Just How Stupid are We: Facing the Truth About the American Voter Hardcover – 13 May 2008
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"New York Observer""Slender, lively and highly accessible ....it tackles one of the weightiest problems troubling American public life"
About the Author
Rick Shenkman is an award-winning investigative reporter, a New York Times best-selling author, and the editor and founder of George Mason University's History News Network, a website that features articles by historians on current events. An associate professor of history at George Mason University, he appears regularly as a commentator on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. He books include Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History and Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power, and Got Things Done. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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Shenkman thinks that civic lessons (his prescription in the final chapter) will solve the problem, but I think the problem is far deeper than might appear. Quite simply the modern state has gotten too complex for voters to comprehend how it might be governed. Consequently they have no idea whom to vote for since they don't have any idea which programs will work and which won't. So they try to make a judgment about a candidate, a gut feel for the man or woman. That's the best they can do. As Shenkman points out the average person with a job, a commute, family responsibilities, etc., doesn't have time to study the issues or to gain an understanding of the problems our societies face. What is more, the people actually holding office, our senators and congress persons themselves, don't have time to read the bills they vote on. They rely on staffers and lobbyists to do that for them, even including drafting the bills in the first place. In short we are becoming more and more removed from the actual process of governance. In the long run we may rely on software and robotic systems do the job of governing for us.
Because voters do not understand the issues except on the most elementary and emotional level, they are easily swayed by advertising. Thirty-second TV commercials are basically what voters rely on for information about the candidates. This allows those with the money to pay for the commercials to control elections. Large corporations contribute money to candidates that will do their bidding and those candidates use the money to fashion ads to seduce the electorate. What we have effectively is democracy by capitalism. I wish Shenkman had focused more on this aspect of the problem rather than on the stupidity of the average voter.
By the way, Shenkman gives five defining characteristics of stupidity on pages 14-15. They are "sheer ignorance," "negligence," "wooden-headedness," "shortsightedness," and "bone-headedness." I would say that stupidity is lethargy of the mind, a slowness to make connections, and willful ignorance. But however you define it, stupidity is a great failing.
Shenkman sees voters as relying on myths, such as George Washington never telling a lie or of Teddy Roosevelt leading a glorious charge up San Juan Hill. He quotes John F. Kennedy as saying "Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." The central myth of American politics, Shenkman believes, is that of "The People," a term he invariably capitalizes. He credits James Madison with being one of the first politicians to make good use of this "endlessly elastic term (p. 65). He adds that this "classic throwaway line with a pleasant populist tinge" (also p. 65) has become endlessly useful in such pronouncement as "the wisdom of the people," or "The People" can be relied upon to discern the truth, to do the right thing, etc.
Politicians of whatever stripe habitually refer to "the American people" as believing this or that or wanting this or that or whatever it is that the politician is advocating or against. Clergymen pretend to speak for God. Politicians pretend to speak for the people. But The People is not a homogenous entity. The People is really a diverse group of conflicting interests. Nobody really speaks for The People anymore than anyone speaks for God. They would just like us to think they do.
As a historian it is natural that Shenkman give the reader a historical perspective on democracy in America, and he does that in excellent style. His prose is eminently readable and his command of American history admirable. He shows how democracy has changed from when only land owners could vote through the rise of so-called Jacksonian democracy to the enfranchisement of women to especially the age of television. (No doubt he is now writing about democracy in the age of the Internet, and I suspect also on how Barack Obama used that newest medium to defeat the Republicans last year.)
Shenkman reflects on the changes brought about by the shrinking of the influence of party bosses and labor unions. He recalls how John F. Kennedy's staff effectively used appearance before the television cameras to win the presidency in 1960 by defeating Richard Nixon (who apparently wasn't aware that "the camera never blinks" and would catch him sweating!). Shenkman relates how sound bites and catchy phrasing ("There you go again") helped to make a grade B movie actor president and leader of the free world, a man who is now credited with bringing down the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism. (More myths in the making!)
In the penultimate chapter Shenkman talks about how we can't publically talk about how stupid the electorate is. That's taboo. Liberals can't say the people are stupid because that goes against their principles. Conservatives can say it because those stupid people are the ones that voted them into office! Since the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson the White House, the Congress and the Supreme Court have largely been in the hands of the Republican Party.
Finally what fascinates me most about what has happened to American democracy over my lifetime has been how the average idiot has gone from being a donkey Democrat to being a Rethuglican. Hopefully after the disaster of the George W. Bush/Dick Chaney/Karl Rove/Donald Rumsfeld era the "stupid" electorate with gain some smarts and start electing people who at least believe in governing and who rely on rationality and evidence as opposed to faith-based ignorance.
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America's democracy shares its malfunctions with many foreign countries which have their own similarly ignorant, disinterested, and gullible voters. So don't fret about the stupidity of American voters. We are not alone. In fact, most peoples around the globe, as we all know, are altogether unsuitable for this kind of regime and our attempts at introducing democracy to them have been frustrating or futile. That forces us to consider alternate types of responsible governance. An authoritarian regime would be acceptable, so long as one could ascertain its benevolence and wisdom. Indeed, that could be accomplished by the introduction of some sort of a Superior Court or Board of Supervision devoted to benevolence, expertise and common sense and one that is given the constitutional right to advise law givers. It might even be a supranational board that provides guidelines to a group of countries, as for instance all the Arab countries at the Persian Gulf. Even dictatorships might be rendered acceptable by such a constitutionally installed watchdog, an arrangement which might be appropriate for chaotic, failed states.
Still, democracy as part of such a structure would be preferable so that the voters' feelings and desires have suffrage. If a democratic regime were attached to a nonpartisan, dispassionate, technocratic guidance system that will gather the diverse political parties around pragmatism and reason, the influence by ill-informed voters would lose its necessity. They would forthwith be passengers the way we are in an airliner, where we leave the flying up to the captain who after all is an expert at it. In that situation, we would willingly accept the authority of the government the way we trust the policemen, the firemen and all our other experts, each in his field, or the physician who guides our health whenever it's needed. Yet, in spite of such trust, we would continue to have regular elections since the politicians are still accountable to the electorate. Forget about giving civics lessons to voters. There is too much of science behind operating a large country to leave it to laymen. Instead it is the job of professionals so long as they have been harnessed as described.
Mr. Shenkman correctly claims and shows that American citizens are not fulfilling their obligations to maintaining a healthy democracy by being well informed, critical thinkers. The author addresses the superficiality by television news programs on their coverage of politics; the odious but effective campaign commercials; the inability or willingness of Americans to rationally address the causes of 9/11; as well as he serves up enough bon mots of American stupidity to have made me throughly depressed. Mr. Shenkman also demonstrates how we focus on inconsequential matters and ignore the important stuff. If you are an informed individual, the book should also make you question ever signing another ballot initiative.
Observing any campaign and it is easy to see that manipulation by fear and misinformation (a fancy word for lies) are the main ingredient used by politicians and interest groups. This is simply because it works. Myths move people, facts do not. The hardcover book was published in 2008 before the subprime-mortgage bubble burst which contributed to Barack Obama winning the presidency. Fortunately, an epilogue has been inserted into the paperback edition which covers the 2009 campaign. Is the public as stupid as Mr. Shenkman states? Well, to quote the female lightweight that had no business being within a country mile of the presidency "You betcha!" The book is a quick, informative rant about how stupid we really are. God, I need some chocolate.
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