recent blog post from the Center for Civic Literacy summarizes some of that research:

Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Fifty-eight percent of Americans can’t identify a single department in the United States Cabinet. Only 5% of high school seniors can identify checks on presidential power, only 43% could name the two major political parties, only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term, and only 23% could name the first President of the United States (Kennedy, 2015).


In What Way is Civic Literacy a “Wicked” Problem?


Existing research on civic knowledge confirms that deficits in civic literacy are real, but that research also displays the heterogeneous value commitments identified by Rittel and Webber. There is no agreement, for example, on the definition, causes or consequences of the problem. In some cases, there is disagreement about whether this lack of knowledge should even be considered a problem; a number of people dismiss the importance of content knowledge, asserting that cultural attitudes are more important. Others question whether low levels of political participation are really attributable to civic ignorance, suggesting that apathy and even satisfaction with the status quo are more likely to explain a lack of civic engagement (Dudley & Gitelson, 2002; Galston, 2004).

Among those who believe that lack of basic information is a genuine problem, there is no consensus on the content of the civic information with which a minimally-literate citizen should be familiar. American history? The Constitution? What about basic economic or scientific principles necessary to an understanding of current events (Kennedy, 2013)? And what about those current events? Should a civically-literate American know the names and partisan affiliations of at least high-ranking elected officials? The names and locations of countries with which we are at war? The identities of sitting Supreme Court Justices? Scholars are deeply divided over the value of such knowledge, with some dismissing it as trivia not reflective of or necessary to a genuine understanding of the operation of our democratic system, and others arguing that truly engaged or informed citizens will inevitably acquire such information.

Not only is there substantial disagreement on the nature of the information necessary to informed participation in the democratic process, Americans’ value heterogeneity challenges efforts to reach consensus on the meaning of even that content widely agreed to be an essential element of civic knowledge. This is especially true with respect to our basic legal structure. The Bill of Rights, in particular, is a statement of broad principles, and the proper application of many of those principles to new and emerging “facts on the ground” has historically been contested even by legal scholars. What has been called “constitutional competence” (Rosenbloom, 2000) is further challenged by partisans and outright propagandists who seek to exploit the inherently contestable nature of Constitutional language in order to further ideological or religious agendas. This means that even in areas where there is broad agreement about the sorts of basic civic knowledge citizenship requires, there is considerable dispute over the proper way to understand those principles and the way in which civics should be taught. In Oklahoma last year, for example, lawmakers threatened to defund Advanced Placement American history because they deemed the new curriculum, which emphasized critical thinking, insufficiently “pro American.”

Conservative critics attacked the new course guidelines, and charged that the increased inclusion of negative episodes constituted “rewriting American history” in ways that undercut (their version of) the purpose of teaching that history.

If we are judging civic competence by reference to participation rather than knowledge, what should count as adequate engagement? Voting in a Presidential election, but not a municipal one? Working with one’s neighbors to solve a problem? Attending a public hearing? Donating to or volunteering with a political campaign, or working with a nonprofit organization to solve a civic problem (a metric used in state-level Civic Health surveys)? Furthermore, in each of these cases, how do we assess the adequacy of engagement? Should voting and other political participation “count” more than donating to a cause or doing volunteer work for one’s church? Should the amount of the donation or the duration of the volunteer effort factor into the evaluation? What “grade” is to be deemed sufficient? What about clearly uninformed or destructive participation—say, membership in the Ku Klux Klan or in a “volunteer” militia patrolling the border?

As noted above, research does support the contention that civic knowledge and civic engagement are highly correlated (Delli Caprini et al., 1996; Milner, 2002), but the relative contribution of each is speculative, as is the question of causation. Are more knowledgeable citizens more likely to become civically involved, or does civic involvement lead to a more complete and accurate understanding of the way in which our democracy works (or doesn’t)?

If there is no agreement on the nature and extent of the deficit, there is even less on its causes. Critics of public education accuse schools and teachers of poor performance, of which civics is only a part; defenders point to the current emphasis on STEM subjects, No Child Left Behind, and the increasing conflation of education with job training as major reasons schools have little time for civics. Civics and social studies teachers note that the current emphasis on high-stakes testing inevitably means that teachers and students alike will emphasize those areas of the curriculum that are subject to testing; they point out that civics is rarely one of the areas tested. Sociologists and political scientists point to socio-economic factors, and note that the gaps in civic knowledge between poor children and those from more affluent families are similar to the gaps that characterize disparate performance levels in other subjects (Diemer, 2012).

Still other observers focus on the fragmentation of contemporary media, and its tendency to feed a popular culture that emphasizes celebrities and sports figures, rewards sensationalism, and increasingly lacks the resources to provide serious investigative reporting on matters of public concern. Recent research by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service (home to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a pre-eminent resource for research on civic learning) has focused on the question whether and how the news media might impact broad democratic practices. Other explanations for low civic engagement include economic factors; observers note that low-income Americans are working increasing hours just to put food on their tables, and lack the time to participate in civic and political matters. Although such time constraints are undeniably real, however, it remains true that few of those Americans are motivated to devote what leisure time they do have to civic enterprises.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that all of these explanations, and many others that have been proposed, are interrelated. Economic inequality sends children to schools of very uneven quality. Our inability to agree on the content or methodology or institutional arrangements leading to effective public education produces very different results even in schools serving so-called “privileged” communities. The lack of a sound educational grounding drives media choices, and media outlets competing for “eyeballs” offer entertainment and (often) propaganda intended to appeal to increasingly segmented audiences—a problem exacerbated by the increasing use of sophisticated algorithms to deliver “relevant” information over the Internet (Pariser, 2011) and by America’s persistent thread of anti-intellectualism.

Wicked problems have multiple stakeholders representing multiple and frequently inconsistent values. This is certainly the case with civic literacy; stakeholders include the aforementioned public school teachers and administrators, education reform activists, lawyers, political pundits, elected officials and public managers at various governmental levels, journalists, and citizens working for particular policy outcomes or for redress of perceived grievances. Many of these stakeholders represent disciplines having specialized languages and professional terminologies, complicating communication. Further, value diversity means that solutions—or at least improvements—acceptable to some stakeholders will be unacceptable to others. In the Oklahoma example cited previously, stakeholders presumably agreed that “American Exceptionalism” should be taught, but they disagreed profoundly on its definition and importance.

Furthermore, as Rittel and Webber (1973) noted, professionals of various fields laying claim to superior knowledge or expertise can expect considerable resistance from members of the general public, or laity, who tend to be resentful of such claims and suspicious of “elites,” especially academic ones. This heterogeneity of stakeholders is further complicated by the structural relationships among them.

Civic literacy deficits exhibit three other elements of “wickedness”: there are no “stopping rules,” because the problem of a civically illiterate population cannot be definitively solved; solutions are unlikely to be true or false, only better or worse; and there is no immediate or ultimate test of a solution.


What to do

With “tame” problems, linear processes leading to recognizable solutions can be employed: one defines the problem, identifies potential solutions together with their strengths and weaknesses, and chooses the remedy that seems best. With efforts to improve civic literacy, however, proceeding in that fashion leads to what has been called “analysis paralysis,” repeated studies that simply confirm the widespread lack of civic knowledge. Stakeholders can’t act to address the problem until there is more information, but that information isn’t available until someone acts. In the case of civic literacy, analysis paralysis has resulted in a copious literature confirming the existence of a deficit and a less robust literature offering theoretical approaches to remedying that deficit, but considerably less research on actual programmatic efforts.

If civic literacy is a wicked problem, we have no choice but to act, to try different solutions that will help us to better understand the nature of the problem and evaluate the results of efforts to address it. This is not a risk-free strategy; as Ritchey (2005) has written, “every implemented solution is consequential. It leaves “traces” that cannot be undone…And every attempt to reverse a decision or correct for undesired consequences poses yet another set of wicked problems.” This is self-evidently true of any individual program or attempted intervention. However, a new approach to content delivery in a classroom, a new state standard for civics instruction, an effort to improve public understanding of local government or similar efforts can be immensely instructive—whether it succeeds or fails. It is here, I argue, that civic literacy differs from many other wicked problems and (arguably) becomes less wicked. Rittel (1973) notes that “One cannot build a freeway to see if it works.” But civic education is not a freeway; nor is it the design of a new car (an example used by Conklin). Proposed solutions need not exclude other potential solutions, need not require the expenditure of massive amounts of money. Pilot programs can be conceived and their results evaluated; those with promise can be adapted or replicated.

A central insight of Rittel and Webber (1973) was that substantially wicked problems can only be approached through an iterative process that sheds needed light on the nature of the problem at the same time as it is trying to improve the situation. The nature of the civic deficit allows for the use of a wide variety of approaches employing such a process.

In order to engage in this trial and error methodology, however, we must address the elements of wickedness that have led to the current analysis paralysis. At a minimum, stakeholders must work together to create, first, a shared and much more widespread and public understanding of the problem and its consequences; and second, a shared commitment to the broad goal of improving civic knowledge, all while recognizing the partial and tentative nature of that understanding and the high probability that the goalposts will move more than once.

