Blogs > HNN > We're All Populists Now. That's Unfortunate.

Jul 7, 2008 11:23 pm

We're All Populists Now. That's Unfortunate.

Mr. Shenkman, the author of the new book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter (Basic Books, June 2008), is an associate professor of history at George Mason University and editor of the university's History News Network.

This is a story about the failure of The People and how their failure led inexorably to the Iraq War. But before we can get to that a history lesson is in order about the development of a taboo so powerful it is making good government all but impossible. The idea that there might be any taboo topics left in a country in which people feel free to talk about priests having sex with choir boys or the shape of the president's penis may seem almost preposterous. But while we have been busy adding to the number of subjects we feel comfortable discussing in public we have quietly subtracted one. Today almost no one wants to get caught openly acknowledging the limits of public opinion. We are all populists now. The voice of The People -- as measured daily and sometimes hourly in public opinion polls -- is the voice of God.

Given the expanding circle of areas into which democratic values have intruded the triumph of this dogma may appear to have been all but inevitable. The history of the United States is, after all, to a certain extent, the history of the unfolding of human freedom, the kernel of which was planted in July of 1776 when Jefferson exclaimed, "all men are created equal." All of the advances in democratic freedoms we have been witness to since the dawn of the Revolution have grown from that simple and powerful idea.

In a profound and disturbing way though our worship of The People has grown so rigid that we are in danger of losing touch with our own history. It is one thing to pay ordinary people the respect due them as human beings, quite another to pretend that everything they believe is beyond questioning. We used to understand this, but no longer seem to.

Ubiquitous among the papers of the Founding Fathers are palpable fears about The People's wisdom. No other self-governed society in history had ever lasted, after all. So the Founders fretted, like new cooks in a kitchen worried about the proper adjustments that needed to be made in a recipe conjured up on the fly. Quite often they acted with prudence, providing in the Constitution, for example, that merely one half of one branch of the three branches of government were to be subject to popular control. Some figures like George Mason expressed their suspicions about popular rule in terms we would regard as almost rude. "It would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper magistrate to the people," he opined, "as it would to refer the choice of colors to a blind man." Even Thomas Jefferson expressed misgivings about public opinion. When the popularly-elected legislature of his own beloved Virginia came under the sway of demagogues like his arch enemy Patrick Henry, Jefferson snarled that liberty was as much in danger from 173 despots as from 1.

Leaders felt free to issue warnings about The People from the era of the Founding Fathers down through the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression and the start of the Cold War. Even liberals, casting a glance over their shoulders at the mobs Hitler was rousing to a frenzy, worried openly about the susceptibility of Americans to the black arts of propaganda. They worried so much they got the nickname: "nervous liberals." Then suddenly, like a thunder clap, the carping, caviling, and outright condemnation of The People ceased abruptly.

What happened? Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. It would be too simple to lay this dramatic change wholly at Reagan's feet, but he more than anybody played the key role in the evolution of democratic fundamentalism, as one writer put it. Reagan, whose effusiveness for the common man made him sound like his one-time political hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, turned optimism into political gold. As John Patrick Diggins, a Reagan biographer, astutely observes, the Founding Fathers believed that "the people are the problem and government the solution" while Reagan convinced us that the people are virtuous and that government's the problem. "It worked," Diggins notes. "Reagan never lost an election."

As conservatives, following Reagan's example, joined in praise of The People -- the ordinary working class folks whom liberals had demonized as racists, homophobes and sexists -- they rung up victory after victory at the polls. That was the last anyone heard for a long time of conservatives complaining about The People.

What about liberals? Caught in the contradictions of their own ideology -- their professed love of The People and The People's seemingly misguided rejection of them at the polls -- they turned
angry, convinced that they were being punished at the polls not for their many mistakes but for their forthright stands on issues of conscience like civil rights and women's liberation.

It would have been helpful to Democrats to hold an honest conversation about the real sources of their discontent. But they couldn't without facing foursquare the myth of The People. So instead they entertained a series of excuses for their electoral failures, claiming in election after election that they had been cheated out of victory by politicians willing, like Richard Nixon, to engage in dirty tricks, or Reagan, who manipulated the media, or George H.W. Bush, who rode to power by slyly exploiting racial fears and faux patriotism.

What has all this to do with the Iraq War? We are used to thinking of the war as the Bush administration's failure. But it could not have taken place had ordinary Americans not been taken in by the administration's deceit, chiefly the dropped hint that Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11. One study by the University of Maryland found that nearly 60 percent of Americans were convinced that Saddam was helping al Qaeda when we undertook our invasion. A majority based their support for the war on this flagrant misunderstanding. A near-majority persisted in believing Saddam was responsible for 9-11 even after the 9-11 Commission flat out said he wasn't.

