If people beyond North America are puzzled if public-opinion polls in the world’s most powerful country draw blanks from voters when asked about international affairs, two new surveys offer explanations. Schools and the Internet are prime suspects, many voters reveal when they say they don’t know enough to make informed opinions. Such an admission can advantage politicians.
Both surveys, different in scope and focus, discovered that while there was a vague understanding that crises existed out there that concerned Americans, they were often unable to comment knowledgeably on these issues.
The broader survey, “US Adults’ Knowledge About the World,” was a joint effort by the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Geographic Society and the Gallup polling organization. The second survey was more narrowly focused on American knowledge and opinions about climate science. It was based on a study made in the summer of 2019 by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation and updated in December.
The Council on Foreign Relations-National Geographic report found that significant majorities of its 2,000 survey respondents thought that international issues affected their daily lives. However, the base on which that assumption was grounded was often shaky:
“The bad news is that less than 30 percent say they learned about foreign policy while in school, and on average they answered just over half of the knowledge questions correctly,” the report said.
“Only six percent of respondents got at least 80 percent of the questions correct. . . . Less than half of the respondents were able to identify Afghanistan as the country that provided Al-Qaeda with safe haven prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, despite America having waged a war in Afghanistan due to this fact for nearly two decades. Just over half could identify Iraq on a map, even though 100,000 American soldiers were in the country just a decade ago.”
On the climate science poll of 2,293 adults and 629 teenagers, the good news was that the percentage of people willing to identify climate change as a “crisis” had risen to 38 percent from 23 percent in five years.
The bad news revealed in this poll is that many respondents had some uninformed if not bizarre explanations for what caused climate change and global warming. Forty-three percent of adults and 57 percent of teens blamed plastic bottles and bags, while more than a third of Americans said it was “the sun getting hotter.”
In the broader Council on Foreign Relations survey, adults ranked climate change below trade and illegal immigration as the most pressing issues, split along predictable party lines. Foreign relations received little interest.
The poll pursued how, or if, geography is taught in the United States, differentiating basic geography from “geographic issues,” which would cover topics such as immigration, depletion of natural resources or urbanization. While 67 percent of people polled said they had learned a great deal or a fair amount of geography in their years of formal schooling, only 26 percent replied that geography had been linked to topical issues.
The distinction is important to understanding what Americans think about the world beyond their borders and how much the US should be involved there. In current news, for example, pointing to Ukraine on a map is different from relating it to its neighborhood in Europe, with all the implications, and why this should be a factor in American policy decisions in that region.
A few other findings: the Internet and television rank high as sources of news on international issues across all age groups. However, the depth of attention makes a big difference, the Council on Foreign Relations-National Geographic report concluded in its survey:
“Unsurprisingly, those who say they studied foreign policy or follow the news answered a higher percentage of the questions correctly. And while Americans get most of their information on international issues from the internet and television, those who say they use books, magazines or radio to keep on top of these issues and those who get their information from a wide range of sources scored better than their peers.”
Apart from surveys that attempt to assign good data — as these do — to the global isolation in which many Americans live, other factors are more difficult to measure that color the thinking or instincts of American voters, especially away from the large multicultural metropolitan areas. Foreign tourists and writers have analyzed this relative vacuum for a nation of immigrants for more than a couple of centuries.
Along with Canadians, Americans live on a continental-sized country with two large oceans to the east and west. The US also has two neighbors on the north and the south that have never been threats. Although hundreds of thousands of Americans have been killed in “foreign” wars, no major international conflict has ravaged the landscape of North America or, for that matter, the Western Hemisphere.
Unlike in Canada, there are no ties to a European colonial power that Americans fought a revolutionary war to end more than 240 years ago. Despite the Trump administration’s demonizing of Mexicans, who are geographically part of North America, the historical reality is that the US has been a far greater threat to them.
News broadcasts on most national television networks and cable channels are often thin on context and weak on history when international reports get aired. It takes a little more effort to find better information on which to make judgments, and surveys show that Americans don’t seem to be taking that step.