I do not believe that citizens are lazy or stupid. The problems of the electorate are multiple and complex. But let me suggest one possibility among many why Americans appear to know so little about their own government and fail to participate in its running: We are fat and happy.
There are a number of different perspectives on the importance of political knowledge; in particular, the “rational public” perspective of Samuel Popkin and the “affective intelligence” perspective advanced by a number of scholars suggest that political knowledge is relatively unimportant, although there are many scholars who challenge both theses. That said, I reach a roughly similar conclusion to Andrew’s on the last page of my dissertation:
[T]he desirability of a society in which political issues are so critically important that they require the attentiveness of large segments of the public seems relatively low; consider highly polarized societies like contemporary Israel and Venezuela, where it is unlikely there are any voters without opinions on the Palestinian peace process or on the soft-authoritarian Chávez regime, respectively, where the outcome of elections is literally a question of life or death in many voters’ minds. Perhaps we should count our blessings that the most salient mainstream debates in the United States today are over the future of entitlement programs for the elderly, the level of restriction that will be placed on abortion, and where and under what conditions same-sex relationships will be acknowledged by the government—and that our pluralist system permits voters to focus their interests on particular policies that directly interest them. This suggests that rather than creating institutions that might lead to a more conflicted or polarized society, the interest of democracy would be best served by giving citizens the tools to participate in public debate, but leaving it up to them whether their participation is strictly necessary. (132)
This also is another excellent opportunity to pimp the Signifying Nothing book of the month.