Why have we not had an open conversation about The People's failures? One answer is that it is more fun to beat up on the Bush administration and the media, both of which share the blame for the misinformation that polluted the public debate. But a more honest answer is that neither liberals nor conservatives want to break the new taboo whose history I outlined above in reaching a more balanced assessment. Neither want to find fault with The People.

And yet shouldn't The People come in for criticism, too? That al Qaeda and not Saddam was behind 9-11 was a well-established fact by the time of the invasion. While a rational argument could be made in favor of the war, the argument linking Saddam and 9-11, which won over most people, wasn't.

It's time to face that.

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PS Rykken - 6/25/2008

I find it hard to believe that we are actually getting "dumber" when it comes to politics. For example, what did an average American know during the years of the Revolution about the nuances of what was actually going on? And certainly the democratization of our politics beginning with Jackson has driven most American politicians toward anti-intellectualism in their appeal. The Obama and elitism debate that is currently being waged illustrates the point -- and isn't it fascinating that Karl Rove throws that "charge" Obama's direction.

What seems distressing in all of this is the advent and fostering of "selective interpretation" of news and opinions and how we are able to get our own views constantly reinforced by like-minded people. I work with young people in the high school setting and have done that for nearly 30 years. My students today are a product of this "hardening of views" news atmosphere and it leaves them confused, frankly, for what or who to believe.

Any suggestions on how we should fight this, particularly at the high school level of teaching?

Mark - 6/21/2008

"ca. 2500"years ago Plato stated that people given the choice between reason and flattery will choose flattery.What.s new!!He also complaint about the hedonism of the youth.
The Romans used bread and games to pacify their citizens.and we discovered Pavlovian conditioning.6 minutes of bad news (bad world) in any form followed by 2 minutes of happy solution commercials.The dance around the golden calf all over again.And it works especially well on undereducated people ,thus the lack of concerted efforts in public education.With 4 out of 5 Americans never venture outside the mainland they don't have a clue about themselves or the rest of the world besides what they are fed by the powers to be.

Michael Glen Wade - 6/20/2008

It's not. Best that can be said is that it is tangential.

Maarja - 6/20/2008

Perhaps someday we’ll see a sequel to Rick’s book which uses a multidisciplinary approach and draws on the often gated communities of the Internet. Having read the book, I agree with Rick’s general premise that many members of the public do not follow the news closely. (As a fed, I cannot speak to some of his other conclusions.)

Certainly, some members of the public graze the news, know little about civics and how government works, and jump to conclusions. I saw that this week in the reader comments posted in the Washington Post about a narrow judicial ruling on whether or not the White House Office of Administration constitutes an agency subject to FOIA. At issue were procedural documents about archiving, records management, and IT practices in the WH. These potentially would provide insights into how the WH handled email. The documents denied as a result of the ruling did not involve the contents of email exchanged among Presidential advisers. However, most readers assumed the ruling affected access to the contents of Presidential email and argued about cover-ups. Some conflated other issues as they excoriated the judge. Several asserted that she was doing the President’s bidding, was corrupt or acting politically. One poster sneered of the ruling what else would one expect from an official in the Department of Justice. Of course, district court judges are in the judicial, not the executive, branch.

I’m suggesting that future examinations of this topic would benefit from a multidisciplinary approach for several reasons. Part of looking at the issue of why people shy away from following the news involves what management scientists call people issues. Not all historians are biographers. Not all are interested in how people (as opposed to “The People”) act and why. Or how to induce better outcomes in terms of public discourse. So I don’t assume that being trained academically in tracing historical events brings with it an ability for the practioners to understand why individuals or groups act as they do. Based on my observations, some historians do that well, others seem to have a tin ear. .

Educators don’t seem very interested in speaking up on the issues raised in Rick’s book, either. (I had hoped that my earlier reference to Dr. Shapiro's interesting piece in IHE would trigger some discussion here.) But perhaps behavioral scientists and linguists one day will look at related issues. I’m thinking of echo chamber forums, the attraction of congregating in real world or virtual like-minded communities, the rejection of news sources in a reporting environment that some observers have come to view as increasingly balkanized. Do those developments increase the tendency to sterereotype or dehumanize adherents of the opposing party and to reject data that doesn’t fit a worldview?

There’s so much to examine in the places where people congregate in the virtual world, including how they use language. The vocabulary terms people use to characterize opponents sometimes seem to reflect efforts to infantilize them or feminize or dehumanize them. Years ago I saw someone do that repeatedly on HNN. (I was not involved in the exchanges, which involved two men of opposing parties.) The choice of vocabulary terms in an apparent effort to intimidate or silence others may provide clues about how some people build shields around themselves in public forums. (Historians are not immune to that, actually.)

Time will tell how the Internet affects the issues Rick has raised in his book. Certainly, the sequel should be interesting.

