Public Ignorance or Elitist Jargon?: Reconsidering Americans’ Overestimates of Government Waste and Foreign Aid

Journal Article

Public Ignorance or Elitist Jargon?: Reconsidering Americans’ Overestimates of Government Waste and Foreign Aid

January 22, 2018

Abstract

Widespread and profound public misinformation about government presents a serious challenge for democratic accountability. This paper demonstrates that two of the most common examples of public misperception may be systematically overestimated; public misperceptions of government spending are in substantial part the result of differences of elite and popular terminology. “Foreign aid” is widely understood to encompass overseas military spending, and the term “government waste” is popularly used to discuss systemic failures of the democratic process. Failing to take account of what members of the public mean by “waste” and “foreign aid,” existing studies overestimate public ignorance and obscure the substance of public critiques of U.S. policy, particularly among the less educated. The results of this paper suggest the need for a reconsideration of what qualifies as evidence of public misinformation, and what that evidence implies for voters’ capacity to assess their government.

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