Rittel and Webber’s (1973) original identification of wicked problems, and their enumeration of the thorny challenges such problems represent, was not intended to dissuade us from trying to solve social problems. It was not a counsel of surrender. It was an analytic tool that distinguished between different kinds of challenges, confirmed the contours and difficulties of certain of those challenges, and warned us away from obvious pitfalls.

If the literature on wicked problems confirms anything, it is that most social problems are wicked to a greater or lesser extent. Recognizing that fact does nor relieve us of the obligation to work for their (more-or-less) satisfactory resolution.


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Does Ignorance Matter?

Does Ignorance Matter? The Relative Importance of Civic Knowledge and                            the Human Tendency to Engage in Motivated Reasoning

Aaron Dusso, Assistant Professor Political Science, IUPUI

Sheila Suess Kennedy, Professor, Law and Public Policy, IUPUI



The importance of civic literacy is, and has long been, an axiom of democratic theory; a “generally-accepted belief that civic knowledge is an important foundation of democratic self-government” (McCabe and Kennedy 2014). Americans generally agree that a basic understanding of the structure and philosophy of government is a necessary precondition to productive political engagement or policy debate; a mutual understanding of the constitutional framework; agreement on the meaning of basic legal, economic and scientific terminology is necessary if there is to be common ground for discussion.

Former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton summarized this consensus, writing in 2003

The truth is, for our democracy to work, it needs not just an engaged citizenry, but an informed one. We’ve known this since the nation’s earliest days. The creators of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 thought the notion important enough to enshrine it in the state’s founding document: “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people,” they wrote, are “necessary for the preservation of rights and liberties.”

It is this broad agreement on the importance of accurate, basic civic information that raises widespread concern about current, dangerously low levels of civic knowledge. A copious literature confirms the existence of a civic deficit: Only 36% of American citizens can correctly name the three branches of government (Annenberg Public Policy Center Judicial Survey 2007); Thirty-six percent of twelfth-grade students fail to achieve a basic level of civic knowledge (National Center for Education Statistics 2011); only 35.5% of American teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the U.S. Constitution (National Constitution Center Survey 1998). The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2010 report on civic competencies found that barely a quarter of the country’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders could be considered proficient in civics. (National Center for Education Statistics 2011). Numerous other studies confirm the extent of our civic deficit (Bennett 1995; Caplan 2008; Converse 2000; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1991, 1996; Shaker 2012).

Given the depth of the empirical literature demonstrating a broad public deficit of accurate civic information, a growing number of researchers and educators are working to identify best practices and to improve civics education in the schools. Peter Levine at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Civic Engagement (CIRCLE), Ted McConnell, Director of the National Council for the Social Studies Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools, Shawn Healy, Chair of Illinois’ Civic Mission Coalition , Joseph Kahne, Director of Civic Engagement Research, Diana Hess of the Spencer Foundation, and the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI are just a few of the scholarly efforts currently underway. They are joined by programmatic endeavors: former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s ICivics, the Bar Foundation’s sponsorship of the Center for Civic Education’s “We the People” curriculum and competition and several others.

These efforts to raise awareness of the issue and to identify measures that may ameliorate it are important. At the very least, a shared understanding of basic social and political institutions is necessary for communication to occur— a common reality, after all, is much like a common language. If we are looking to improvements in civic knowledge to reverse the political polarization that has paralyzed so much of our political system, however, the emergence of new lines of research in political psychology suggests we may well be disappointed.

Political Polarization

Theoretically, in order to have a productive argument, the participants need to have at least a basic agreement on the definitions of the terms being employed and the facts involved. The recent debates about the Affordable Care Act—aka “Obamacare”—are a case in point. Citizens debating that legislation may have very different opinions about the wisdom of the policy choices involved, but decisions to repeal, implement or amend the Act should be based upon agreement about what it actually says and does. If opposition to the policy is based upon “death panels” that don’t exist, or its defense is based upon an insistence that the individual mandate isn’t government coercion, the likelihood of reasoned discussion—let alone agreement on policy changes—disappears.

A similar example would be the ongoing battles over religion in the nation’s schools. There are genuine arguments to be made about the proper application of the Establishment Clause in the context of public education. But reasoned disputes require people who recognize that the First Amendment’s religion clauses require government neutrality in matters of religious exercise.

We certainly agree with those who advocate for the importance of a shared vocabulary and a conceptual common ground to facilitate legitimate and productive political debate and discourse. A common civic language—an agreement on the basic nature of our shared political reality—is necessary, but it may not be sufficient. An examination of two robust literatures, political science research on political polarization and partisan sorting, and political psychology research on motivated reasoning strongly suggests that efforts to calm the political waters by supplying accurate information, while necessary, may be inadequate to the task.

A comprehensive review of the literature on political polarization was conducted by Morris P. Fiorina and Samuel J. Abrams in 2008. Fiorina and Abrams surveyed the existing research, testing the “polarization narrative” that began in the early 1990s, when Pat Buchanan famously “declared a culture war for the soul of America in his speech at the 1992 Republican convention” (Fiorina and Abrams 2008). They noted the emergence of the “notorious red-blue map” after the 2000 election, and the acceptance of the polarization narrative by commentators and pundits (one of whom went so far as to compare Republicans and Democrats to Sunnis and Shias). Although the authors noted their agreement with the scholarly consensus that elites and Congress had, indeed, polarized, their review of the then available research convinced them that the situation for the public at large reflected partisan sorting, rather than polarization.

“The political positions of Americans had not become more polarized between the early 1970s and the early 2000s. Importantly, however, within the larger population the parties in the electorate had become more distinct. This change was a product of two other senses of polarization that the DiMaggio group identified: constraint (“the more closely associated different social attitudes become..”) and consolidation (“…the greater the extent to which social attitudes become correlated with salient individual characteristics or identities.”) (DiMaggio et al. 1996, p.693) In the last few decades of the twentieth century, inter-issue correlations were increasing, and partisans were becoming more closely associated with one or the other of the increasingly interconnected clusters” (Fiorina and Abrams 2008).

Whether this differentiation is called sorting or polarization, the authors agreed with other observers that it had occurred and appeared to be continuing. And they conceded that other scholars, notably Abramowitz and Saunders (2008) “believe that the process of partisan sorting has proceeded so far that it is accurate to speak of a polarized America.”

In the wake of Fiorina and Abrams’ influential and much-cited review, a number of other researchers have studied the phenomenon, with most agreeing that the partisan divide is increasing, especially among elites and in Congress (see, for example, Krasa and Polborn 2012).

To further complicate the search for common ground and collaborative policymaking, several political psychologists have found that partisans who are often quite well informed will reject “negatively valenced” information if that information is in conflict with their preferred worldview (Redlawsk, Civettini and Emmerson 2010), and still others have concluded that personality traits can predict a “considerable array of human behavioral patterns” (Ha, Kim and Jo 2013), including political preferences and behaviors. Indeed, Alford, Funk and Hibbing (2005) and Fowler, Baker and Dawes (2008), among others, have concluded that certain political behaviors and attitudes are genetically influenced and/or heritable. Personality traits—extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience, sometimes referred to as the “Big Five,” have demonstrable effects upon political behavior. (Ha, Kim and Jo 2013).

Polarization, Political Sophistication and Motivated Reasoning

Motivated reasoning research poses challenges to widely-held beliefs about the way in which individuals search for information. Theoretically, when people are engaged in learning about the world around them, the primary goal is accuracy. The good citizen watches the news, reads newspapers or blogs as part of an effort to gain an accurate understanding of the particular topic under investigation. Unfortunately, as emerging research underscores, this is not how people actually go about gathering information, if they choose to gather it at all. The reality is that people are motivated reasoners (Kunda 1987, 1990).

The concept of motivated reasoning is built on decades of research documenting the biased cognitive processes by which individuals gather and understand new information. It is an unconscious process that occurs through selective perception of reality. Once people have developed a worldview–an idea about how something works, or what they like and do not like– they are extremely resistant to information that would require them to change that worldview.

Research confirms that most people do not engage in a wide search for information in order to understand a subject from various perspectives. Instead, they engage in selective exposure (Lodge, Taber, and Galonsky 1999; Mutz and Martin 2001; Sweeney and Gruber 1984), which means that they seek out information that will confirm what they already know (or think they know) and avoid information sources that might challenge their beliefs. While it may be difficult to avoid all contrary information, encountering contradictory facts will not usually require the individual to change or adapt a preexisting framework; when people are faced with a variety of information, some that is confirmatory and some not, they simply ignore or actively argue against the evidence they don’t like, while uncritically accepting the data seen as confirmatory (Ditto and Lopez 1992; Lavine, Borgida, and Sullivan 2000; Taber and Lodge 2006). Furthermore, when faced with ambiguous information, people do not spend time learning more about the topic; instead, they interpret the ambiguous information so that it is consistent with their current beliefs (Fazio and Williams 1986; Lord, Ross and Lepper 1979; Vidmar and Rokeach 1974).