HNN - 6/20/2008

I supported the first Iraq war. I do not recall saying that Bush I should have gone to Baghdad. I was thrilled the war ended quickly. I cheered the parade in NYC that celebrated the end.

In retrospect, Bush I's mistake was allowing Saddam to have the freedom to use his helicopter gun ships to mow down rebellious Shiites in the south. Going on to Baghdad would have been a mistake in 1992 as it was in 2003.

Mistakes are not a sign of stupidity. Stupidity is acting on misinformation when the truth is widely available.

As for the current election: I am not interested in debating the election on this blog. My book is not an indictment of one party or another. The problem we face is not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem. It is an American problem. Framing this question in partisan terms is unhelpful frankly.

HNN - 6/20/2008

I am a historian and not a policy maker. So I honestly cannot say whether the solutions I advance in the book are plausible or not. My editor insisted I include some solutions so I did so.

As I suggest in the book the most important step we could take is the very first one: acknowledging we have a problem. The correct diagnosis having been made, we could set about trying various remedies until we hit on one that worked. We would not be starting from scratch fortunately. Pilot programs have been tried out across the country.

Kurt Reiger - 6/19/2008

Mr. Editor, here is my question: I distinctly remember a conversation with you in 1992 in which you castigated George Bush for not going into Baghdad and finishing off Saddam. Al Gore was making the same argument publicly, that Bush had not properly finished off the Gulf War. My question is, now knowing what a mess Iraq is, were you stupid then, or stupid now??

On a more serious note, do you think other countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have a vested interest in destabilizing Iraq? Would it be “stupid” for us to elect the guy who wants to pull out of this illegal and immoral war immediately, leaving millions to die in a remake of Cambodia? Or would it be “stupid” for us to elect the guy who thinks we might be sitting around there for 100 years?

Maarja - 6/19/2008

Bought your book at Olsson's and read it yesterday, very interesting. I was interested most of all in your proposed solutions for how to increase public awareness of current events.

As someone who took civics in high school (a course which included weekly quizzes on current events) in the late 1960s, I understand the value of that approach. I don't know why school systems largely abandoned it, even before the emphasis on testing.

Since I'm a historian, not an educator or a political scientist, I don't know how effective your proposed introduction of intensive civics courses at the high school and college levels would be longterm. It certainly seems worth a try. But what long term effect would it have on people who don't have a natural interest in the larger world outside their own home or community or profession? I don't know, I'm not a behavioral scientist. (Training may work for some individuals in certain behavioral areas, as an article on CNN yesterday noted about helping decrease the so-called "empathy deficit." See

I had a fascination with what was happening in the U.S. and the world -- and why -- back in high school, which I've retained in later life. Perhaps some of that derived from the fact that I then had family members living abroad in a country which had lost its sovereignty after World War II (Estonia). Or perhaps, as someone who became an historian, and loves to read, I'm just wired for scooping up information and knowledge.

People use such differing coping mechanisms for dealing with national and world events. That results in a very wide range of levels of engagement (from very to hardly at all). I certainly would never argue that my approach should work for the majority, when, as an historian, I know my MBTI type represents a tiny portion of the population. I don't disdain others for being different in their MBTI types or interests.

The attraction of the insular -- whether it derives from limited leisure time, a desire to congregate with like-minded people, the natural desire to feel good by patting oneself on the back (or having others do it) about what one knows (and overlook what one does not) or something more negative in origin -- often is on display even here on HNN. I see much less thirst for knowledge and desire for engagement with each other here on HNN than I would have expected from a site which attracts people interested in history. If you can't get people to talk about this in HNN's small town square, it's going to be even harder to get a larger and more diverse group to take an interest.

jamesj - 6/18/2008

It's little wonder that Rep. Kucinich's impeach the President effort was D.O.A., we the people liked this war until we changed our minds.Your piece is also an excellent summation of why the Democrats kept losing elections. Reagan took the truth about inefficient government and spun it into a conscious effort by those anonymous socialist bueracrats to rob middle class white voters.
The public amen chorus prior to the start of the Iraq war paid no more attention to the facts than the U.S. Senate did, only six of whose members could find the time to read the NIE Iraq file before voting on the authorization for the invasion. That being said I still find fault first and foremost with Congress and the press. Congress for authorizing another war without declaring it a war and the press for being the corporate camp followers the ratings seemingly ask them to be. Of course it must be said that until the citizens require our representatives to follow the rules of the men who created our system and recognized that as James Madison said, "War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.", we will all pay a price including the civilian victims of our wars of choice.
Be it Hearst, Goring, or Christopher Hedges, they're all right; war sells, and The People are an easy mark. Until we started suffering casualties The People were for this war. Sen. Obama waited 11 months after being elected until the tide had turned and the opinion polls reflected that before making another anti-war speech. Americans will assume a default pro war position until like the Europeans we actually experience war. I also think our ignorance if not outright hostility to all things Arab played a role.
Voters pay scant attention to foreign affairs until a 9/11 gains their attention. I wish the Democrats had a politician with Reagan's communication skills to help ordinary Americans recognize that the health care, education and infrastructure commensurate with our supposed #1 status will be missing until we recognize that the demands of the empire and the needs of ordinary Americans are in conflict. Oh that's right Obama, "a change we can believe in". He does know how to manipulate.

