Americans too disengaged to have a decent democracy?

It’s quite possible that comedian John Oliver anticipated a renewed debate over the federal government’s spying on its own citizens when he dedicated his HBO show to the subject last night, including a segment with Edward Snowden, whose leaking of the program sparked a quasar-like reaction to it many months ago.

Instead, the day-after debate is this one: Are Americans too stupid to support a democracy that can only survive if it’s engaged in it?

Here’s the R-rated discussion on Oliver’s show.

A segment inside chats with passersby in Times Square, many of whom have no clue who Edward Snowden is.

Glenn Greenwald, Snowden’s megaphone, isn’t impressed, even if the producers of Oliver’s show probably intentionally picked the ignorant ones to showcase.

The data on American political apathy is rather consistent, and stunning. Begin with the fact that even in presidential election years, 40% to 50% of the voting age public simply chooses not participate in the voting process at all, while 2/3 chooses not to vote in mid-term 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% of Americans can name the three branches of government, and only 38% 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.”

A 2010 poll found that almost 2/3 of Americans – 65% – were incapable of naming even a single member of the U.S. Supreme Court. A 2010 Pew poll discovered that 41% of Americans are unable to name the current Vice President of the U.S; in other words, Oliver could just as easily (if not more easily) compile a video of Times Square visitors looking stumped when asked if they knew who Joe Biden, or Antonin Scalia, is.

Unquestionably, it seems, Americans are occasionally challenged by simple civics. But the notion that voting marks an engaged country seems questionable, particularly considering MPR News reporter Tom Scheck’s story today on Republicans preparing to lower the boom on human services programs in the state, so that it can send the money to transportation and education.

It’s a debate worth having and, maybe we’ll have it. But you know when we didn’t have it? During last year’s campaigns. Candidates weren’t talking, reporters weren’t asking, and voters weren’t demanding specifics.

That there’s been a problem at MinnesotaCare with income verification isn’t new. The Office of Legislative Auditor said so in 2013. It could have been an issue used to engage voters in last year’s election, but it wasn’t. Why not?

And so, here we are with about a month left to go in the Minnesota Legislature session, with no idea still what it is voters should be reacting to because the politicians refuse specifics.

The GOP’s budget plan does increase the health and human services budget over current spending, but it would not pay for the projected need over the next two years. The GOP’s point man on the issue is saying little about exactly where the cuts would come.

“It’s a very steep hill to climb. There’s no two ways about it. We understand that,” said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood.

Dean has given some insight into his priorities. He has proposed eliminating the current MinnesotaCare program and directing the 95,000 people in the program to buy private insurance.

He’s also suggested that there are ineligible people on MinnesotaCare, Medicaid and other taxpayer subsidized programs.

Scheck noted a key point in what’s happening here: It puts groups favoring additional services for health care and mental health on their heels, protecting what they already have, abandoning any plans for expansion.

It’s skillful politics. And it’s unlikely the general public is engaged enough to notice the gamesmanship.

But, as Oliver noted, the world is complicated and details are important. Politics hates details.