The consequences of motivated reasoning for politics can be quite troubling. This is especially the case when we consider its effects on a political system in which political polarization is increasing both within elites and the general public (Abramowitz 2010; Bishop 2008; Theriault 2008). As we have seen, the combination of motivated reasoning and increased partisanship leads to more deeply entrenched beliefs and a corresponding increase in unwillingness to compromise as partisans build self-serving, motivated realities. Barker and Carman’s (2012) recent work documents how different the realities are for citizens in Red versus Blue states, and Levendusky (2009) demonstrates how the increased sorting of average citizens into partisan camps has produced more polarized emotional responses to the parties. Politics thus becomes an “us versus them” competition. Taber, Cann, and Kucsova (2009) also find strong support for the polarizing effect of biased information processing (see also Slothuus and de Vreese 2010).

Indeed, the simple act of counting ballots can be affected by motived reasoning when the counting instructions are vague or ambiguous. In such situations, individuals fill in the gaps in a self-serving, highly partisan way (Kopko et al. 2011). Finally, Cohen (2003) shows through a serious of experiments that “even under conditions of effortful processing, attitudes toward a social policy depended almost exclusively upon the stated positons of one’s party.” And to top it off, “…participants denied having been influenced by their political group, although they believed that other individuals, especially their ideological adversaries, would be so influenced” (p. 808). Arguably, this kind of myopic adoption of the positions of one’s party is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Education is often proposed as the solution to the problem of political ignorance (Putnam 2000); it is thus reasonable to consider whether it can also solve the problem of motivated reasoning. Unfortunately, rather than moderating partisanship, political knowledge is often connected to an increase in polarization. Education has certainly been shown to be a good predictor of political knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Price and Zaller 1993), and it is equally demonstrable that politically knowledgeable citizens are those most likely to acquire political information and most able to incorporate it into their existing knowledge framework (Zaller 1992). A recent study by Gillion, Ladd, and Meredith (2013) showed that the gender gap in voting occurred first among the highly educated because they were the first to be aware of elite polarization. Claassen and Highton (2009) find the same dynamic. Polarization among party elites leads those individuals who are the most politically aware to follow suit. In a similar vein, Federico and Hunt (2013) show that individuals who are highly knowledgeable and heavily invested in politics are more likely to approach politics in an ideological fashion, and more likely to exhibit a polarized response to politics (see also Abramowitz 2010; Federico 2007; Judd and Krosnick 1989; Sidanius and Lau 1989; Zaller 2004).

The dilemma posed by what we now know about motivated reasoning is that it occurs no matter how educated or sophisticated the individual. In his examination of partisan sorting, Levendusky (2009) shows that the highly knowledgeable are just as likely to change their ideology to match their partisanship as the politically unsophisticated. Political theorists might hope that the politically sophisticated would privilege policy positions over their devotion to the correct “team,” but this is apparently not the case. In other somewhat disheartening research, Hartman and Newmark (2012) examined the motivated reasoning behind the belief that President Obama is a Muslim. It is not a shock to learn that this belief is stronger among Republicans than Democrats, but the fact that political sophistication does not appear to attenuate it is distressing.

To summarize, there is strong evidence indicating that political sophistication—rather than moderating ideological commitments—actually contributes to partisan polarization. We argue that this strengthening of the connection of the most highly engaged to a particular party is then reinforced through selective perception. This leaves the politically sophisticated open to significant ideological inconsistency. Ever since the early works of Converse (1964, 2000), it has been understood that the phenomenon of ideological thinking is not occurring in the mass public; it is instead a characteristic of a relatively small percentage of the most politically engaged Americans. But if even those few knowledgeable thinkers are susceptible to motivated blindness, then the prospects for a rational debate are rather dim.

Connecting Political Sophistication to Polarization—Data and Methods

In order to examine the effect of political sophistication and motivated reasoning on polarization, we conducted a national survey measuring partisanship, ideology, and political knowledge, along with specific questions about same-sex marriage. This was an online survey designed and hosted using Qualtrics online survey software. Survey Sampling International (SSI) was then contracted to provide over 2300 respondents. SSI maintains national online panels of respondents; it recruits participants from across the web using numerous methods, which gives them the ability to reach nearly anyone who uses the Internet.

For our survey, a quota method was used in order to match the survey’s demographic and gender distribution to that of the overall United States. Thus, this is not a representative sample of the U.S. population. However, since we were not attempting to estimate some characteristic of the U.S. population (for example, the percentage of the population who voted in the 2012 presidential election) that does not affect our results. We are interested in understanding the connection between cognitive processes and political beliefs. We are unaware of any variable that is correlated with participation in one of SSI’s panels and these cognitive processes that, if present, could bias these results. Furthermore, we control for numerous demographic and political variables, which further alleviates any concern about bias in the sample.

We produce two models. The first is designed to explain the source of the strength of respondents’ party identification. The survey contained standard questions designed to identify respondents’ partisanship following the method used in each American National Election Studies (ANES) survey.[1] This produces a seven-point scale ranging from strong Democrats on the left to strong Republicans on the right. Since we are interested in understanding the causes of polarization, we are more concerned with what drives individuals to the poles of these scales than what causes them choose one side or the other. Therefore, we fold this scale so that it ranges from independent (coded 0), leaning/weak partisan (coded 1), partisan (coded 2), and strong partisan (coded 3), resulting in a scale measuring respondents’ strength of partisan attachment (e.g., Dolan and Holbrook 2001).

We then include measures of political knowledge, education, and their interaction as key predictors of partisan strength. Political knowledge is measured on a nine-point scale and based on respondents’ ability to answer eight factual questions (Zaller 1992). These questions are copied directly from ANES and ask respondents to identify (1) Joe Biden, (2) John Boehner, (3) John Roberts, and (4) David Cameron; and whether they know which party controls the (5) House and the (6) Senate, (7) which party is more conservative, and (8) what the current unemployment rate is. Education is measured on a seven-point scale that indicates the highest level of educational attainment by the respondent.

Finally, the model also includes several standard control variables: Gender (coded 1 if male, 0 if female), race/ethnicity (1 if white, 0 otherwise), age (coded in years), household income (coded on a 10 point scale), and religious fundamentalism. This last variable is based on a General Social Survey question tapping respondents’ beliefs about the Bible as follows:

Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?

  • The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.
  • The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.
  • The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.

This produces a three-point scale ranging from most (coded 0) to least (coded 2) religious fundamentalist.

The second model predicts a contradiction in the policy beliefs among respondents. There is ample scholarship suggesting that policy positions are the product of a process of motivated reasoning. Our survey asks two questions about religious freedom and same-sex marriage: 1) should same-sex couples be allowed to marry, or do you think they should not be allowed to marry? And 2) Do you think the federal or state governments should make laws regarding who religious organizations can and cannot marry? If one answers “no” to the second question, one should then not answer that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry because that would be making a law restricting a religious organization’s marriage policies. This is an instance of individuals contradicting themselves on policy grounds. However, it may not necessarily be a contradiction for conservative Republicans who hold strong beliefs about smaller government and the legality of same-sex marriage. An individual engaged in motivated reasoning should be expected to make such a contradiction, with the strongest partisans and ideologues being the most susceptible. Thus, the comparison of respondents’ answers to these two questions produces our measure of policy contradiction.

The key independent variables in this case are partisanship and ideology. The more conservative and the more Republican one is, the more likely s/he is to answer these questions in a manner consistent with being a conservative Republican rather than in an ideologically consistent manner. The key to motivated reasoning is that partisanship and ideology interact to produce an effect that moves people away from a purely rational thought process by which one either does not accept government intervention in religious choices and thus accepts religious organizations decision to marry same-sex couples, or one is happy with government intervention in religious choices and thus okay with banning same-sex marriage. Simultaneously, disliking government restrictions on religion and liking government banning of same-sex marriage is the product of current partisan and ideological thinking. Those who engage in it are motivated to do so in order to protect their preferred set of beliefs through a form of self-affirmation (Steele 1988). Kahan (2013) finds strong evidence for this. His research shows that individuals are motivated to engage in information processing that reinforces their connection to important ideological groups. In this case a conservative self-identity. Following this line of reasoning, our supposition is that this effect should be most pronounced among the most extreme partisans and ideologues.

We measure partisanship as a set of dummy variables. (1) Republican, coded 1 if one identifies as Republican and 0 otherwise. (2) Democrat, coded 1 if one identifies as Democrat and 0 otherwise; and (3) Independent, coded 2 if one is independent and 0 otherwise. The Democrat variable is then dropped and becomes the comparison group for Republican and Independent when interpreting the results.[2] Ideology is measured on a 7 point scale ranging from 0 (strong liberal) to 6 (strong conservative), with a score of 3 indicating independent or none ideological. We then interact ideology with the Republican dummy variable in order to test for the conditional effect of each on the dependent variable. Finally, the model also includes the same control variables as the model predicting partisan strength above.