Maarja - 6/18/2008

In her article yesterday in Inside Hiher Ed, "Staying Smart in Dumbed-Down Times," Judith Shapiro suggests that

"those of us who have chosen the academic vocation must do our part. In addition to addressing one another, we must address wider publics. And we must make use of new modes of communication as they become available. That means, for example, using cyber channels not just for blogging the like-minded (the Internet fails to achieve its liberating potential insofar as it is composed of myriad gated communities), but for opening new doors."


I linked to the Washington Post's message board yesterday in my comment headed "Discourse" before I had read Shapiro's article.

One way of reaching out (I refuse to say "outreaching" as so many people do these days!) is by posting on comment boards where the public congregates. If you see what you regard as misperceptions on news sites' message boards about news stories, point them out. I believe it is possible to do provide facts without calling people names or insulting them.

Yes, many message boards associated with newspapers have an Alpha dog vibe, with posters insulting each other in an effort to become King of the Hill. (Professor Deborah Tannen would say this is due to ritualistic status contests, with posters concentrating on whether they are one up or one down in comparison to others.) But you never know what lurkers may be reading them. So you might be able to reach some people, even if the Alpha dogs snarl at you. Let them play the game their way, don't let it stop you from chiming in your way.

Yes, I know I described earlier in my honey v. vinegar posting how I stopped subscribing to a Listserv after a while But that was a different scenario. I stopped posting there because I concluded that the records managers who posted relied on a tight knit sense of community and long established rituals in communicating amongst themselves to keep up their morale. From what I read on the Listserv, it seems records managers have very challenging jobs. When I weighed that against the potential of my disrupting that, I decided it was best for them to use that particular Listserv to focus on maintaining a sense of community amongst themselves.

Posted on personal time

humblebee - 6/18/2008

Please check out 9/11: Press for Truth. It's a documentary that follows the families of 9/11 victims in their efforts to get Bush to authorize an investigation into the 9/11 attacks. It shows how the Bush administration opposed an investigation and how, when Bush finally did give in, he and other White House officials took steps to ensure that the investigation would result in a whitewash. As the film shows, many of the questions that the families wanted answered by the 9/11 Commission remain, to this day, unanswered.

Perhaps the most startling assertion in the Commission's Final Report is that the source of the funds for 9/11 are neither known nor important. How Philip Zelikow - the executive director of the Commission, with close ties to the White House and Condi Rice in particular - could allow this bald-faced lie to pass into the final report is beyond belief. It strikes me as not only unbelievably disingenuous but also treasonous.

Rick, you talk about how stupid our politics has become - think of the utter stupidity required to believe that who paid for 9/11 isn't important.

Please review the Times of India article I posted above and watch 9/11: Press for Truth. Maybe you'll reconsider.



Maarja - 6/18/2008

Rick, in your blog essays (and apparently in your book, which I haven't yet read but will) you've identified what you see as problems with voters and argued that there should be debate and discussion of the issue.

For what type of debate are you looking? Are you hoping to hear journalists discuss this? Psychologists? Educators? Members of "the people" themselves (less likely to read your essays and book than any of the former, I think.)

Unfortunately, while there are many educators associated with HNN itself, few have weighed in under your posts. That's unfortunate. I'm not an educator (I've spent my entire history career in the federal government). So I'm very interested in how educators view the issues you raise. I'd like to learn more about their perspective. But if you can't entice many of them to post under your essays, doesn't that illustrate the challenge you face with the public as a whole?

I recently saw someone -- I think it was in Inside Higher Ed -- refer to "gated communities" on the Internet -- very evocative of the psychology of some message boards and even evident at times here on HNN.

For whatever reason, despite the questions you have thrown out, I've seen little discussion under your essays of teaching. (Are there really more students these days who dismissively say to professors, as someone once posted on IHE about his experience, "That is your opinion, I have my own.") And what about the issue that Clare has raised about critical thinking?

As to other issues in which I have a strong interest, such as why people are engaged in issues or not; how they use their limited leisure time -- and whether they read or not; how they gather information (as reflected by Myers Briggs and other indicators); how they accept or reject data; how they accept or rebuff each others' arguments; it doesn't look as if many other posters are into these issues.

