It’s the Electorate, Stupid

Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter
By Rick Shenkman
Basic Books, 210 pages, $25

I remember an uproarious night almost seven years ago at Shay’s Pub and Wine Bar in Cambridge, Mass.—my local hangout. I was entertaining a friend, also an historian, who was in town doing research. He told me that earlier in the day, he’d wandered into a nearby radical bookstore, where he spotted a title by Bob Avakian, the creepy, reclusive and mercifully irrelevant chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, U.S.A. The book was called (get this), Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?

We both burst into snarky laughter. “No, Chairman Bob. We can’t.”

As liberals, the two of us craved a society in which leaders would be held to the highest standards of democratic accountability. We admired Tom Hayden, the New Leftist who, in The Port Huron Statement, championed “participatory democracy”—the idea that individuals ought to have some say over the decisions affecting their lives. We agreed with the former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, who said, “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.”

That same night, we also discussed the possibility that the U.S. might overthrow the Iraqi government. In fact, everyone I knew was talking about this. As citizens, we had every opportunity to immerse ourselves in an absorbing (inter)national debate over the Bush administration’s case for war, which was receiving saturation coverage on television, in newspapers and the blogosphere.

But in March 2003, when precision-guided munitions finally rained down on Baghdad—unleashing horrible carnage, and setting in motion events that have proven disastrous to U.S. interests—most Americans misunderstood why we were fighting. In fact, well into 2004, a solid majority of Americans continued to believe that Saddam Hussein had been in league with Al Qaeda when the World Trade Center collapsed. Eighty percent of the war’s supporters believed this. And many Americans still believe it.

How could this have happened?

Sure, the Bush administration hyped its case for war with fear and innuendo, and some in the media have let us down. But as Rick Shenkman explains in his lively, courageous and absolutely essential new book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, those of us who have reflexively placed our trust in the wisdom and judgment of the American people have been mistaken.

It’s not just that most Americans lack a sense of ethical worry about the role the U.S. plays internationally. Many citizens are also ignorant of basic facts of civic life. Only 40 percent of us can name the three branches of the federal government; only 20 percent know that we have 100 U.S. senators; the five members of the Simpsons are far more recognizable to Americans than the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Moreover, when speaking to pollsters, voters try to cover up their ignorance by speaking cavalierly, or by lying. They say they’re deeply dissatisfied with Congress, but they don’t know who controls Congress. In one survey, 40 percent of Americans expressed an opinion on the “Public Affairs Act of 1975,” which of course does not exist.

I could go on, but it would be unnecessary. The question Mr. Shenkman poses with the title of his book is largely rhetorical. When it comes to politics, we’re pretty damn stupid. As Pogo said to Porky, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I can hear some of you in my mind’s eye: “Who is this ‘we,’ kemo sabe?” But Mr. Shenkman’s aim is not simply to vent spleen on apathetic voters. Rather, it’s to confront those of us who are educated and well informed with an uncomfortable paradox: As increasing numbers of Americans have become more directly involved in elections, things have gotten worse. Especially since the 1950s and ’60s, political polls, primaries, referendums and initiatives, television, and the Internet have all increased ordinary voters’ power. But those with whom we’ve entrusted our government generally “find politics boring and … are ignorant and irrational about public affairs.”

For a long time, conservatives were pessimistic about the American people’s ability to behave as responsible democrats. Only recently (as they’ve begun winning popular support) have they begun to express their trust in the wisdom of ordinary voters. Meanwhile, liberals have always seemed to put their faith in the American people, and when the American people have voted unwisely, they labored to find the scapegoats—biased media commentators, greedy captains of industry, Republicans in Kansas—who successfully “manipulated” public opinion. But are liberals really as confident in American citizens as they claim to be? If so, then why are they so terribly nervous that come Election Day, a critical mass of voters might fail to apprehend that Barack Obama is not a Muslim?

In the final chapter of his book, Mr. Shenkman describes several reforms that he hopes will transform the U.S. into “a country of smart voters.” Among his most interesting proposals is for all college freshman to be given weekly current-events tests. “Those who pass with flying colors should be eligible for federal tuition subsidies paid for out of a special fund. Graduation should be made contingent on achieving at least a passing grade.”

I heartily support this idea, and I hope it passes before some future time of airborne pigs. But the reforms Rick Shenkman proposes seem incommensurate with the problems he describes. Just How Stupid Are We? is a slender, lively and highly accessible book, but it tackles one of the weightiest problems troubling American public life, to which there are no easy answers. This is heavy, frightening stuff. It’s enough to drive me back to Shay’s.

John McMillian teaches at Harvard and is writing a book on underground newspapers in the 1960s for Oxford University Press. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

It’s the Electorate, Stupid