****Table 1 about here****

Table 1 presents results after estimation of the two models. The results of an Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression model predicting strength of party identification are presented in the first column, while the results of a logit model predicting the likelihood of holding contradictory beliefs about religious freedom and same-sex marriage are presented in column two. Focusing first on the model predicting partisan strength, one can see that political knowledge, education, and their interaction are all highly statistically significant. This means that the effect of political knowledge on strength of partisanship is conditional on the value of education and vice versa. The negative sign indicates that the effect of one variable diminishes as the value of the other goes up.

****Figure 1 about here****

Interaction effects are notoriously difficult to substantively interpret from an output table, thus Figure 1 presents a graphical look at how the effect of political knowledge changes as the highest level of educational attainment moves from having a high school diploma, to a college degree, to a graduate degree. Figure 1 makes clear that the effect of increasing political knowledge is strongest for those having only finished high school. Moving from a political knowledge score of 2 to a score of 7 is associated with an increase in partisan strength of about 3/4ths of a point. That is an 18 percent jump in one’s partisan leanings. The same type of gain in political knowledge for someone with a graduate degree shows virtually no movement in the strength of their partisanship. Interestingly, at low levels of political knowledge people with a high school diploma are the least partisan, while at the highest levels of political knowledge they are the most partisan. Therefore, it would seem that gaining political knowledge without education has a polarizing effect on people. This is a disturbing result for those advocating for civic learning outside of formal education. It would appear that this may simply exacerbate polarization.

Returning to Table 1, the logit model estimating policy preference contradiction includes an interaction between ideology and Republican identification. The interaction and ideology variables reach significance, but the Republican variable does not. This is not particularly surprising since the substantive meaning of that variable is the effect of being a Republican when compared to a Democrat when ideology equals zero, which represents strong liberalism. There are likely very few strongly liberal Republicans and the data cannot tell the difference between them and Democrats. The significant interaction indicates, once again, that the effect of partisanship is dependent on ideology and vice versa. Before looking at Figure 2, which helps clarify the interactive effect of ideology and partisanship, it should be noted that political knowledge and education fail to reach significance. Thus, there is no evidence in this data that political sophistication, as measured by either education or political knowledge, helps individuals avoid contradicting themselves. This is what one would expect when the driving force behind policy preferences is not rational calculation, but motivated reasoning to answer questions in a way that is consistent with one’s partisan and ideological positions.

****Figure 2 about here****

Figure 2 presents the predictive margins of the conditional effect of partisanship and ideology on the probability of contradicting oneself. As can be seen, on the left-hand side of the scale (scores 0-2), which correspond to liberal ideological leanings, there appears to be no discernable difference between Republicans and Democrats. But when one moves to the right-hand side (scores 4-6), which corresponds to increasingly conservative leanings, Republicans and Democrats respond much differently. To be sure, both see an increase in the probability of contradicting themselves, but the slope for Republicans is much steeper. For a strong conservative (score of 6), the probability of contradiction is about 23 percent greater if one is a Republican than a Democrat. Indeed, simply moving from a strong liberal to a strong conservative increases the probability of contradiction for Republicans by nearly 60 percent and about 35 percent for Democrats. This is the effect of motivated reasoning.

Is Civic Literacy Irrelevant?

If motivated reasoning “trumps” accurate information, will our politics inevitably be ideological and polarized? Is the effort to provide credible, evidence-based information a fools’ errand? Not necessarily. Redlawsk, Civettini and Emmerson (2010) explored just this question. The authors did not challenge the research on motivated reasoning, but they did test the thesis that a “tipping point” would be reached—that despite the tendency of motivated reasoners to ignore evidence inconsistent with their preferred beliefs (here, a candidate they viewed positively)—given enough negative information, attitude change would occur.

“The question here is whether there is a point at which the positive affect motivated reasoners try to maintain is overwhelmed by a growing threat to the existing evaluation as more incongruent information is encountered, and thus leading to more accurate updating” (Redlawsk, et al. 2010).

The authors noted that a small amount of evidence contradicting the motivated reasoner’s initial positive impression of a candidate had the effect of confirming that impression; that is, a moderate amount of incongruent information simply resulted in the individual clinging more stubbornly to his or her original beliefs. But at some point, mounting evidence inconsistent with those beliefs did, in fact, generate a change of opinion.

There is also hope of change if individuals are forced to pay attention to new information. Boudreau and MacKenzie (2013) looked at the effect of party cues and policy information in the context of support for ballot initiatives. They find that citizens do indeed privilege policy information over party cues when the policy information gives them a compelling reason to do so. Bullock (2011) found similar results. He concludes, “These results warrant a measure of optimism about partisans’ ability to hold meaningful policy views. To be sure, partisans are rarely exposed to more than meager descriptions of policy. But when they are, the results suggest that they can arrive at policy views that are independent of and even contrary to the views of their party leaders” (p. 512). Of course, these conclusions were the result of controlled experiments in which the audience was captive. The observed effect requires that citizens both receive the compelling information and take the time to understand it.

In another line of research, Binning et al. (2010) documented some success in reducing partisanship by having individuals affirm their self-integrity prior to watching the 2008 presidential debates. They gave randomly selected participants an opportunity to identify values important to them and asking them to write about a time when an important value affected them. The premise of self-affirmation theory is that people want to see themselves as good, moral and efficacious (Steele 1998; Sherman and Cohen 2006). These feelings often get intertwined with group identity. In politics, group identity means partisanship. When individuals reaffirmed their integrity, it lessened the connection to party identification and thus freed them to be more judicious when evaluating the presidential candidates.

Although this research is encouraging, it remains to be seen whether a tipping point exists at which ideology concedes to evidence. Learning that a favored candidate is not as admirable as once thought is one thing; accepting evolution or climate change and adjusting one’s literalist approach to religion accordingly is quite another. If the research tells us anything, it is that good information and civic literacy are necessary, but insufficient to rid us of polarization and a highly selective approach to evidence. It would seem that ignorance isn’t the only enemy of reason and political compromise.


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Table 1

Predicting Strength of Party Identification and Policy Preference Contradiction

Dependent Variable

Strength of                              Preference

Variable                                               Party ID                                  Contradiction


Political Knowledge                            0.232***                                 0.050

(0.026)                                                (0.031)

Education                                            0.207***                                 -0.011

(0.035)                                                (0.046)

Pol. Know. x Education                      -0.037***


Ideology                                              -0.064***                                0.420***

(0.014)                                                (0.065)

Republican                                                                                          -0.564


Ideology x Republican                                                                        0.284**


Independent                                                                                        0.486*



Control Variables

Male                                                    -0.150***                                0.200

(0.043)                                                (0.126)

White                                                  -0.076                                      -0.121

(0.045)                                                (0.137)

Age                                                      0.005***                                 0.018***

(0.001)                                                (0.004)

Household Income                              0.002                                       -0.043

(0.008)                                                (0.022)

Religious Fundamentalism                  -0.220***                                -0.800***

(0.030)                                                (0.092)

Constant                                             1.255***                                 -2.433***

(0.145)                                                (0.350)

N                                                         2237                                        2244

R2                                                        0.10

Log pseudolikelihood                                                                          -912.18

Notes: Strength of Party ID estimated using OLS. (Since this is a short scale running form 0-3, an ordered logit model was also estimated. The substantive results were identical and therefore the OLS results are presented here for easy of interpretation.) The Preference Contradiction model is estimated using logit.

*= p < .05, ** = p < .01, *** = p < .001, two-tailed.





Figure 1


Marginal Effect of Political Knowledge and Education on Strength of Party Identification








Figure 2


Marginal Effect of Ideology and Partisanship on the Probability of Holding Contradictory Policy Preferences







[1] Whenever possible, we simply copied the long established question wording used by either the American National Election Studies or General Social Survey. This provides for easy comparability and avoids the need to reestablish the credibility of survey question wording, since these are well established and understood survey instruments.

[2] See Wooldridge (2012) for an explanation as to why one of these variables needs to be dropped.

Presentation to the Center for Civic Literacy

The 2d annual conference of the Center for Civic Literacy was held this last weekend, and this is an abbreviated version of my introductory presentation. The sessions were videotaped, and will be posted to the Center’s website….I hope at least some of the readers of this blog will view some or all of them when they become available, because several were very thought-provoking.

This blog will return to its regular curmudgeonly ways tomorrow…


One year ago, we convened the first of what I hope will be many annual meetings of the National Advisory Committee of the Center for Civic Literacy. Those of us who had embarked on this venture were still very wet behind the academic ears, and the advice so generously shared by many of you proved invaluable as we considered the direction of Center research.

Because last year’s conference was the first, attendance was limited to presenters and members of the National Advisory Committee; this year, we have opened attendance to other interested parties—so we are joined for some or all of the sessions by teachers, political figures and others who are concerned with the causes and consequences of what we at CCL have come to call our “civic deficit.” We welcome you all and we want to hear your perspectives.

If you will recall, the theme of last year’s conference was “What We Know, What We Don’t, and Why It Matters: Surveying the Civic Literacy research landscape. (We do tend to have LONG titles…all with what my husband calls the ‘obligatory academic colon’…) Our goal for that first meeting was to establish a research trajectory and develop working partnerships, in order to both avoid duplications of effort and generate synergies among scholars and educators working on various aspects of the “civics deficit.”

