The main point is that a huge amount of people are politically illiterate, or so it seems.
I disagree with Rall's suggestion that there should be a political literacy test in order to vote....anti-democratic.
However, I do have some insight into the problem.
When people are asked somewhat simple questions about the world and about their political system and get them wrong it's not because they resemble a wooden post more than a good, engaged citizen. Far from it. It's because they've been devoting their attention and their brain cells to something other than politics.
Brain cells are still there, they're just being put to a different use...like following work or office politics, or being really into friendships, or being obsessed with bands or sports, or worrying about their job, or spending most of their time raising their kids. Or having relationships.
Which is not to say that politics takes the place of these or that being a good citizen means negating them but you have to understand that these things are the basic thrust of life and politics, although it's very vital and central to our condition and the way our lives work, takes time away from that. And in our society we aren't encouraged to set some mental space aside for citizen specific issues or political issues. We're encouraged to just live life with blinders on to everything outside of it, so that we really know the 'thrust of life', but we may not know the side to side motion so much. Ok, bad joke but you get the point.
I've met a lot of really nice people, really smart people, who just don't devote any attention to the greater issues and instead focus all their mental energy on the immediate relationships which surround them.
That, I think, is how we get those outrageous responses to questions about 'where such and such is'. It isn't like they don't know where Iraq is, in principle. The know it's in the Middle East but they haven't taken the time out of their day to actually find it on a map because they really don't care. It's not what they're interested in. They know the war's going on but it doesn't really effect their lives.
And so it goes with all the rest of the questions.
People can get big rewards in this society for blotting everything out and staying on task; people who can do that and focus only on the job have an advantage over those that don't or can't or won't. They have more energy to do the job they have more awareness of what the job is about they have more insights. But they have no conception of their civic duties or environment. All those qualities, though, are prime for moving up the ladder in advancement...so being 'stupid' according to the polls pays---literally.
It also serves as a novel criteria for inclusion and exclusion, a key feature in defining social groups, which in turn define society at large and help chart a person's potential for advancement. Those who can't buy in all the way and devote their time fully to the immediate relationships around them are treated as suspect by people who do and never fully let into the group, thereby altering their destinies in relation to what social connections and networking the group could offer them.
Those who do are fine.
Looking at high school students failure to come up with obvious answers that their schooling 'should have prepared them for' (ha ha ha) the reasons become obvious: public schools today are geared for kids to get ahead by any means neccesary, not for learning. Private schools aren't neccesarilly better, but anyways. Schools in general teach kids how to lie and kiss ass in order to get ahead, how to massage the teacher's ego and answer test questions in such a way that high points will be received with the least amount of work or understanding.
That's what high school---particularly the section of highschools designed to send students to college---teaches these days, so of course they wouldn't have a clue about basic facts! They probably have it in the back of their minds somewhere but the questioner forgot to give them the cheat sheet in advance so they couldn't pull it out of the memory banks fast enough for it to register.
That's the sad truth about our culture: that it's an opt out culture. Opt out if you want to get ahead in life and be opted out if you don't qualify for advancement because of socioeconomic reasons.
And if you choose to opt in despite all this, well, good luck.