This is as true (or moreso) today as it was in 2004: The Ignorant American Voter
NOT LONG after Dr. Johnson’s landmark “Dictionary of the English Language” appeared in 1755, a woman demanded to know why he had defined “pastern” as the knee of a horse. “Ignorance, madam,” Johnson replied, “pure ignorance.”
We should all be so ignorant. Johnson may not have known a pastern from a fetlock, but he knew enough to write an entire dictionary — all 2,300 pages and 43,000 entries of it — single-handedly. Alas, our own ignorance is of an entirely different order. Consider, as Ilya Somin has been considering this election season, what Americans don’t know about politics and public policy.
Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, observes in a new study for the Cato Institute that voters tend to be “abysmally ignorant of even very basic political information.” This may not be news to scholars, who have documented it in depressing detail, “but the sheer depth of most individual voters’ ignorance is shocking to observers not familiar with the research.”
He offers some recent illustrations. According to polls taken this year, nearly 65 percent of the public doesn’t know that Congress has banned partial-birth abortion. Seventy percent is unaware that a massive drug benefit has been added to Medicare. At least 58 percent say they have heard “nothing” or “not much” about the Patriot Act, notwithstanding the enormous amount of coverage the controversial law has drawn.
This is not a new problem. As Cold War tensions bristled in 1964, only 38 percent of the public knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO. In 1970, only 24 percent could identify the secretary of state. In 1996, The Washington Post reported that 67 percent of Americans couldn’t name their congressman and 94 percent had no idea that William Rehnquist was the chief justice of the United States. Only 26 percent knew that senators serve six-year terms, and 73 percent didn’t know that Medicare costs more than foreign aid.
Gallup found in January 2000 that while 66 percent of the public could name the host of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” only 6 percent knew the name of the speaker of the House. Last year, a Polling Company survey found that 58 percent of Americans could not name a single federal Cabinet department.
The ignorant can be found in the highest reaches of academe. Of more than 3,100 Ivy League students polled for a University of Pennsylvania study in 1993, 11 percent couldn’t identify the author of the Declaration of Independence, half didn’t know the names of their US senators, and 75 percent were unaware that the classic description of democracy — “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” — is from the Gettysburg Address.
With so many Americans so clueless when it comes to government and public affairs, is it any wonder that political campaigns are so shrill and shallow? Or that candidates speak to voters primarily through TV spots intended to malign the other candidate’s reputation? Or that presidential “debates” limit answers to 90 seconds and bar the contenders from engaging in actual discussion? When voters are unwilling to put any effort into learning about the issues of the day, it should come as no surprise that campaign discussions rarely move beyond vacuous soundbites — “tax breaks for the rich,” “freedom is on the march,” “wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.”
Somin suggests that widespread political ignorance may be, in one sense, “rational”: Since no individual’s vote is ever likely to be decisive, no voter has an incentive to work hard at acquiring enough knowledge to make an informed choice. But by that argument, voters shouldn’t bother showing up on Election Day, either. Many don’t, of course, and we hear endlessly about the need to increase voter turnout. But more alarming than the tens of millions of non-voting adults are the tens of millions of adults who do vote despite knowing next to nothing about the candidates and the issues.
It was not ever thus. A century and a half ago, ordinary Americans grappled with public controversies at a level of sophistication that would be unthinkable today.
In 1858, tens of thousands of Illinois voters, many unschooled, crowded fairgrounds and public squares to watch Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas debate his Republican challenger, former congressman Abraham Lincoln. The topics they wrestled with were among the weightiest in US history — the expansion of slavery, the authority of the Supreme Court, the limits of popular sovereignty. The candidates spoke not for 90 seconds at a time, but for 90 minutes at a time. There were no spin doctors, no instant polls, no TV talking heads — only thoughtful candidates and serious voters and the clash of ideas in the public arena.
The dumbing-down of our politics is no small thing. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, “it expects what never was and never will be.” Widespread political ignorance poses a potentially lethal threat to our democratic freedoms. If we were smarter, we’d be worried.
More from Rush’s excellent show today:
RUSH: I’m getting a lot of e-mails on that last caller: “Hey, Rush, I want to hug and kiss that guy, right on, the American people are stupid. I loved it. I loved it when he said turn off American Idol.” Yeah, and turn off all the fishing shows. (laughing)
Let me address this again in a segment here where I have a little bit more time about that caller. The key is taking back the Republican Party so that we have a political vehicle to advance the conservative movement. The American people, by every legitimate study, are more conservative than liberal. It’s like 42% to 21 people who identify themselves, 35% independent. More people identify themselves as conservative than anything by any number of legitimate studies. So we have to have a nominee who is conservative, who can speak conservatism, who can inspire and motivate, who can arouse their passion; somebody who can respond to left-wing arguments; somebody who’s confident; somebody who has knowledge. This is the challenge that we face in future elections.
The American people will be there if we get that candidate. If we put up a candidate like that we will win. That’s why all the focus on this program and even the Greta Van Susteren interview I told them what the problem with the Republican Party is. That wasn’t just a bash Obama interview or bash the Democrats. The Republican Party is headed up by a bunch of country club blue blood Rockefeller liberals and moderates that don’t want any part of conservatism because they are embarrassed about the abortion issue. They don’t like social issues being part of their party, and if we put up a genuine conservative we will win. We’re making the case for our case on this radio show every day, and others on their radio shows and in books. We don’t have the power right now, and we haven’t had it for some time because the Republican Party’s taken a wrong turn.