After everyone went home last year, we spent a significant amount of time reviewing the conversations in which we’d participated, the notes taken by our graduate students, and the emails and other written suggestions provided by those in attendance. In addition to suggestions for specific research projects, some overarching themes emerged. The various comments, critiques and suggestions actually boiled down to a pretty coherent message—at least, according to our post hoc analysis:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel by continuing to research what Americans do and do not know. We already know that there is a civic deficit; there is ample evidence that confirms the existence of a genuine problem, a worrisome deficit of civic knowledge. There is little to be gained by having yet another set of researchers document the extent to which the sky is falling.
  • Build on your strengths, and one of the Center’s important strengths is the interdisciplinary nature and focus of its faculty. A significant number of comments from last year stressed the value of– and the opportunities inherent in—truly interdisciplinary research. Several of you noted that scholars working on civics tend to come from discrete academic perspectives: educators who focus on curriculum and instructional issues; political scientists who research the political implications of low civic information; scientists and economists worried about public ignorance of basic terminology and principles, and so forth. An interdisciplinary center has an opportunity to “Connect the Dots,” to identify essential knowledge and to demonstrate the effects of the civic deficit across disciplinary boundaries.
  • One reason that there is value in working more broadly across disciplines is that it should allows us to advance another priority identified by last year’s participants: raising the public profile and public understanding of the issue. As several of you pointed out last year, greater public awareness of both the nature and extent of the civic deficit and its consequences is absolutely critical to any effective effort to address the problems that flow from that deficit. Unless policymakers and citizens recognize the importance of civic education in arenas far removed from politics and elections—unless they understand its critical function in providing a common language through which a polity can deliberate—civics will continue to be a neglected stepchild in and out of school.

If I have learned anything in the two years of the Center’s existence, it is that civics is a lot like motherhood and the flag. Everyone gives lip service to its importance, but it isn’t sexy enough to fund. A significant part of that disinclination is a lack of understanding of the function and importance of research—the necessity of sound knowledge upon which to base programs and interventions.

While the philanthropic community is understandably focused on results—on programs that can be evaluated and results that can be quantified—those in this room understand that solutions to any problem require an accurate understanding of the problem to be solved. Diagnosis—as my medical colleagues will attest—must precede treatment.

The mission of the Center for Civic Literacy is to increase public awareness and understanding of the nature and dimensions of our civic deficit and the effect of that deficit upon democratic decision-making. In other words, we want to do careful research that tests the thesis that a deficit of civic knowledge is detrimental not just to political activities in a democratic system, but to the conduct of business enterprises, efforts to improve public policies and the tone and tenor of public discourse, to the ability to distinguish between good science and junk science, and literally hundreds of other aspects of 21st Century American life. If that thesis is correct, it will require other careful research: what is the nature of the information that is essential? Why? Does it vary from domain to domain? Does greater knowledge really enable more constructive civic conversations, or are ideology and motivated reasoning more responsible than ignorance for our current, toxic politics? What are the best practices for raising levels of public knowledge?

If we are going to justify our existence, and the value of our research, we have to start by making a far more visible and compelling case for the importance of civic knowledge. In order to do that, we need to be intellectually honest and methodologically rigorous—we need to truly understand the civic environment in which we find ourselves. We need to ask the right questions, collect credible evidence that will help us answer those questions. We need to connect the dots.

So—what have we been doing this past year to advance that agenda?

Since our last meeting, as most of you know, the Center has published the first issue of the online, peer-reviewed Journal of Civic Literacy, with an introductory essay by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter. (I should note that we are soliciting articles for our next issue, which will come out February 1st, 2015, and we also would love to add reviewers to our editorial board.)

Several of the faculty working with the Center here at IUPUI are pursuing research into questions raised in last year’s meeting and related issues. Center funds are supporting several of those efforts.

  • Robert Helfenbein, Professor of Education, has led a group of doctoral students studying Civic Identity, Public Education and the African-American Community in Indianapolis—a project investigating how members of the local African-American community understand their political environment and form their civic identities. (Rob has left IUPUI for a position as Associate Dean of Education at Loyola University of Maryland, and we wish him well as he moves to a more distant relationship w/CCL)
  • Beth Cate, SPEA Associate Professor of Law and Public Affairs and this Conference’s co-chair, is investigating the Public Use of Government Data to Enhance Civic Participation and ‘Crowdsource’ Problem Solving. I’m particularly intrigued by the part of her research focusing on ways in which things like The National Day of Hacking, the Knight Foundation’s OpenGov Challenge, and the implementation of federal agencies OGI 2.0 initiative are enhancing civic literacy. Or failing to do so.
  • Aaron Dusso, Assistant Professor of Political Science in the School of Liberal Arts has just completed a fascinating survey he employed in gathering information that will inform a book he is writing on Democratic Demands and Citizen Capabilities.
  • Using some of the data from that survey, Aaron and I have just completed an article comparing the relative importance of civic ignorance and motivated reasoning to our polarized political environment.
  • Heather McCabe, Assistant Professor of Social Work, is continuing her collaboration with Social Work Professors at four other urban institutions to determine the degree of civic knowledge of graduate students in social work. Social workers have an ethical obligation to work for policy change benefitting the disadvantaged; the study is intended to ascertain whether those soon-to-be professionals have sufficient civic knowledge and skills to allow them to advance their professional policy goals.
  • CCL is working closely with the Indiana Bar Foundation on both the We the People competition and on this year’s civic health index, about which you will hear more later in the program.
  • Georgetown University Press has now published a slightly expanded version of the monograph we distributed last year, Talking Politics: What you need to know before you open your mouth,” which is our effort to identify what constitutes essential civic knowledge, and Matt Impink and I are currently working on a book that will be jointly produced by CCL and the Bar Foundation, and distributed nationally, with some concrete proposals for raising the relevance and immediacy of civics instruction.
  • The Center is also beginning some very preliminary discussions about potential joint efforts and collaborations with IUPUI’s highly ranked Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture.

This past year we have also produced and expanded the Center’s web page and blog, and thanks to the efforts of graduate students and researchers much, much younger than yours truly, we’ve twittered and Facebooked and—I recently discovered—we even have a YouTube channel.

All of that brings me to a final observation: as thoughtful as our presenters are—and we’re really proud of the line-up we’ve managed to corral!—the value of this annual meeting comes from your responses, your suggestions and cautions, and the interplay and discussion triggered by the various presenters and panelists. We are keenly aware of the gaps in our knowledge, the voids in the existing research—both ours and others—and the danger of just talking amongst ourselves. As fantastic a group as I personally believe we have involved in the Center, there’s nothing as dangerous as working in a bubble. We are counting on each of you to supply the missing information, the pertinent questions, and the needed critiques.

So don’t get too comfortable. You have work to do.

Let me just conclude with an observation. Several years ago, when I was the Director of Indiana’s ACLU, we published a magazine called “Common Ground.” It wasn’t a scholarly journal, but it was several notches up from a newsletter; it was an effort to reach out, to build bridges between our members and thoughtful people who didn’t understand what the organization did or why we did it. We wanted to create a forum that would provide people who didn’t necessarily agree on the issues we cared about with a common language, a common frame of reference (hence the name, Common Ground), within which we could engage in genuine dialogue. I think it is fair to say that the Center for Civic Literacy is engaged in the same effort.

In a diverse country, where people come from very different places, both geographically and ideologically, basic civic knowledge must provide the “common ground” on which we meet. It must equip us with a common language and vocabulary, so that we can talk to each other. We have to figure out why and how we lost that language, identify which of our current problems are a consequence of that loss, and determine what it is we need to do to recover it.

I hope you will evaluate the presentations here today and tomorrow in light of that goal.

Thank you and let’s get started.






The Social Contract and the Social Safety Net

Text of article published in Journal of Civic Literacy.

Is the Social Contract Incompatible with the Social Safety Net? Revisiting a Key Philosophical Tradition

Eric M. Meslin, Indiana University Center for Bioethics, Indianapolis

Aaron Carroll, Indiana University Center for Health Policy and Professionalism, Indianapolis

Peter H. Schwartz, Indiana University Center for Bioethics, Indianapolis

Sheila Kennedy, Center for Civic Literacy, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, IUPUI


As this is being written, two opposing forces are at work: the Obama administration has announced that 7.1 million Americans have signed up for ‘Obamacare’ by the March 31 2014 deadline, meeting expectations that were in doubt only a month earlier; meanwhile, the U.S. Congress (particularly the Republican-led House) remains mired in a dysfunctional relationship with the White House that consistently stymies efforts to reform policies, especially social welfare policies, even when such reforms have widespread public support. Improvements that most knowledgeable observers believe to be necessary seem increasingly beyond political reach. From health care to immigration reform to economic policy, the American political landscape is characterized by ideological posturing and seemingly intractable disagreement. This situation is worrisome for two reasons: first, it is regrettable that programs and policies that would benefit millions are being rejected or curtailed for reasons unconnected to evidence of their value; second, it suggests that civil discourse and civic literacy are themselves under siege.

