How American voters are misusing, abusing, and abdicating their political power.
When the good ol’ USA was on top of the world, there weren’t many Americans who wanted to ask probing questions about the ability of the voters to make wise choices. What mattered whether they did or they didn’t? The good ship of state sailed on and on. With the wind at our backs and gentle seas carrying us forward, the voters’ foolishness seemed not much to worry about. Only professional worrywarts like Bill Moyers got exercised over it.
Now that our circumstances have changed, as they might put it in one of those Victorian novels about a prominent personage who’s come to wrack and ruin after exhausting the family fortune, we are a more introspective people, this is good.
As unlikely a time as this may be to consider the subject of our own inadequacies given all the other problems we face – small dreary matters like whether the housing market is dead for a generation – we no longer can afford the luxury of inattention.
Yes, people, things are that far gone. Some statistics. A majority of Americans don’t know we have three branches of government. Only 1 in 5 know there are 100 U.S. senators. Only 1 in 7 young people can find Iraq on a map.
Have you ever wondered why our politics often seem so dumb? Now you know the answer. It is because millions and millions of us know so little that the politicians and the media find that they have to talk about the most inane subjects to draw a crowd and hold them.
We have not talked openly about this heretofore as a country because it is an unpleasant subject. And when things were going well there didn’t seem a reason. Why show up for a party dressed like it’s a funeral when the champagne corks are flying and there’s endless plates of sweets? Let’s party!
Ladies and gents: The party is over. We can’t afford the high price of our ignorance.
In January 2003, three months before the Iraq invasion, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) found that a majority of Americans falsely believed that “Iraq played an important role in 9/11.” Over the next year and a half, polls indicated that a persistent 57% believed that Saddam Hussein was helping al Qaeda at the time we were attacked. (Other polls came up with higher numbers. For instance, in September 2003, a Washington Post poll found that 70% of Americans believed Saddam was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks.) In the spring of 2004 the 9/11 Commission flatly stated that Saddam had not provided support to al Qaeda. The Commission’s findings received saturation coverage. Nonetheless, in August of the same year, according to a PIPA poll, 50% were still insisting that Saddam had given “substantial” support to al Qaeda. (A full two years later, in 2006, a Zogby International poll indicated that 46% of Americans continued to believe that “there is a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”)
The illusion that Saddam was behind 9/11 had real-world consequences. A poll for Investor’s Business Daily and the Christian Science Monitor cited by the PIPA researchers found that 80% of those who backed the Iraq War in 2003 said that a key reason for their support was their belief in those ties.
Another indication of public ignorance concerned the claim that Saddam possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” which became such a ubiquitous part of the national conversation that the phrase soon became known by its initials: WMD. Poll results showed the voters were quick to absorb the administration line, but only slowly came to realize that they had been snowed. As late as the spring of 2004, a clear majority remained unaware that experts such as Hans Blix (head of the UN weapons inspectors), David Kay (the former head of the Iraq Survey Group), and Richard Clarke (the national coordinator
for counterterrorism) had firmly concluded that Iraq lacked WMD at the time of our invasion, even though their findings had received wide publicity.
Finally, there was the question of world opinion. By all measures, the Iraq War was unpopular around the world. On the eve of the war, millions protested, bitterly denouncing George W. Bush and the United States. In several countries these were the largest anti-American rallies ever held. Opposition was strong even in countries that were traditional American allies, such as Spain. Most Americans, however, did not comprehend the isolation of the United States. According to PIPA, a majority either believed that world opinion was about evenly divided or actually favored the war (31% were in the second camp). Only 35% realized that the planned invasion had drawn far more criticism than support.
People, what we have here is a ten-alarm fire. Yes, there is gallows humor in this. The war we fought to oust a dictator in the name of democracy was waged on the basis of a myth by a democratic people who didn’t know a whit what they were talking about. Someday our descendants are apt to lump us in with the poor saps from the past who believed that the sun revolves around the earth and that Zeus is in charge of our affairs, though the saps had far better reason for believing what they did back then than what we do now. With Google in our pocket the facts we need are just a click away.
Thank goodness for Google! But it’s not as helpful as we all think. It leads to misinformation as easily as it does information and it puts both on the same plane. It is positively unhelpful to the people who are unschooled in crap-detecting, and of them there are millions and millions.
This is no place for Crap-Detecting 101. But perhaps the media could offer some assistance by regularly publishing what I like to call the Dunce Cap Scorecard. This is a simple test to determine how stupid our debates are. One or two Dunce Caps is normal for any debate. Five Dunce Caps and you know you’re in a deep pile of stupid.
These are the five tests. First is sheer ignorance: Ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions and who’s in charge. Second is negligence: The disinclination to seek reliable sources of information about important news events. Third is wooden-headedness, as the historian Barbara Tuchman defined it: The inclination to believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts. Fourth is shortsightedness: The support of public policies that are mutually exclusive, or contrary to the country’s long-term interests. Fifth is a broad category I call bone-headedness, for want of a better name: The susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simplistic diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears.
When you hear The Birthers going on and on, you can pull out your handy Dunce Cap Scorecord and see just how badly the debate ranks. By my count it meets four out of the five tests (excluded: number four).
Are we worse off than in the past? We are. Half a century ago voters were better prepared to take on the responsibilities of good citizens, despite the fact that they were less educated than now. (In 1940, 6 in 10 Americans didn’t get past the 8th grade. Today most have spent some time in college.)
So what happened? Television is a big part of the explanation. Once television replaced newspapers as the chief source of news – this happened around 1965, when we were all watching Ed Sullivan and The Beaver – shallowness was inescapable as Americans began judging politicians by how they looked and acted. Another factor was the collapse of the traditional two-party system and unions. Once voters stopped taking their cues from party and labor bosses they were largely on their own as they sorted through the complicated choices they faced.
People, I am not saying we should go back to the days when these various bosses were in charge. I am simply saying that when people in the television age are left to decide for themselves which candidate to support, they are apt to make their choice on the basis of how the candidate looks, sounds, or packages himself. This is distressing.
It would be stupid to say that the American people are stupid – as stupid as saying the American people are smart. It’s impossible and silly to generalize. But our politics are often stupid. And there are times when no other word, harsh as it is, seems to capture the essence of the turn politics have taken.
Now if politicians were angels, we wouldn’t need smart voters. But how many of you count yourselves among the believers in politicians? I thought so.