But aren't there many factors that affect what you describe? What about means of communications? Newsweek recently ran an article about what it called "low information voters" who watch a lot of television. It described how candidates increasingly book appearances on talk shows and entertainment oriented venues in order to reach them. If there really are people out there who are aliterate (know how to read but choose not to), as some surveys suggest, what is the best way to reach such voters?

What about the issues that apparently are raised in the book Walter Moss mentions in his essay this week on the main page (_Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart_)? Do they affect the way people cherry pick which news sites they believe and which they reject? As I've pointed out, it's not like the old days where most people watched Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley give the news on TV.

Are you seeing debates about any of this in other venues as a result of your book?

Clare Lois Spark - 6/17/2008

We should all read your book, Rick. I didn't say you were a conservative, but asked if you wanted to replicate a discourse that represents "the People" as a mob, or in James Thurber's argot, a blob of glup. Others have called them a compact mass.
But to raise a related question, you do say elsewhere that "the people" are "in charge." How can that be? And as for your category "the people" even poll-takers divide them up according to age, occupation, gender, religion, region, etc. In other articles here you criticize the notion of unity by pointing out divergent belief systems in our country. Perhaps this too will be explained in your book.
I still say that the federal system makes it impossible to elevate education in the directions I would find utterly indispensable to citizenry in a democratic republic. Civics courses don't do it. It means an entire rethinking of our educational system, one that would teach everyone the social, political, and economic bases of social movements in U.S. history and elsewhere that had as their objectives further democratization or, alternatively, those movements that sought, often subtly, to turn back the clock, and such reactionary, sometimes pseudo-democratic movements, I would argue, can be found on what we today call either Left or Right.
This is a lot to ask, but then democracy asks a great deal of its citizens, more than any other society that we know of in human history. I dare say that few reformers have been willing to admit the magnitude of the challenge posed to America by the Declaration of Independence and like documents of the Enlightenment. As I said before, Sumner was one, Lippmann another. We are dumber and more complacent now.

Rick Shenkman - 6/17/2008

Sorry Rodney but we'll have to disagree.

I do think we understand the 9-11 story pretty well in most regards.

What we don't know is why we went to war in Iraq. Short of examining Bush's brain under a microscope I don't know how we'll get the truth about that. But maybe an email will surface which sheds light on the subject.

humblebee - 6/17/2008

Hi Rick,

I desire the same thing you do, but in order to get smart, I think we have to be smart enough to face the realities of power and the subtle ways in which it is exercised to stifle dissent, divert attention from public issues that affect everyone(e.g., outsourcing of jobs) to less important social issues (e.g., gay marriage - here's where the Bible-thumpers come in), and to establish the parameters of political discourse (e.g., by keeping important public issues off the table).

The lies about Saddam's WMDs and connection to 9/11 are derivative, ushered in by the biggest whopper of them all, 9/11 itself.

We still don't know what happened on 9/11. But, given what we know about all the warnings that went unheede, we can be sure that the White House knew about the attacks in advance.

I think HNN should hold a forum for historians who question the official version of the 9/11 story - kind of like the one we did for global warming a couple years ago.

What do you think?

Many thanks,


humblebee - 6/17/2008

And then there is the even bigger lie from which the lie that misled us into Iraq AND Afghanistan is derived: the war on terror.

George Bush said that the he would make no distinction between the terrorists responsible for 9/11 and those nations that harbor them; we will attack both.

It is now well established (and has been for some time) that the funding for 9/11 came from Pakistan's Interservices Intelliegence agency (ISI). Indian intelligence discovered shortly after 9/11 that Mahmud Atta, the lead hijacker, received a $100,000 wire transfer from Ahmad Saeed Umar Sheikh in Pakistan. The order to send this money came from the head of the Pakistan ISI Gen. Mahmud Ahmad. The FBI has confirmed this exchange.

From the Times of India:
new delhi: while the pakistani inter services public relations claimed that former isi director-general lt-gen mahmud ahmad sought retirement after being superseded on monday, the truth is more shocking. top sources confirmed here on tuesday, that the general lost his job because of the "evidence" india produced to show his links to one of the suicide bombers that wrecked the world trade centre. the us authorities sought his removal after confirming the fact that $100,000 were wired to wtc hijacker mohammed atta from pakistan by ahmad umar sheikh at the instance of gen mahumd. senior government sources have confirmed that india contributed significantly to establishing the link between the money transfer and the role played by the dismissed isi chief. while they did not provide details, they said that indian inputs, including sheikh’s mobile phone number, helped the fbi in tracing and establishing the link. a direct link between the isi and the wtc attack could have enormous repercussions. the us cannot but suspect whether or not there were other senior pakistani army commanders who were in the know of things. evidence of a larger conspiracy could shake us confidence in pakistan’s ability to participate in the anti-terrorism coalition.


