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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Book Review: Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter

Yes, this review was written in one draft. Don't kill me, okay?
I have wanted to do a review of Rick Shenkman's Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter since Mrs. Man-of-the-West checked it out of the library for me. Held it out somewhat longer than I was supposed to, as a matter of fact, as I kept finding other things to do with my time, but was reluctant to let it go before I'd had my shot at reviewing it.

Prior to reading this book, I had never heard of Mr. Shenkman (this confession will probably give my occasional liberal reader the heebie-jeebies--it turns out he is pretty much a confirmed and fairly well known liberal), but the title intrigued me, as I have grown increasingly convinced that the American public, in general, is simply too much the victim of poor education and time pressure to have anything approaching a real clue as to what is going on politically. I would not, personally, use the term "stupid," as to me, that implies a deficiency of gray matter, and I do not think the problem with the American voter is that he is congenitally stupid, but that he--often through little or no fault of his own--has little in the way of critical thinking skills and less in the way of basic historical and philosophical knowledge.

I was that way myself (some would argue that I still am!). I emerged from one of the best government school systems in the state with a 3.8 GPA and absolutely not a clue that there were such books as The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers. I had not a clue as to the existence of Samuel Rutherford or John Locke or Thomas Reid, thinkers enormously important to anyone who would understand the Founding Fathers' approach to American governance and practical philosophy. I am still working to correct this situation, which I have found is shared by the overwhelming majority of government education's victims (even those who've gone on to get bachelor's degrees and higher) dating back to at least the forties, and is at the root of much of my hostility toward government education.

But I digress. While I found that I disagreed with Mr. Shenkman at almost every point as to what actually constitutes sound government policy, I also found that I had a great deal of agreement with him as regards his assessment of the American voter. He starts, in the "Author's Note," with (emphasis mine where present):
...I am convinced that it is too easy to blame our mess on Mr. Bush. And I do not believe that his replacement by a leader who is less partisan and more competent and sensitive to civil liberties will begin to remedy what ails us.

What went wrong, went wrong long before Mr. Bush's ascendancy. His flaws simply gave us the unwelcome opportunity of seeing what heretofore had remained largely invisible.

We have had enough books about Mr. Bush, and I, for one, frankly am tired of them. What we need now are books to help us understand us. What has happened did not happen as a result of a single leader's mistakes. We had a hand in it.

The cliche is that people get the government they deserve. If that's true, why did we deserve Mr. Bush?
I, of course, note that that question is already being asked, and will continue to be asked, about President Obama.

In the first chapter, "The Problem," Mr. Shenkman says:
Our problem is twofold. Not only are we often blind to the faults of the voters, owing to the myth of The People, but the voters themselves frequently base their opinions on myths. This is a terrible conundrum. Democracy is rooted in the assumption that we are creatures of reason. If instead, as seems likely, we human beings are hard-wired to mythologize events and our own history, we are left with the paradox that our confidence in democracy rests on a myth.

Of all our myths, I believe the myth of The People to be the most dangerous one confronting us at present. The evidence of the last few years that millions are grossly ignorant of the basic facts involving the most important issues we face has brought me to this sad conclusion.
I found myself nodding in agreement. I have repeatedly been stunned at massive and widespread ignorance concerning basic issues and people. I could give examples, but Mr. Shenkman gives them in the book, and so I will use his. But I will say that I can find no rational explanation in the last presidential election for the nominations of Senator Obama and Senator McCain, two candidates who each championed ideas and policies repugnant to enormous numbers of voters, save for widespread public ignorance of what these two actually think and have done.

I will quote Mr. Shenkman at some length from the chapter "Gross Ignorance." Again, emphasis is mine:
In the 1990s political scientists Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, reviewing thousands of questions from three groups of surveys over four decades, concluded that there was statistically little difference among the knowledge levels of the parents of the Silent Generation of the 1950s, the parents of the Baby Boomers of the 1960s, and American parents today.


Some of the numbers are hard to fathom in a country where, for at least a century, all children have been required by law to attend grade school or be home-schooled. One would expect people, even those who do not closely follow the news, to be able to answer basic civics questions--but, in fact, only a small minority can. In 1950, at a time when the Democrats and Republicans were working out a bipartisan approach to foreign affairs, Americans were asked what a bipartisan foreign policy was. Only 26 percent could do so.

In 1952, just 27 percent of adults could name two branches of government. In 1955, when the Foreign Service was constantly in the news after Senator Joe McCarthy leveled charges that it was filled with communists, just 19 percent were able to explain what the Foreign Service was. The same year, just 35 percent were able to define the term Electoral College.

Skipping ahead a generation: in 1978 Americans were asked how many years a member of the House of Representatives served between elections. Just 30 percent correctly answered two years.


In 1986 only 30 percent knew that Roe v. Wade was the Supreme Court decision that ruled abortion legal more than a decade earlier. In 1991 Americans were asked how long the term of a U.S. senator is. Just 25 percent correctly answered six years. How many senators are there? A poll a few years ago found that only 20 percent know that there are 100 senators, though the latter number has remained constant for the last half-century (and is easy to remember). Encouragingly, today the proportion of Americans who can correctly identify and name the three branches of government is up to 40 percent, but that number is still below a majority.


...even Americans in the middle class who attend college exhibit profound ignorance. A report in 2007 published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that, on average, 14, 000 randomly selected college students at fifty schools around the country scored under 55 (out of 100) on a test that measured knowledge of basic American civics.


