Political Behavior, Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000
READING’S IMPACT ON DEMOCRATIC
CITIZENSHIP IN AMERICA
Stephen Earl Bennett, Staci L. Rhine,
and Richard S. Flickinger
Polls conducted for the Times Mirror/Pew Research Center for The People & The Press
enable us to explore reading’s impact on democratic citizenship in the United States.
After exploring literacy’s meaning and significance, we assess how much Americans read
and how reading affects key facets of democratic citizenship: attention to, knowledge of,
and participation in public affairs and tolerance for unpopular groups. Ameasure of time
spent reading the day before being interviewed is a significant predictor of democratic
citizenship, even when other key factors’ effects are taken into account. Reading remains
essential to the quality of citizenship in modern democracy.
Key words: literacy; democratic citizenship; political participation; political information;
tolerance; political interest.
Widespread literacy is alleged to be indispensable to popular government.
Marshall McLuhan (1962) believed that Gutenberg’s invention ofmovable
type created “the public,” because earlier print technologies did not have
the “intensity or power” to “create publics on a national scale.” Puritans at
Massachusetts Bay colony in the seventeenth century (Brown, 1996), visionaries
like Thomas Jefferson in the late eighteenth century (Sheldon, 1991, pp. 62–67),
the creators ofpublic schools in the early nineteenth century (Soltow and
Stevens, 1981), and the citizenship theorists ofthe early twentieth century
(Thompson, 1970, pp. 21–22) all believed that literacy was a sine qua non for
effective participation in public affairs. Michael Warner (1990) asserts that
Stephen Earl Bennett, Emeritus Professor, Department of Political Science, University of
Cincinnati, 161 Chipmunk Lane, Blowing Rock, North Carolina 28605 (email@example.com);
Staci L. Rhine, Associate Professor, Richard S. Flickinger Professor, Department of Political
Science, Wittenberg University.
0190-9320/00/0900-0167$18.00/0 2000 Plenum Publishing Corporation