(See also

The only American publication to even mention this crucial piece of evidence was the WSJ's online opinion journal:

Why does the corporate media ignore this? Why doesn't the Senate governmental affairs committee publicize Pakistan's connection to 9/11? Are we all stupid for not raising this issue?

Now, if Bush intended to fight a war on "terror" - or more precisely, the people who facilitated 9/11 - then the US military would have gone into Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and certainly not Iraq - by whom their hated next door rival Iran didn't even feel threatened.

There is also extensive ties between Pakistan's ISI and the CIA. The CIA funneled money to the Mujahideen through the ISI throughout the 80s in order to help the Mujahideen fight a civil war in Afghanistan against the Soviet-backed government. The Mujahideen was led by Usama bin Laden, a CIA "asset," who went on to form Al-quaeda, which had close ties to the Taliban regime that took root after the Soviets were defeated. Pakistan supported the Taliban regime and, apparently, remains loyal to the scattered remnants even to this day. Consider Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent threat against Pakistan for harboring Taliban fighters and allowing them to cross the border and attack Afghani and coalition soldiers (see

Why isn't this big news? Is it not big news because we're all stupid? Perhaps. To some extent.

But the major reason, I think, is that we simply aren't supposed to know these things. The corporate elite who control access to the means of mass communication - who arguably have more representation in Congress than we do - are determined to keep the majority of us in the dark about who was actually responsible for 9/11. It also seems to be in the White House's interest as well to keep us in the dark.

Remember, Bush told us all to go back to what we were doing. He actually said, "Go shopping!" The unspoken text here is: Don't try and figure out what happened on 9/11, or how it happened, children. Leave that to us.

So are we stupid? Yeah, I guess some of us are sometimes.

But does that explain how we started a war in Iraq? I don't think so.

Are the Bush administration and We the People equally culpable for Iraq disaster? Definitely not.

Let's stop lambasting the people and start getting the information they need out there, so that we can all see how we've been lied to and manipulated. Then maybe we can start holding those most responsible accountable for what they've done.

Maarja - 6/17/2008

Hi, Rick, my comment was addressed to Clare, who was thoughtful enough to post clarification below. Sorry I didn't make that clear!

posted by Smartphone on personal time

HNN - 6/17/2008

I don't want to pick a fight with you since you have been generous in your comments.

But I am not convinced Obama was being accurate in his depictions of Pennsylvania working class voters. I honestly do not think their love of their guns has anything to do with their economic situation. Or their love of religion for that matter.

I have spent most of my adult life in red states. People didn't strike me as bitter when they went hunting or attended church.

The reason Obama's comments went over so badly was because they reminded voters of Jimmy Carter. Carter was always tending to our souls. I think the Dems would be better off tending to pocketbook issues and social justice and leave the sociology to the sociologists.

Obama's is a process Democrat. Here's a process issue I want him to address: How we can create a country of smart voters. That's the country I want to live in.

HNN - 6/17/2008

I spend several pages in the book debunking the idea of The People.

It's a fiction. Who the hell knew who The People were back in the 18th century? Were slaves included? Women? The propertyless?

It's a saving grace in our society that we don't actually have a volk in whose name the pols can govern. As Madison noted we're a diverse country with multiple interests. In one contested public exchange with Patrick Henry Madison tried to claim that The People were the separate states. But in private he dissented from his own views, admitting that there simply was no such thing.

Nonetheless the myth of The People is very real and very powerful. It shapes our elections time and again as the candidates pay homage to ordinary voters with whom they are hoping to identify.

Clare Lois Spark - 6/17/2008

Maarja misunderstands me, though I thank her for her comment. A scientific education would teach students to decode propaganda, from whatever source and throughout life. But this would turn them into "mechanical materialists" and no current political party seems to want to abandon what seem to me to be crypto-religious discourses for analysis based on facts in the real world. I laid much of this out in my HNN article
For two major American political figures who understood the utter necessity for a popular science education see Charles Sumner, the 19th century antislavery Senator from Massachusetts, and Walter Lippmann (e.g. PUBLIC OPINION, THE GOOD SOCIETY, PUBLIC OPINION, LIBERTY AND THE NEWS, THE PHANTOM PUBLIC). Lippmann's thought has been severely distorted in an Orwellian direction by Chomsky and his avatars.

HNN - 6/17/2008

As you surmise the book focuses on the forces that have lead to our present predicament. It's not about assigning blame.

While I believe that our schools can help improve the situation by emphasizing civics again, my chief point is that voters left to themselves are not likely to study issues hard enough to become well-informed. They need help--the kind of help they get when belonging to a mass group (like a political party) which can help shape their views.

Parties used to be interested in voter education. Today they are mostly about raising money to buy dumb 30 second spots.

This is unfortunate.

