Guest Column: Our ignorance on issues is just dangerous

If ignorance is bliss, then Americans must be blissful indeed these days.

Because so many of us display an appalling (and alarming) ignorance — just confirmed by a respected nonpartisan polling organization — about last month’s landmark Supreme Court ruling upholding President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Health care accounts for nearly a fifth of our gross national product and though voters say that health care remains a top issue for them, behind only the economy and jobs, a Pew Research Center survey found that 45 percent of respondents either were unaware of the court’s ruling (30 percent) or thought most of the law’s provisions had been struck down (15 percent).

“That is staggering stuff,” as The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza noted last week.

“Let’s just make sure we are all clear,” he wrote. “Forty-five percent of people didn’t know about or were misinformed about the most highly publicized Supreme Court case since — at least — Bush v. Gore in 2000 …” And it gets worse.

Among 18- to 29-year-olds — a wellspring of our future leaders — the proportion of respondents who were unaware of the court’s decision was a depressing 43 percent, even though Pew found it was the news story that Americans followed most closely in June. Imagine how much, or little, folks in that age bracket know about less closely followed news stories. Or perhaps you’d rather not.

Ignorance on a scale this breathtaking can be immensely useful to politicians. Indeed, it’s often one of their best friends.

Many believe President George W. Bush’s job of selling the disastrous Iraq War was made easier by the fact that a large majority of Americans believed at the time that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, although none of the plane hijackers involved came from his country and no link between him and the attacks was ever proven.

A Washington Post poll conducted two years after 9/11 found that seven in 10 Americans continued to think that Saddam was connected to the attacks.

To be fair, the Bush administration never said it had evidence of a link. But, as the newspaper noted in its 2003 story about its poll, the president in making the case for an invasion of Iraq frequently juxtaposed Iraq and al Qaeda in ways that hinted at a link.

If the public had been paying closer attention, an unnecessary war that eventually cost more than 4,000 American lives and led to the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians in Iraq would have been a tougher sell.

This year, as the country braces for what promises to be one of the most consequential presidential elections of all time — one that could set the nation’s direction for years to come — we owe it to ourselves and the country to do our homework on the issues, especially health care, which all of us will use at some time in our lives.

So let’s educate ourselves, for instance, about the difference between requiring people to get health insurance and requiring them to buy broccoli. Understand that and you understand why the insurance mandate is the linchpin of the Affordable Care Act, just as it was for the health care reform Mitt Romney achieved as governor of Massachusetts.

Sure, it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on with so many demands on our time. But keeping well-informed is one of the prices we pay for a living in a democracy.

What you don’t know can hurt you. Put another way, ignorance isn’t bliss.

Mr. Henry is a resident of Orient.