This was my recaption from another of the funny cat pics at I Can Has Cheezeburger. Go there and have some fun today!
I am indebted to Greg Houle at Perseus Books, which publishes “Just How Stupid Are We?” under Basic Books, by Rick Shenkman. He passed along a copy for me to review, and I am grateful to him indeed for honoring my request.
I’m told that Mr. Shenkman picked the title exactly in the hope that it would startle and get a rise out of folks. Indeed I hope it worked, for this is one of those must reads. If you are still scratching your head why a seemingly “smart” American public keeps shooting itself in the foot with election disasters such as George W. Bush, then read this explanation and learn the answer. Moreover, learn what must be done to indeed make us that smart and savvy voter that we all like to think we are.
First, examine the grim statistics:
- Fifty percent of America can name at least two member of the Simpsons. Only twenty-five percent can name one right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
- Only 20% of those between the ages of 18-34 read any portion of a newspaper. Only 11% claim to surf the internet for news.
- In 2004, 60% of Americans still thought Saddam had something to do with 9/11, and 66% believed the war was popular over seas.
- Only 1 in 5 know we have 100 senators.
- One in 7 can find Iraq on a map.
- Only 35% know that only Congress can declare war.
- Forty-nine percent, inexplicably think that the President can suspend the constitution!
The list unfortunately can go on for some time, but you get the picture. And what is worse, things are getting worse! A task for in 2003, “The Strategic Task Force on Education Abroad,” studying the issue concluded that “America’s ignorance of the outside world is so great as to constitute a threat to national security.” 
While an unprecedented number of our youth attend college and we have access instantaneously to news from around the world, we know less than we did sixty years ago. And moreover, we seem proud of that fact. If you don’t agree with me, take a look at Jay Leno on one of his famous “Jay walking” excursions when he asks average folk simple questions about our civic life, if you can stop laughing at the utterly ridiculous answers long enough to weep in frustration, that is.
Shenkman asks if we are irrational. He thinks not. We are simply too busy and thus we look for shortcuts to “inform” us about the issues. Sadly we choose mostly the wrong things, celebrity and tvads. We can act rationally of course, when our personal interests are sufficiently at stake. We have a tendency to a “throw the bums out” when things get really bad, a not at all irrational response. But we are inclined to throw the baby out with the bathwater so to speak. We did so in 2006, when we threw out Lincoln Chafee of RhodeIsland and Jim Leach of Iowa, both good, hard working middle of the road Republicans who got caught up in the sweep.
Mr. Shenkman also argues persuasively that because we are so ethnically diverse, we rely on historical myths as our standards. We have classes in America, but pretend we don’t for instance. We believe in the myththat hard work makes for success. We believe that the most of us are middle-class. Politicians have learned to avoid the truth and play to the myth. Those candidates who attempt reality are often punished with losing.
In the past, this didn’t matter so much. Candidates arose through the party machinery and no candidate could go it alone. The machinery at least made sure that the candidate chosen was someone with basic skills of governing. Today, most delegates are chosen by primaries, as we have just exhaustively seen. Polls reflect the changing whim of “public opinion” and congressmen are no longer free to do what is right, but are beholden to interests that pour money into campaigns while politicians seemingly pander to what they think their constituents want to hear.
As the populous gained “control” over the candidates, then pandering to the public became key to winning. Television has become the tool of those who wish to obfuscate and mislead. And it works. We are bored with political affairs and we rely more or less on soundbites. We don’t check them out, we absorb them, fact or fiction. Moreover, issues themselves are manipulated for the express purpose of shaping public opinion. Today Exxon can’t wait to tell me how much it is helping to eradicate malaria in Africa. Why? so I’ll not feel so angry at their incredibly obscene profits. What is unstated of course is they hope I won’t vote for that Democrat who might make their corporate lives more difficult.
Television, which undoubted could have been used to foster civic knowledge, instead was used to present candidates as celebrity. Handsome? you win. Sallow, short, dumpy? you lose. As Shenkman says,
But superficiality is what television politics is all about. It is about the candidate’s smile and sincerity. It is about slogans. It is about clever packaging. 
Scary as it is, according to Shenkman, presidential speeches are written at the level a 7thgrader can understand, where in the mid 50′s or so, they were aimed at a twelfth grade level. Those who try to uplift even that, like Adlai Stevenson, in the 50′s are roundly laughed at as “eggheads” and soundly beaten.
The worst myth of all is that we think we are smart. We don’t admit our own ignorance. (How we view Jay’s troupe of idiots, or our election of GWB remains to be explained.) Liberals actually believe we are smart. Tune in any news cast where any politician is speaking, and he or she will undoubtedly at some point say, “I trust that the American people are too smart to be fooled by . . . .” We are continually being told we are wise and thoughtful, able to see through the tissue of lies.
This indeed was the undoing of Gore and Kerry. They believe the myth as do liberals in general. They cannot wrap their brains around the fact that we aren’t. Please don’t get me wrong, Shenkman is not arguing we are mentally unable to handle this stuff. We are too busy and too lazy to do the work to learn it, he contends. Republicans on the other hand, know the truth and use it effectively to their advantage. Rovian politics is based on the big lie, told again and again, knowing that few will examine its efficacy. Finally it becomes ingrained as truth in the minds of most.
In all this, Shenkman sees that this is really nothing so very new. Examining the Founding Fathers writings, we see that they too had a good deal of distrust in “The People,” and thus adjusted power accordingly. Most of our government was not set up to be elected “by the people.” Passivity was assumed on the part of most citizens and that was considered a good thing.
Liberals, holding on to the presumption of a smart electorate, cannot explain the racism and sexism which revealed themselves so clearly in the civil rights movment and the women’s movement. They explained it by reference to the people being bamboozled somehow by the bad guys. But this is no answer. What is more likely is that “The People” talk conservatively but operate liberally. What that means is that they are for social programs like social security, medicare, things that affect them personally, but become suddenly conservative on issues that deal with “other” interests, such as race, sex, gender. Republicans really fear democracy, since democracy threatens a free market economy, and the rich folks hold on their money.
In essence, liberals can’t believe that “The People” are stupid, and conservatives can’t afford to say it since so far they have benefited by being placed in power.
Shenkman, being I believe an optimist, sees a solution to the dilemma, or at least a series of possibilities that may improve the situation. First the internet and blogging are promising means by which deeper analysis and broader distribution of facts can be disseminated. We must persist in demanding real statements, not platitudes. Buzz words like freedom, liberty, good and evil need to be examined to see if there is actual substance to the way the words are used or only knee jerk flags to rally round. And we must be forced to face our ignorance.
Most innovative of Shenkman’s recommendations is that civics needs to be a major requirement not only in high school curricula again, but also required at the college level. It is scary to contemplate a “literacy test” for voting for obvious reasons, but at least it’s worthy of debate. Are not the times dangerous enough that we MUST do something to ensure that those elected to run our country have some minimal ability? One would hope so.
Read this, and think about it, and then figure out what you can do to be more aware of the political scene, what sources of help you can rely on to make good informed judgments you can trust, what is going on in your school district. I heartily endorse this well researched book as a beginning. Learn the truth of our ignorance, and then do something about it.
Bracketed numbers are page numbers from the book.