Rick Shenkman: Interviewed about his new book

Historians in the News

The long Iraq war. The bungled Hurricane Katrina response. The credit crunch. A quick look at the newspapers will give many voters reason to doubt the wisdom of America's political leaders. Unfortunately, Americans are doing little to educate themselves about their leaders and their policies, says bestselling author and George Mason University historian Rick Shenkman in his new book Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter. Shenkman cites some damning facts to make his case that Americans are ill-prepared to guide the world's most powerful democracy. Only 2 of 5 voters can name the three branches of the federal government. And 49 percent of Americans think the president has the authority to suspend the Constitution. But, for Shenkman, the severity of the problem snapped into focus after Sept. 11, 2001, when polls showed that a large number of Americans knew little about the attacks and the Iraq war that followed. He blames some of the public's misunderstanding on the White House message machine, but he argues that Americans did little to seek the truth."As became irrefutably clear in scientific polls undertaken after 9/11...millions of Americans simply cannot fathom the twists and turns that complicated debates take," Shenkman writes. Shenkman spoke to U.S. News about the competence of the American voter. Excerpts:

What made you first ask the question,"Just how stupid are we?"

There's been no issue more important in the last generation than 9/11 and the Iraq war, and Americans didn't understand basic facts about it. I found that very disturbing, and I wanted to explain how to account for that and then how to have an intelligent conversation about this. It's a very sensitive subject. I want us to be able to sit down, calmly review the evidence, and one, like alcoholics, admit we have a problem; and, two, try to figure out how we remedy that problem.

What evidence most concerned you?

Even after the 9/11 Commission, a majority of Americans believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq even after the Commission said there weren't. Only a third of Americans understood that much of the rest of the world opposed our invasion. Another third thought the rest of the world was cheering our invasion, and a third thought the rest of the world was neutral. If you're going to get that much wrong about the most important issue facing us, it's hard to have much confidence in our democracy....

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