So it’s really kind of a mistake to just lay it all off on the American people as being dumb and stupid. If you vote for people who claim to be one thing and turn out to be another, it’s pretty smart to not vote for them again. The American people, the conservative voter is not stupid. The conservative voter is simply not going to vote for a fraud in his own party, or her own party. What choice did we have in 2008? What choice did we have? A lot of people voted against Obama, not for McCain. We didn’t have anything to vote for. There was nothing affirmative for us in that election, in that whole campaign. You’ve got to have somebody to vote for. That arouses passions.
So the choice in 2008, we had this smooth-talking agent of change and hope speaking platitudes and creating a cult-like following. And the Republican was somebody whose main selling point was he gets along with Democrats. He can walk across the aisle and be bipartisan. Our candidate bought the notion that the American people want the two parties to work together and put aside their differences. McCain also promised cap and trade. McCain also promised his own version of health care reform and immigration reform. Where was the opportunity for conservatives to rise up and get passionate about the election in 2008? It wasn’t there. If the Republican Party keeps putting candidates up like that, we’re cooked, but not because the American people are stupid, but because the Republican Party seeks not to win.
If we all just say, though, that the end is inevitable, if we just say the American people are stupid and they want all of this, that there is no hope, then we can’t build a movement to stop this. We can’t build a movement to take back the Republican Party. We can’t take back the government and begin the process of unraveling this. If we just say that most of the people are stupid and want this, they don’t care because they got American Idol on twice a week in the winter and the spring, well, then what’s left? Why even stay engaged? Why stay involved? In the end, if people want this, they will get it. I don’t believe the people do want this. The polls show they don’t want this. Obama knows they don’t want it. Pelosi knows they don’t want it. Their entire strategy is based on lying to the people and ramming through their agenda before the working tax paying people of this country know what hit them. That’s why the speed. Obama may well be destroying the Democrat Party. We will know soon enough. The Democrat Party represents an ever-shrinking percentage of the population the American people are. And, Lord, if I didn’t think this, I’d be playing golf somewhere, probably New Zealand.
I had a former female friend of mine tell me she could only now feel proud to be an American, after Obama won the Presidential nomination and then election. Considering we have never had a female President, shouldn’t all women still be ashamed to call themselves Americans? Afterall, apparently, the Left tells us, most Blacks were ashamed of America for not yet having a Black President.
Apparently then, the only groups of people who should now be proud of America are White men and Bi-Racial Black men (oh, and White and Bi-Racial Black men who are socialists, communists, Black Supremacist racists, Black Liberation Theology followers…). For everyone else — women, homosexuals, transgendereds, Indians (“Native Americans”), Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, Latinos, etc — America SUCKS!
Also, how horrible is America… I mean, we’ve never even had a female Vice President, let alone President. My gosh, when you look at things through the twisted illogic of the Left, there is just so much about which to be ashamed in this horrible, despicable country.
That is why, in 2012, we must start the healing. Hillary Clinton must challenge Barack Obama in the Democrat Primaries and Sarah Palin must win the GOP nomination, with Governor Bobby Jindal as her running mate. Only then will be able to have more Americans able to feel proud of their country. And if we want to prove that America is not sexist, then we must elect either Mrs. Clinton or Governor Palin.
[My gosh does it hurt using stupid liberal illogic… oy]
This is *exactly* how I feel regarding some of the people I talked to prior to the election who were Obama-supporters. I think back to their blind support of the man, their borderline worship of him, their complete disregard for the facts I presented them about his background and the warnings I gave them as to what he would do, based on that background. And, I especially remember how those people treated me based on me providing facts to them about their “god” Obama. I cannot forget that. I won’t forget that. I won’t forget being called a racist, a hatemonger and a bigot simply for pointing out facts about a politician. And I too carry a strong disdain for these people still today. I cannot look at them the same for their willful ignorance and deliberate mocking and smearing of my character and integrity. All over a politician.
And as “momma” states below, even for those who come around and have “buyer’s remorse”, nothing strips them of responsibility for their behavior, and especially their vote.
During the election, my in-laws hated it when I would talk politics and especially hated it when I bashed Obama and warned of what was coming if he was elected. They told me at least 20 different times that the President doesn’t have any power and that I was completely ignorant and crazy. Now, they leave the room if I am talking with other relatives about Obama and what he is doing. You can actually see the disdain on their face. It should be said that, whenever they are within ear shot, I shamelessly comment on the effect that this American – hating assplug is having on my children’s future. They were wrong. They know it.
I will always hold it against them that they ignorantly elected this attention hungry, prompter speaking, closet Muslim that hates America and Her Greatness.
It is the Obama voters that know they f*cked up, that should be flocking to the Tea Parties. They should be leading this fight. It wasn’t a mistake, it was a blissfully ignorant decision that has already eroded the very core of America.
I will always carry strong disdain for them. All the signs were there. Nothing strips them of responsibility. Nothing.
Sorry. Rant off. Thanks for ‘listening’.
No, thank you, momma, for expressing what many of us also feel and sometimes cannot put into words as well as you do here. Keep ranting. People need to hear it. Loudly. And often.
Great follow-up comment later in the comment thread by “momma”:
My main problem is that people take their freedoms for granted. Voting should be the biggest decision in a person’s life. Everything else is effected by that. Kids, family, job, etc., are all effected by those that make, keep, and create the laws.
When people won’t listen, study, read, etc., into the choices they have for a certain office, I think they don’t deserve to vote. They decide with sound bites and news opinion. Then, when everything they believe in is questioned, and their sense of ‘right’ is challenged, they still vote based on D or R, or by the last f***ing commercial they saw before heading to the ballot box.
We have all of these public service announcements about turning off lights, not wasting water, etc., yet not one telling the public that they need to research the candidates and look at all forms of media, before they vote.
My in-laws believed me before the election, they just didn’t have the guts to vote for anyone that didn’t have a D after their name.
Posted by: momma at June 08, 2009 05:14 PM