New research sheds new light on the age old question of why average Greeks know a lot more about politics than most Americans do. According to research on both sides of the Atlantic, Greeks know more because there is a personal or private interest, whereas most Americans have little or no direct connection with their government.
The Chicago Tribune recently reported that most Americans don't know the three branches of government. They don't even know the name of the person representing them in Congress.
In fact, a third of native-born Americans (an estimated 268 million) couldn’t pass the nation’s citizenship test, according to the findings of a new survey by Xavier University’s Center for the American Dream. Only 6% of those surveyed were able to answer all the questions correctly.
According to Xavier University, native-born US citizens do best with elementary school level questions such as: "What is the name of the President of the United States?", "What is the capital of the United States?", "Where is the Statue of Liberty?", "Who was the first President?", "When do we celebrate Independence Day?", and "What are the two major political parties in the United States?".
But when asked about the government and political leaders, 82% could not name two rights stated in the Declaration of Independence. Only about a third (29%) were able to identify the US Constitution as the “supreme law of the land”, while 63% could only name one of their two senators.
"We certainly don't expect everyone to know all the answers. For example, does it matter if we don't know how many amendments there are? No. But almost 60% don't even know what an amendment is," said Michael Ford, the Center's Founding Director, in a press release.
On the contrary, in Greece, the findings of a nation-wide survey conducted by the Athens-based VPRC polling institute suggest that most Greeks are well-informed about political parties and how the government works.
Three-quarters of respondents answered more than half of the political knowledge questions correctly.
According to Pavlos Vasilopoulos, a graduate student at the University of Athens, the VPRC findings show that contrary to the often observed political ignorance, the Greek public appears to be relatively sophisticated over politics.
He explains why the pattern of minimal knowledge that has been systematically reported in the case of the United States cannot be considered as an inherent or rational consequence of democracy.
“In the case of Greece, where political involvement is associated with a narrower sense of private interest compared to the rest of Western European democracies, the value of political information increases,” Vasilopoulos explains. He blames the country’s macro historical and persistent clientelistic character of the Greek political system.
What this means is that Greeks know politics because they directly benefit from politics. Either they themselves are employed by the state or a family member is, or they generate a personal benefit from the state in one way or another.
“For the Western European or American citizen, choosing among different parties and candidates is ultimately a choice based on group interest,” Vasilopoulos writes in a 23-page paper titled “Political Sophistication in Greece: Explaining the Paradox of a Politically Knowledgeable Electorate”. He presented the paper at the ELECDEM (the Training Network in Electoral Democracy) conference in Florence, Italy on June 30. His paper was partly funded by the European Union.
“The electoral behavior for a significant portion of the population in Greece translates into private interest, with tangible material consequences such as employment,” writes Vasilopoulos.
He quotes the English historian, William Miller, who wrote more than a century ago: “It is impossible to write about Greek life, whether in town or country without saying something on the subject of politics; for they affect every profession, every trade and almost every family to a degree unknown to other lands”.