On his HBO program last night, John Oliver devoted 30 minutes to a discussion of U.S. surveillance programs, advocating a much more substantive debate as the June 1 deadline for renewing the Patriot Act approaches (the full segment can be seen here). As part of that segment, Oliver broadcast an interview he conducted with Edward Snowden in Moscow, and to illustrate the point that an insufficient surveillance debate has been conducted, showed video of numerous people in Times Square saying they had no idea who Snowden is (or giving inaccurate answers about him). Oliver assured Snowden off-camera that they did not cherry-pick those "on the street" interviews but showed a representative sample.
Oliver's overall discussion is good (and, naturally, quite funny), but the specific point he wants to make here is misguided. Contrary to what Oliver says, it's actually not surprising at all that a large number of Americans are unaware of who Snowden is, nor does it say much at all about the surveillance debate. That's because a large number of Americans, by choice, are remarkably unaware of virtually all political matters. The befuddled reactions of the Times Square interviewees when asked about Snowden illustrate little about the specific surveillance issue but a great deal about the full-scale political disengagement of a substantial chunk of the American population.
The data on American political apathy is rather consistent, and stunning. Begin with the fact that even in presidential election years, 40 to 50 percent of the voting-age public simply chooses not to participate in the voting process at all, while two-thirds chooses not to vote in midterm elections.
Even more striking is what they do and do not know. An Annenberg Public Policy Center poll from last September found that only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government, and only 38 percent know the GOP controls the House. The Center's 2011 poll "found just 15 percent of Americans could correctly identify the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, while 27 percent knew Randy Jackson was a judge on American Idol."