HNN - 6/17/2008

If you read my book you'll see that I am hardly a basher of the people. I don't want to shrink democratic rights. I want a smarter citizenry. How does that make me a conservative?

But I do want conservatives--or somebody!--to start drawing attention to the failures of public opinion. This used to happen. It no longer does, for the reasons I state in my piece. This leaves the system out of whack.

We need self-criticism. That's got to be a part of our democratic dialogue.

Read the book and you'll see that I try to take a nuanced approach to this.

HNN - 6/17/2008

Au contraire: The polling data is clear that Americans cited Saddam's alleged connection with 9-11 as a chief reason for the invasion.

You say was was inevitable. Nonsense. Nothing is inevitable when human beings are involved. As a historian I don't believe in fate, I believe in facts.

Maarja - 6/17/2008

An example on the Washington Post’s comment boards of how easily people misunderstand complex issues and read into them what they want without taking the time to look at the underlying question, much less the laws.
See comments on a judicial ruling yesterday on internal documents from the White House Office of Administration at

I often read the Post’s message boards because I’m interested in how people perceive and frame issues. (In this case, a lot of people seem to have jumped to conclusions, assuming the ruling dealt with something it did not even cover.) You learn here on the WaPo board how some people -- the self selecting posters -- view their government. It’s also a good reminder for those of us who are historians not to engage in name calling or to rely on stereotypes in framing our arguments, even in blog essays, where the conventions of formal academic writing and peer review do not apply. If “the people” rarely see issues discussed reasonably, fairly and with scholarly detachment, we can’t blame them for not valuing such an approach.

posted on personal time by Smartphone

- 6/17/2008

Obama thus tried to raise the level of discussion above stupid (i.e., above Fox News), and his political opponents and the corporate media pounced on him. He was guilty of violating the established framework of debate and, for his crime, was portrayed as elitist and "out of touch." Conservatives have so successfully framed the debate that they have precluded any honest discussion of power and how, as Steven Lukes put it, power is at its most effective when it is least observable. It seems most left-leaning politicians have acquiesced to the terms of debate dictated by the Right in order to remain competitve. And when they do show the courage to speak truthfully, they get crucified.

So let's keep speaking truthfully. First, there is nothing paternalistic in observing how people can be misled to align against their own interests. Making this observation is only dangerous to those who benefit from keeping the people in the dark about how they would be manipulated. Anyone who attempts to blow the lid off this "effect of power" (i.e., Gramsci's "hegemony") is likely to set off a firestorm of indignation.

Moreover, to keep people in the dark, the elite politicians flatter them by telling them how smart they are to allow themselves to be ruled over by such smart, benevolent rulers; and then they bombard the people with propaganda in a media blitzkrieg. And, as times get tougher for more Americans who are struggling to pay their mortgages and take care of their kids, there's less time to do independent research to get a fuller picture of what's going on in the world. Most people are forced to rely on the corporate media for their information.

Second, We the People and those who control the means of power, including the means to deceive and mislead, are not equally culpable in the case of Iraq. Those who have more power and who are making the big decisions are certainly more responsible for the policies executed in the name of the United States. As all fans of spiderman know, with great power comes great responsibility.

Rick, in order for your argument to hold water - that the people are just as responsible, if not more responsible, than the "Deciders" who mislead this country into war, you would have to assume that this country is as democratic as it claims to be. You would have to show that our elected officials truly represent the will of the people and act on behalf of the common good rather than on behalf of a minority of elite corporate interests.

In fact, the massive effort that goes into these propaganda campaigns intended to prepare the people for war suggests an implicit recognition that the people wouldn't go for it if they were told the truth. This suggests that, with correct information, the people (at least a majority) would not go in for war; with the truth, the people would make the right decision to oppose aggression committed in their name.

humblebee - 6/17/2008

Hi Rick,

You write: "It would have been helpful to Democrats to hold an honest conversation about the real sources of their discontent. But they couldn't without facing foursquare the myth of The People."

It's interesting to note that Obama was recently flayed for trying to have an honest conversation when he spoke about how people without jobs in rural Pennsylvania felt “bitter”; and how, in times of stress and economic uncertainty, people often cling to their Bibles and guns - they fall back on consoling traditions, i.e., what's familiar to them.

The criticism Obama received for his remarks, a lot of which issued from Hillary's camp, was that his comments indicated a paternalist and elitist point of view - they smacked of an unrefined Marxism implicit in the idea of "false consciousness."

But it was the truth, and Obama insisted that everyone knew it. Apparently, no other elected official wants to admit the extent to which power can be used to shape people's perceptions and opinions through the control and management of information, much of which flows downward to the people through the corporate media. (When it does flow upward - as it did with the last mid term elections - do our elected officials heed what the people say? Did anything change after the mid term elections?)

