Two possible, related barriers to people’s engagement with, and participation in, politics are how easy they find it to understand and how much they think they know about it. If politics is seen as complicated and involving knowledge that is not readily available to them in their day-to-day lives (or that they do not think they have) then people might be disinclined to take an interest or get involved. In other words, we are more likely to engage with topics that we believe we can (easily) understand, and that we think we know about. Thus, people who do not think they understand or know about politics may be less likely to engage with it.
In light of the above, the survey asked people how difficult they think it is ‘to understand what is going on in government and politics’ and how much they know about politics. As Figure 1 (above, using weighted data) shows, most people have a middling appraisal the difficulty of understanding politics (panel A), with almost two thirds (65.7%) selecting the middle two options (‘Tend to disagree,’ 34.9%, a plurality; ‘Tend to agree,’ 30.8%). Outside these categories, respondents are roughly normally distributed, though slightly more disagree that politics is hard for them to understand (18.4%) than agree that it is so (15.9%). Overall, people are slightly more likely to disagree (53.3%) than agree (46.7%) that politics is hard for them to understand. Thus, people are moderately about the ease of understanding politics but are largely clustered around the central options.
People also focus their answers relating to knowledge of politics (panel B) on the central option (‘A little bit’), which is selected by more than two fifths (44.2%, a plurality). Outside of the middle option, people also err on the positive side in appraisals, and in excess of two fifths of people (43.7%) indicate that they know ‘Quite a lot’ (36.9%) or ‘A great deal’ (6.8%) about politics. This means that approaching nine in ten people (87.9%) think that they know at least a little bit about politics, whilst only one in eight people (12.1%) say that they know ‘Hardly anything’ (10.3%) or ‘Nothing’ (1.8%). Thus, people have moderate but notably more positive than negative appraisals of both the difficulty of understanding politics and their self-perceived knowledge of it. The distributions of the answers, perhaps, reflect a recognition that politics is possible to understand but that it is not always easy to follow its daily comings and goings, and that one’s knowledge of it will often be incomplete. Of course, we cannot know what was going through respondents’ minds as they answered the questions, and this applies to the emphasis that they might have placed on themselves or the political system in their responses regarding the difficulty of understanding politics. The question wording refers to ‘you’ and to ‘government and politics’ so some respondents might have used it as an opportunity to offer an appraisal of their own capacity to understand, whilst others might instead have focused on how difficult politics itself is to understand (regardless of their own capacities). The wording of the question regarding political knowledge is less ambiguous, so we can be more confident that people have a moderately positive appraisal of their own knowledge of politics. However, the results relating to both questions come with the usual caveat that they are likely to reflect the higher levels of political engagement amongst samples of voluntary only survey respondents than in the general population.