The question is: why? What aspects of American political culture generate resistance to even modest efforts to mend or extend the social safety net? Why is it that we cannot address the plight of the unemployed and the undocumented, even when it is clearly in the interests of both political parties to do so? Is there an explanation for American legislators’ current unwillingness to moderate their positions even slightly, in order to make at least some progress on the challenges we face? And most importantly, would greater civic literacy—a more informed appreciation of the origins of America’s legal framework and culture by the general public—help ameliorate the current impasse?

We believe the answer to that question lies, at least in part, in what we might call America’s “constitutional culture.” While we certainly recognize—and do not discount—many other factors, especially the influence of a deeply-ingrained if not always visible racism, which continues to distort public debate and derail progress in so many aspects of American life, anthropologists and sociologists have long confirmed the existence of national and regional characteristics, distinctive “folkways” that are an outgrowth of the fundamental assumptions that shape societies. Those folkways are rooted in religious and historical assumptions about the nature of reality and “the way things are.” In the United States, along with a strong and still-potent Puritan influence, the political culture has been shaped largely by the Enlightenment philosophers whose theories about personal autonomy and the proper role of government became an indelible part of its constituent documents and ultimately, the national psyche.

Take the contemporary debate over healthcare reform. This fight cannot be understood without recognizing the continued potency of the country’s foundational assumptions, and especially the continued relevance of social contract theory most directly attributed to John Locke. In this paper, we echo arguments made by historians and legal theorists like Daniel Boorstin and Louis Hartz[1] who noted that Americans who may never have heard of Locke or the Enlightenment, have nevertheless internalized Locke’s philosophy in ways that make social inclusion and extensions of the social safety net particularly difficult. In a very real sense, John Locke doomed more comprehensive healthcare reform, at least in the short term, and made it far more difficult to extend unemployment benefits, increase payments under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or raise the minimum wage. If we are to have any success in changing the long term prospects for these and similar reforms, we will need to go beyond the academic, moral, and fiscal arguments, no matter how persuasive some of us find them, and directly engage the need to update and expand our basic understanding of the social contract.


The Affordable Care Act

Americans have historically been leery of government interventions that might be considered “welfare.” Access to healthcare is a case in point. Rising costs and the plight of the uninsured are not a recent development. Indeed, proposals to provide national health insurance can be traced to Theodore Roosevelt and have included various versions from almost every President since. But with few exceptions (some of which, like Medicare and Medicaid, are significant, and others that were state-wide experiments) the ‘big idea’ of having the federal government ensure universal access to comprehensive health care has been impossible to implement. Equally elusive is an answer to the question why.

In 1993, concerns about the cost of healthcare and the number of uninsured Americans prompted the Clinton administration to propose significant reforms to the U.S. health care system.  The Clinton plan met with great opposition both for the content of its proposals and the process by which it was drafted. After considerable public and political debate, the plan was rejected (Davis, 2001). Subsequently, policymakers limited efforts to reform the health care system to incremental changes such as Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage and expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) (Institute of Medicine, 2003; Berman, 2004; Frakt & Pizer, 2006).

The effectiveness of such incremental reforms, however, was limited. The United States famously spends more on health care per capita than any other country – about 48% higher than the next highest spending country (Sweden), and about 90% higher than countries that might be considered global competitors, such as France, England, Canada, and Japan (The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2007). Health care costs have grown an average of 2.4 percentage points faster than the U.S. gross domestic product since 1970, and in 2010, national health care expenditures in the U.S. totaled $2.6 trillion, a 3.9% increase from 2009 (The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2007). Between 2006 and 2007, premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance rose by 4-5%, outpacing overall inflation and wage gains (The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2013). By 2012, Census data revealed that the number of uninsured Americans had reached 48 million (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor & Smith, 2013). By 2008, there were more uninsured people in the United States than at any time since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor & Smith, 2013). Even more dispiriting, beginning in 1997, though the country saw a steady decline in the percentage of children who were uninsured; 8.9% of children under the age of 18, or 7 million children, were still uninsured in 2012 (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor & Smith, 2013).

As the U.S. approached the 2008 Presidential election, health care reform was again on the minds of most Americans and the candidates. Most observers believed that there was a mandate for sweeping reform, and during President Obama’s first 100 days in office, he and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate approached the issue from that perspective. In the end, the Affordable Care Act instituted far less sweeping changes than many supporters wished and many critics feared. Gone were “Medicare for All” and a public option as part of the exchanges.  Nevertheless, the resulting lawt did include historic changes to American healthcare – including the individual mandate, the expansion of Medicaid, and requirements that private insurers spend a fixed percentage of policy premiums received on medical care rather than overhead – and it aroused historic opposition and rancor. By March 2014, the House of Representatives had held more than fifty votes to repeal the ACA. Even after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the mandate and President Obama won re-election in 2012 on a campaign in which the ACA was a central issue, critics fixed their sights on elections in 2014 and 2016 and issued promises to undo or cripple the law.

Why hasn’t the U.S. been able to achieve real health care reform? What accounts for the resonance of recurring accusations about “death panels” and “socialism”? Most Americans are compassionate people who are uncomfortable with the idea that others go without health care in the richest country on the planet; they would be unlikely to endorse the notion that only people with means should have access to medical care. Yet surprisingly large numbers continue to oppose the ACA and similar governmental interventions.

Social welfare programs are where our culture’s deeply ingrained understanding of the social contract conflicts with our more humanitarian impulses. Americans’ current division over the ACA is yet another iteration of the deeply embedded conflict between the Social Darwinist attitudes exemplified by William Graham Sumner and the Social Gospel most closely identified with Walter Rauschenbusch. No matter how logical or effective, programs requiring extensive government involvement, or that include “mandates” of any sort, trigger an almost visceral reaction in those who tend more to Social Darwinism, a belief that “productive” people’s rights are thereby violated, and that such approaches are contrary to freedom, to “real” Americanism. In other words, at a basic—perhaps unconscious—level, many people believe that government involvement in healthcare, or government intervention via provision of a social safety net, is somehow un-American and therefore must be rejected. It does no good to point out how deeply government is already involved in providing a social safety net through Social Security, or in providing health care in particular (e.g., the Veterans Administration which is the largest integrated health care system in the country serving more than 8.75 million Veterans each year) — the issue is emotional, not factual. The passage of Medicare generated cries of socialism, and the New Deal—even in the midst of the Great Depression—was aggressively opposed. It is the rare social program that hasn’t had to contend with accusations of incipient communism, for reasons the next section helps illustrate.


The Role of Norms and Values in Social Programs

Efforts to achieve significant and sweeping (rather than incremental) social reforms in the U.S. have largely ignored (or avoided) in-depth discussions of fundamental norms, values, and principles; yet it is the compatibility with these normative ideas that provides the foundation for successful reform efforts. The failure to explore such foundational issues leaves proposals open to crippling attacks. Too often, a meritorious proposal is defeated by attacks portraying it as a violation of individual rights or a deviation from the foundational principles of U.S. society. As noted above, critics often attack reforms by labeling them “socialist,” a tactic that is popular because it is designed to cause an instinctive reaction that equates socialism with communism – a tried and true method of garnering support for what many take to be the antithesis of democracy. Using this rhetorical tactic is effective, especially when uttered dismissively as directly contrasting with fundamental principles of American democracy. Claims about universal health care provide a number of other examples of the favored “scare tactics” used to trigger such worries:

  • The state will choose your doctor and your treatment options, not you – a charge that the proposal threatens individual freedom.
  • Scarce resources will be used inefficiently, or spread too thin, and you will be denied care that you need, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps as a result of rationing – a claim that the measure fails to respect the sanctity of life and that persons will be considered expendable if treatment is too expensive. (Hence the “death panel” accusations.)
  • Scarce resources will be re-allocated so that everyone has the same level of (inadequate) healthcare—a claim that those who “merit” healthcare services by reason of greater productivity will somehow be cheated of what they have “earned.”
  • The government will become larger, more overbearing, and more intrusive – a claim that healthcare reform threatens the value of individual liberty.


An especially instructive example of such an argument occurred during the first Clinton administration. In 1992 DHHS Secretary Louis Sullivan described the different approaches to health reform being proposed by incumbent President George H.W. Bush, and candidate Bill Clinton, as follows: The “fundamental difference is philosophical. It is a question of whether we want to remain true to our commitment to choice and the private sector.” The Sullivan statement draws a stark dichotomy between government control of health care and private market control. In a country where belief in the market’s “invisible hand” is quasi-religious, and suspicion of government is endemic—where former President Reagan could count on an appreciative response to his assertion that government “isn’t the solution, it’s the problem”—the prospect of government control of anything triggers deeply-held fears. The fact that this is a false dichotomy (people without health insurance cannot exercise “choice,” and neither can the millions of Americans who get their insurance through their employers) doesn’t detract from its continued political salience.

