Citizen Competence in a Democracy

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

Given the limited knowledge about government, which most citizens possess, realizing which issues will matter in any election is problematic. It is not the importance of a policy, or even the extent to which politicians differ on it, that determines when an issue will become relevant to voter decision making. What makes it key will be the availability of information people have about the issue. Mostly, the manner in which their own ideas and beliefs about how the world works to connect an issue to their own life situation and the candidate and party they are voting for. It is important to concentrate on the role that understanding political institutions play when citizens decide whether to vote and evaluate candidates and policies.
The knowledge of the institutions of government is called cognitive engagement. People who do not know about institutions and how they work cannot incorporate these institutions in their thinking about news of the world. However, a focus on political communication reveals how people with different levels of institutional knowledge think about the world. It is important that a citizen will form a solid opinion on an issue of political debate. Cognitive engagement, and knowledge about the basic structure of politics, is directly related to the probability of understanding the politicians’ messages. The less informed people don’t understand the message, uncritically accept it, or relate to the message according to partisan cues. People, who do not know as much about the structure of political institutions, do not think like the more knowledgeable, they are less clear on principles. When people evaluate news and think about politics, their representations of the world are the foundation upon which they build. Their level of cognitive engagement has two clear implications for how they make use of information. First, information affects the cues that will be vital and the kinds of information people will use to evaluate candidates and parties. People who process news with and without institutional familiarity follow stories differently.
Citizens with low levels of institutional information are more likely to use assessments of personal character as means for evaluations of a candidate\'s positions or party affiliation. Candidate-centered politics, and the emphasis on scandal, are both, in part, consequences of low levels of political information in the citizenry. They will also be less able to perceive differences between candidates and parties, non-voting, results from a lack of knowledge about government and the platforms of parties and candidates.
To directly assess the changes in civics knowledge, which we call cognitive engagement, since the 1940s, a national survey has been conducted by two sociologists: Scott Zeeter and Michael Delli Caprini, asking the same basic questions that were asked in the 1940s. They replicated questions testing knowledge of certain basic facts, such as which party now controls the House of Representatives, what the first ten amendments to the Constitution are called, the name of the vice-president, the definition of a presidential veto, and how much of a majority is required for the Senate and House to override a presidential veto. Overall, they found, "the level of public knowledge of some basic facts has remained remarkably stable." That the overall extent of cognitive engagement has remained stable despite increases in