An experience I had a decade or so ago, aboard a train heading from Paris to Amsterdam, suggests the dimensions of the problem. I had a conversation with a young American who had graduated from college and was now considering medical school. He had received good grades in school. He was articulate. And he was anything but poor, as was clear from the fact that he was spending the summer tooling around Europe. But when the subject involved history, he was stumped. When the conversation turned to Joseph Stalin, he had to ask who Stalin was. What else, I wondered, did he not know if he didn't know this?
I'm afraid I can't offer any encouraging words to Mr. Shenkman. I have had innumerable conversations very similar to that one, wherein I found that my conversational partner simply didn't know things that one shouldn't be allowed to escape from even a government school without knowing. As a matter of fact, I'd say it is the rule, rather than the exception, even among those who are very educated and competent in their professions. Over and over again, I find that most people have not read the Constitution, or have only read it once, years ago; they do not understand the separation of powers, or the constitutional roles of each branch; they do not understand the electoral college; they do not even know what the Tenth Amendment says, let alone what it means for government today.

Mr. Shenkman continues, asking a question that I have been asking more and more often:
The optimists point to surveys indicating that about half the country can describe some differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. But if they do not know the difference between liberals and conservatives, as surveys indicate, how can they possibly say in any meaningful way how the parties differ?
Over and over again, I have suggested that a large part of the problem on the "conservative" side of the political spectrum is that too many--probably the majority of them--putative "conservatives" are not actually conservative in their thinking; rather, they hold a series of fairly popular conservative positions (which is not an altogether bad thing) without an adequate understanding, if any, of the history and thinking underlying them.

Mr. Shenkman continues to explore the problem in chapters titled, "Are the Voters Irrational?", "The Importance of Myths," "Giving Control to the People," "The Power of Television," Our Dumb Politics: The Big Picture," "Our Mindless Debate About 9/11," and "We Can't Even Talk About How Stupid We Are." Each has something worthwhile--which is not to say that I agree with everything Mr. Shenkman writes. Far from it; over and over again, I found that on issues, we differ. But on the underlying problem of widespread and profound voter ignorance (to say nothing of apathy)? On that, I found myself saying, over and over again, "Amen."

There are particularly pithy passages, like this one:
Studies show that the speeches of presidents today are pitched at the level of seventh graders; in the old days--a scant half-century ago or so--they talked at the twelfth grade level. Research also shows that young Americans generally know far less about politics than their counterparts did a generation or two ago, even though they spend more time in school. What meager knowledge Americans do have about candidates' positions on the issues is picked up from those inane TV spots that proliferate at election time like a biblical plague of annoying locusts.
And there is this somewhat surprising--and a bit back-handed--acknowledgment of Rush Limbaugh's audience's superior political knowledge:
You may be thinking to yourself that Rush's audience is mainly made up of "rednecks," and that, while they are a part of the broader public, they should not be considered representative. But who actually comprises Rush's audience of more than 20 million a week? According to a study conducted in 1996 by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, his listeners are better educated and "more knowledgeable about politics and social issues" than the average voter. There are two ways of looking at this. Either we must reconsider our assessment of Rush's show, conceding that it may be of a higher quality than we were prepared to admit. Or we may have to reach the unattractive conclusion that his audience is unrepresentative not because it is inferior in knowledge to the larger pool of American voters but because it is superior.
I can't help but note that either way, it amounts to a concession that probably, on average, the most informed voters in America listen to Rush Limbaugh--which can only be of cold comfort to most liberals.

One might ask, "If the American voter is so alarmingly ignorant of the facts, on what basis, then, does he make his voting decisions?" Mr. Shenkman's answer is mostly found in "Are the Voters Irrational?" Mr. Shenkman writes:
...they found that voters have invented a variety of methods to make up, in part, for their ignorance. Even inattentive voters glean much of what they need to know to cast a ballot intelligently through various "shortcuts." A voter, for example, may decide that he should vote for Candidate X because his local newspaper endorsed X and he generally agrees with the positions the paper takes. Or a voter may simply decide that he generally agrees with the Democrats and therefore votes for Democrats. Parties are like brands; people learn over time which to trust and not trust. Or a voter may follow the advice of a well-informed friend who shares his views.
There is more, of course, but I have to note that I found Mr. Shenkman's likening of a party to a "brand" somewhat sad, in that they should be like brands, but these days, I would have to conclude that both are guilty of misbranding. I do not think--heck, I know that many Democrats of sixty years ago had very little in common with the Democratic thinking of today, at least in general. I have had the unfortunate experience, for example, of listening to an elderly female relative wax on and on about various problems the country has, expressing what are now Republican positions--and yet she was a "yellow-dog" Democrat.

She was still, in her mind, voting for FDR, because, in her mind, he got us out of the Great Depression.

Likewise, it defies history and common sense to associate very many of John McCain's positions with historical republicanism or classical conservatism. The old brands no longer mean what they once did.

Just How Stupid Are We? is not a long book, but it is unfortunately somewhat depressing, as I frankly did not see much hope for the future in Mr. Shenkman's
proposed solutions to the problem, which I do not think I am being unfair in summarizing as better education and better media. I do not see much hope in those solutions, because to my mind, our educational system and our media princes and princesses share at least half the blame for the situation, if not more. I frankly do not think this situation is likely to be successfully addressed for some decades, if ever, because if we realize that literacy and knowledge levels were higher before widespread government education and compulsory attendance laws, we are hard-pressed to escape the conclusion that adding more is going to be very counterproductive--yet, to most people, the notion that the solution involves getting the government out of education altogether will seem so radical as to utterly preclude its consideration.

Overall, a very entertaining book that points out a very real problem in our politics. I recommend it despite my profound disagreements with the author as to policy specifics.

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