A more contemporary example comes from those who maintain that policymakers advocating social welfare reforms similar to systems in France, Canada, Germany, Sweden, or New Zealand are advocating “nanny-state” solutions that will inevitably impose stifling governmental bureaucracies on an efficient economic system (Santora, 2007). The term “nanny-state” is both provocative and pejorative, raising the specter of a government that oversteps the bounds envisioned by a libertarian reading of Locke, among others.

The rhetoric used against significant health reform is just the most recent example of themes long used to oppose social welfare measures. The social safety net is repeatedly framed as a threat to life, liberty, and theindividual pursuit of happiness. There is a reason that social welfare proposals have historically faced an uphill climb in the U.S.; not only must such proposals stand on their own merits, by demonstrating their medical or economic feasibility, they must also be defended against claims that they are un-American and contrary to the principles that animated the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, few Americans are sufficiently acquainted with those principles—or those documents—to recognize the speciousness of such claims, and this deficit of civic knowledge is a significant barrier to efforts to revisit social contract theory. For far too many Americans, revisiting social contract theory is impossible, because they have never visited that theory in the first place.

Available data is plentiful and unambiguous, and it demonstrates a troubling and widespread lack of basic civic literacy in the United States. Only 36 percent of Americans can even name the three branches of government (Jamieson, 2007). Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning or operation of federalism. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies found barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders proficient in civics, and only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power.

Democratic self-government requires a civically educated citizenry. When a polity is very diverse, as in the United States, we would argue that it is particularly important that citizens know the history and philosophy of their governing institutions; in the absence of other ties—race, religion, national origin—a common understanding of constitutional principles is critical to both the formation of national identity and the ability of citizens to assess whether policy proposals are congruent with the national legal system and political culture. This civics deficit is one of the reasons the rhetoric of individualism and the social contract has been so potent a weapon against social welfare measures; concepts like personal autonomy, individualism, liberty and the like have taken on cultural meanings for large numbers of Americans that differ from more nuanced interpretations held by citizens who are familiar with the primary sources of those concepts.


Advancing Civil Literacy by Correcting a Key Misunderstanding of the Social Contract


Above and beyond the general lack of civic literacy, these examples demonstrate a key dysfunction in our national conversation: much American thought and dialogue is based on a particular interpretation of social contract theory, a reading of key thinkers such as John Locke that supports the belief that government’s job is to promote individual freedom rather than promote the common good. In its most extreme form, such beliefs are seen as mutually exclusive; that government activity can only support the common good at the expense of individual liberty, or promote individual flourishing at the cost to social well being. If that diagnosis is correct, then the treatment must involve exploring and promoting a more nuanced (and, we would argue, correct) reading of key social contract thinkers.   Once the social contract tradition in political philosophy is correctly understood, social welfare policies can actually be seen to fit quite well within it. In fact, we will argue, failure to provide at least a minimal social safety net—including access to healthcare—is a violation of the principles that grow out of this tradition.

In order to make that argument, we review the contours of the social contract, especially as developed in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Reflecting on these themes does nothing to solve pragmatic policy questions, or to change the political culture that makes passage of such proposals so difficult, but it is a useful starting point. Revisiting the foundations of the social contract may allow us to bring a measure of clarity to some of the confusion and widespread public misconceptions about the roots of America’s governing principles, misconceptions that continue to hobble reforms (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994; Danis, Clancy, & Churchill, 2002). If we are to foster and ground a truly civil dialogue and discourse, we must genuinely understand and engage with the intellectual tradition that gave birth to our country.

In support of this contention, consider the perspective of John Rawls, a philosopher in the social contract tradition, who wrote one of the most important works in political philosophy in the 20th Century (A Theory of Justice, first published in 1971). It is worth noting that even critics of Rawls see this as a central book in recent political philosophy, since it stimulated so many robust and thoughtful arguments and counter-arguments, among them, Robert Nozick’s (1974) arguments for libertarian principles in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and Michael Sandel’s arguments for communitarianism. Rawls sees political philosophy as playing four key roles in understanding society and political culture. (Rawls & Kelly, 2001) First, political philosophy plays a practical role by helping us to look for common philosophical or moral ground. Second, such philosophy also has a role in orientation, by leading to better understanding of how people think about their social institutions, about themselves, and about their own roles and relationship to society. Third, political philosophy can lead to reconciliation, by facilitating an understanding of how institutions arise and the context within which they are rational. Through explanations, rather than justifications, frustrations can be calmed and raw nerves soothed. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, political philosophy can be used to probe the limits of political possibility. Through such work, Rawls argued, we seek to learn what we can realize as a society; we can discover what is possible, and how we can accomplish our aims. (Rawls & Kelly, 2001)

Those aims are inescapably moral, and morality is a social construct. Even countries with very similar antecedents and values will display differences in their approach to social goods. Jecker and Meslin (1994) illustrated this point two decades ago in a paper comparing and contrasting the United States and Canadian approaches to “justice in health care” and suggesting that the U.S. approach to health care policy reflected the prevailing American understanding of John Locke’s social contract theory, in which justice is a voluntary agreement between consenting and otherwise self-interested groups. Canada’s approach was more consistent with the political theory developed by David Hume, for whom an emphasis on concern for others and the needs of the community took precedence over the prerogatives of the individual. (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994) This strategy was used as a heuristic, to show how a set of shared cultural values developed out of those respective philosophical roots, and how those values continue to shape present day discussions. They were not intended as strict benchmarks against which countries could be tested. But seen in this way it requires little imagination to see how a libertarian reading of Locke’s social contract theory would find support from an American point of view.

A much broader understanding of our founding political philosophy will be necessary if we are to overcome existing cultural barriers to enacting sound social policies in the United States. If we are ever going to revisit our own social contract, lawmakers and the general public must be equipped with information and skills that will allow them to counter the (very effective) rhetoric employed by opponents of social welfare programs. As we note below, it is doubtful that a sufficient percentage of the American public currently possesses that information, and that deficit in civic knowledge and skills is a formidable barrier to the sort of renegotiation that is needed.

Any serious exploration of the policy impediments to a more adequate U.S. social safety net must start by confronting the political and philosophical origins of the United States. Over 200 years after the founding documents were drafted, their values have become embedded in our culture and are still expressed through our political dialogue; they remain central to the essential American “message”. Even Americans who know very little about the nation’s history, who have never heard of the Enlightenment, have been acculturated to adopt those values—or at least, a superficial version of them.

Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau Redux

            In his great work, Leviathan, Hobbes argued that that the principal purpose of a social contract is to protect people from the harm that others might do them. The social contract removes man from the state of nature, and a life that Hobbes famously described “solitary poor, nasty, brutish and short,” where people live in a state of mutual distrust and “war of all against all.” (Hobbes & Macpherson, 1985) Because this is the case, social institutions must be established to control human nature and protect us from each other. Social cooperation and mutual reciprocity flow from the recognition that these are rational behaviors that confer substantial advantages to individuals in a society. Nothing in Hobbes’ approach to the social contract suggests any benevolent, other-regarding motivation to establish civil society. Rather, he suggests that people will participate in social institutions if voluntary compliance is an apparent good to them. Political systems and social institutions are valued for the advantages they provide, not for their fundamental fairness.

Like Hobbes, Locke (1955) argues in Of Civil Government that the state of nature is sufficiently dangerous that a social contract is necessary to protect the interests of individuals. In the standard reading, Locke places great emphasis on the importance of property rights and on limiting the power of the state. (Nozick, 1974) Unlike Hobbes, however, Locke’s state of nature is not necessarily a state of war. The basis for society is not simply avoidance of an unpleasant life, but its ability to improve lives that are already minimally acceptable. But there is another reading of Locke.

According to some interpretations, Locke’s version of the social contract offers a mechanism for social improvement. The evidence for this is found in two passages of the Treatise. Locke writes in Chapter 5:

“For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

The usual reading of this passage is that individuals are entitled to 100% of the fruits of their labor. But the phrase “where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others” is intriguing. Who gets to decide what should be done with the “property” left in common for others and how it will be used?  Locke would certainly agree that the government has the right to use this other property/money for protection of property (e.g. national defense and police), but does the government also have a right to use it on behalf of other citizens—i.e., to redistribute it? Locke is mostly silent on this but arguably, a reading of Locke does support the idea that government has the moral authority, even the duty, to redistribute some portion of wealth/property for the good of others.  Indeed, modern social contract theorists (like Rawls) explicitly argue for this interpretation.

The second passage can be found in Chapter 15 of the Second Treatise, where Locke writes about the relationship between parents and children, saying, that a child “having received life and education from his parents, obliges him to respect… and support… both his father and mother.” What Locke is saying is that there is a responsibility, binding on children, to care for their parents (because parents gave them life, liberty, property, etc.). Perhaps the obligation of children to take care of their parents may serve as an analogy, or even a basis, for government’s obligation to look after all the “parents” in society, i.e., those who helped build or sustain it.  The direct relevance today in the U.S. is Medicare, the federal insurance program that guarantees health insurance to people over 65. Indeed, it is ironic that this government program was the source of the rather bizarre exchange that occurred during one of the town hall meetings discussing the ACA, where a senior citizen demanded that his Representative “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” (Rucker, 2009)

It becomes difficult to discuss the role of government, let alone the social contract, when so many people are unaware that programs from which they benefit are, in fact, government programs.

Here, then, is the genesis of the schizophrenic American reaction to social welfare: individuals become horrified by the stories of destitution, or by their own experiences of the system, and demand that something be done. But with concrete proposals for policy change comes warnings that the reforms will undermine individual liberty, both by reducing individual choice and by imposing onerous taxes. This oppositional rhetoric is especially powerful when coupled with the very human tendency to be uneasy when confronted with change of any sort. This superficial—almost visceral—reaction makes it doubly important to make people aware that the social contract is more complex than generally assumed.

Even at his most libertarian, Locke did not suggest that property rights should trump the power of the state to facilitate human flourishing. Indeed, in some readings of Locke, the social contract allows the state to do much more than most libertarians would countenance, including projects that serve the public welfare. (Rawls & Freeman, 2007) Locke’s social contract is a more substantive collaboration than libertarian orthodoxy allows, and appeals to Lockean social contract theory as the source of oppositional rejections of social welfare programs are not cut and dried. That being said. the dominant reading of Locke is still used to characterize social welfare programs as somehow un-American. That traditional reading makes the goal of “providing a minimum standard of living” or “providing healthcare for all” seem inconsistent with both the need to limit the reach of the state and to respect the sanctity of property rights. The more recent readings challenge this; furthermore, other social contract arguments make the case more compelling.

These themes were developed more explicitly in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, in contrast with Hobbes and Locke, claimed that man is naturally good, only acting badly through his social institutions. Rousseau sought to diagnose the evils in society, explain their origins, and determine how they might be eliminated. He warned that inequalities in society can lead to dangerous alienation, and cautioned that the rich and powerful can create schisms in society. Rejecting Hobbes, he also argued that we need to align our institutions with the social contract to secure moral freedom, political and social equality, and independence:

It is therefore one of the most important functions of government to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by securing the citizens from becoming poor… and in short, venality pushed to such an extreme that even public esteem is reckoned at a cash value, and virtue rated at a market price: these are the most obvious causes of opulence and of poverty, of public interest, of mutual hatred among citizens, of indifference to the common cause, of the corruption of the people, and of the weakening of all the springs of government. Such are the evils, which are with difficulty cured when they make themselves felt, but which a wise administration ought to prevent, if it is to maintain, along with good morals, respect for the laws, patriotism, and the influence of the general will.

Although he argued for free will and respect for the rights of the individual, Rousseau also argued for the existence of a “general will”, a set of social bonds that hold individuals together. (Rousseau, Masters and Kelly, 1990) This general will is what remains after removing all private and particular biases. The general will is not utilitarian—it is not the sum of individual desires. Rather, it is the convergence of individual beliefs (not unlike Rawls’ “overlapping consensus”). Rousseau argued that society and its institutions should be used to ameliorate inequality in order to alleviate suffering and avoid letting urgent needs go unfulfilled. Significantly, Rousseau claimed that inequality is not the wrong in itself; rather the wrong is the suffering that inequality causes. Social institutions must act to prevent some parts of society from dominating others, and must prevent people with less money and power from being treated unfairly. Everything may not be equal for everyone, but we should all be equal citizens. In Rousseau’s just society, inequality is not eliminated, but it is moderated in order to preserve personal independence and avoid the arbitrary use of power and human suffering.

One wonders whether, stripped of the names of the authors or the texts they authored, which of the values (Hobbes, Locke – in either interpretation – or Rousseau) the American public would endorse. Unfortunately, our highly politicized civic discourse and our troubling deficit of civic literacy prevent such conversations from occurring.

He Who Frames the Issue Wins the Debate

We have suggested that the language used to support (and reject) social welfare proposals implicates key values important to Americans. Indeed, some reform proposals have been attacked using arguments that rest on an entirely libertarian reading of Locke, ignoring both his more nuanced passages and the communitarian strains of Hume or Rousseau. Clearly, the history of social policy reform efforts in the U.S. cannot be traced in a straight line from the group of white men who met in Philadelphia back to Hobbes, Locke, Hume, or Rousseau. As with all policies, some have been responses to challenges (such as wars, or economic depression); others have been responses to opportunities (such as great discoveries by scientists, technological advances, or new ways of organizing hospitals and research universities). But the most significant challenge that all policy proposals face is the need to align whatever pragmatic concerns they address with the values of the dominant political culture.

We believe it is possible to defend robust proposals for reform and to place these proposals squarely within the social contract tradition—invoking the fundamental values that Americans hold dear. It would be a major political mistake to appeal to a different tradition to justify reform in a country founded squarely on the ideas and values emanating from the social contract tradition, and that is most definitely not what we propose. Rather, we believe the time has come to show the value and relevance of America’s social contract tradition in formulating and defending meaningful social policies; to re-frame the debate, and to propose that the social contract be re-imagined in order to continue serving us in the modern era.

If such a reframing seems impossibly utopian, we would offer an analogy to civil rights and our expanded understanding of what is meant by “equal protection of the laws.” At one point, the belief that African-Americans, women and GLBT citizens could be afforded equal legal rights, let alone that such inclusion would come to be seen as quintessentially American, seemed idealistic and unrealistic. Yet imperfect and halting as that social change has been, as long as it has taken (and will likely take to be fully realized), Americans have reimagined our history and enlarged our understanding of our founding principles.

It is much easier to frighten people into inaction than it is to inspire them to change. In part, that is due to the fact that we conduct our policy debates using language that is likely to stifle momentum and highlight the risks. Some of our failures, however, are due to our inability to adequately explain the ways in which a robust social safety net actually advances the deepest values of Americans, and how a concern for social justice is consistent with the fundamental philosophy of the United States. If reform is to succeed, proponents must argue for it from within the American constitutional and political culture.

This approach is significantly more difficult than it might otherwise be because so few Americans are acquainted with the ideas that emerged from these seminal Enlightenment figures, or with the basic premises of our constitutional system.

We suspect that Americans value individual liberty and personal freedom as much or more than they did over 200 years ago, when the experiment began. The vast majority of our citizens have views that are rooted in the philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, even if they cannot identify any of those thinkers. Indeed, one might suggest that the spectrum found in American political thinking reflects the spectrum found in these thinkers: we can find ardent libertarians who might identify with Hobbes, and equally passionate communitarians who would recognize Rousseau as a soul-mate. It is thus not surprising that any attempt at social policy reform based on a monolithic, narrow view of the social contract is doomed to failure. But this is not to say that policy reform is impossible, especially if respectful efforts are made to accommodate those foundational values. It is not enough to argue that a national healthcare system or a more robust social safety net would achieve better results at significantly reduced expense, or to point to public dissatisfaction with the way things are. Any successful attempt to craft legislation expanding the social safety net must argue from within the terms of the social contract itself.


As in all countries, no single event or person is responsible for the policies and institutions currently in place—and no single person or event will be responsible for their reform. All American policy is the result of many hands, (Starr, 1982) and it will be reformed by many hands. Our current social welfare policies are firmly rooted in America’s highly individualistic political culture. Our citizens remain devoted to an ideology of the minimal state and reliance on the free market, no matter how incongruent that ideology may be with the realities of today’s administrative state. Policy proposals that ignore this deeply-rooted belief in a (bygone) minimal government will inevitably fall victim to assertions that the proposals violate our most fundamental social norms. It is not enough to point out that established safety nets are increasingly insufficient, or even that current policies have reduced the social mobility that has been one of the proudest aspects of our “American exceptionalism.” Within the United States, despite mountains of data showing otherwise, a widespread belief exists that our health care is the best in the world, that anyone willing to work hard can succeed, and that the social safety net is available to those who need it (or at least to the deserving poor). Even when individuals do recognize the deplorable state of many social health metrics, there persists a stubborn, “Lockean” refusal to entertain the idea that more government may be the solution.

If we are ever to achieve reform, it will be through a public conversation that re-examines the social contract and frames reform as an extension of, rather than as a departure from, the basic values that have always grounded our democracy. However, that discussion cannot occur without better civic literacy, defined as more—and more accurate—civic information and citizenship skills.

When more Americans are familiar with the country’s history, founding philosophy and institutions, we can invite John Locke back into the national discourse, not to defend barriers to progress, but to expand upon the elements of a social contract worthy of a great country.



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The authors wish to thank several people for comments on earlier versions of this paper including Eric Wright, Heather McCabe, Halley Rose Meslin, Kimberly Quaid.



[1] Boorstin and Hartz authored two of the most influential books of the 1950s, explaining—and defending—the notion of American exceptionalism. In The Genius of American Politics, in 1953,Boorstin attributed American “greatness” to a lack of class conflict and an “instinctive conservatism.” In The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), Hartz agreed. Both credited Locke with providing a philosophical base for the new country, obviating the need to create a new and separate tradition; American political philosophy was seen as a “long footnote” to Locke.