But it also remains to be seen just how far Obama will go in making such "radical" observations. (Fifty years ago C. Wright Mills was making the same observations. This is old news on the Left. Since 1956, the instruments of mind-control have only been refined and employed with ever greater subtlety and efficacy. See FOX News.)

Maarja - 6/17/2008

You are, I believe, an educator, so it's natural that you focus on what can be achieved through education. But what about the large number of people who barely pick up books or follow the news after leaving college? You can only instruct individuals while they sit in a classroom and grade their output as long as they are students. Once they're out of school, they calibrate issues in different ways, for many, many reasons, many of them unrelated to their formal education.

There are so many forces out there, outside the academy, which shape how people look at issues. Sometimes political parties themselves shift. No one would argue that the two parties are the same in 2008 as they were 40 or 50 years go. How often do you hear someone say, after years of voting one way, "I didn't leave the party, the party left me?"

However the education system works, it never will not create a group of voters who consistently will view issues the same way throughout their lives. Nor should it.

What I find so interesting is that whether they look at issues from the right, left or (less often the center) there's a tendency by many posters on HNN to find groups to blame (the media, people of the opposing party, etc.) There's a strong culture of fault finding and name calling. To me, that leaves unexamined a lot of the nuances that surrounds issues. And undercuts the ability to look at all the underlying reasons why people are or are not engaged by current events, political processes, etc.

Unless we can talk about the many reasons why some messages resonate with voters and others don't, we're not going to be able to get the debate going that Rick seems to want to see occur.

Randll Reese Besch - 6/16/2008

One can't distill a single view from a mixed group such as the people represent. Jefferson wanted an imformed electorate. Was he speaking of the people or the electors of the Electoral College? It use to be the popular vote was limited to voting for the electors who would then vote on the candidates for office. Now it is in flux and confusing to the onlooker. Those who even spend time educating themselves in these times of a-literacy and anti-intellectualism.

Randll Reese Besch - 6/16/2008

How exactly is this relevant to the discussion?

Charles S Young - 6/16/2008

For an interesting contrast with the gullibility of people, see the article in this same issue of HNN about journalists not being allowed to challenge the war.

Ruth Rosen reports that at the time, even liberal newspapers refused to question the obvious lies used to justify the war.

I'm reminded of two quotes at the beginning of Chomsky's _Manufacturing Consent_. The first is from James Reston complaining about the stupidity of The People for electing Reagan, "not once but twice."

The second is from Milton: "They who have put out the people's eyes reproach them of their blindness."

Clare Lois Spark - 6/16/2008

To our editor: Rick, do you really want to line up with Tory thinkers in your formulation of "the People"?

The proto-Tory Robert Filmer (d. 1653) summarized centuries of antidemocratic wisdom in his Patriarcha:

I know not how to give a better character of the people than can be gathered from such authors as have lived among or near to popular states. Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Sallust have set them out in their colours. I will borrow some of their sentences.
‘There is nothing more uncertain than the people: their opinions are as variable and sudden as tempests: there is neither truth nor judgment in them: they are not led by wisdom to judge of anything, but by violence and rashness, nor put they any difference between things true and false. After the matter of cattle they follow the herd that goes before: with envious eyes they behold the felicity of others: they have a custom always to favor the worst and weakest: they are most prone to suspicions, and use to condemn men for guilty upon every false suggestion. They are apt to believe all news, especially if it be sorrowful, and, like Fame, they make it more in the believing: when there is no author, they fear those evils which they themselves have feigned: they are most desirous of new stirs and changes, and are enemies to quiet and rest. Whatsoever is giddy or headstrong, they account manly and courageous, but whatever is modest or provident seems sluggish: each man hath a care of his particular, and thinks basely of the common good: they look upon approaching mischiefs as they do upon thunder, only every man wisheth it may not touch his own person. It is the nature of them: they must either serve basely or domineer proudly, for they know no mean.’ Thus do their own friends paint to the life this beast of many heads. Let me give you the cypher of their form of government. As it is begot by sedition, so it is nourished by arms: it can never stand without wars, either with an enemy abroad, or with friends at home. The only means to preserve it is to have some powerful enemy near, who may serve instead of a king to govern it, that so, that they have not a King over them, for the common danger of an enemy keeps them in better unity than the laws they make themselves."

Would you prefer a constitutional monarchy to our present arrangements? It seems to me that you assume 1. that your analysis of the pre-Iraq war situation is correct, even though as Judith Klinghoffer suggests, we don't have all the necessary documentation; and 2. there is some entity called "the People"; and 3. if the People had any sense they would be social democrats or isolationists or appeasers, like the so-called Left in the media, in the profession of history, and on the internet.
Would it not be more precise, as an historian, to think about the highly partisan education of many historians of your generation?
If I had my way, which is highly unlikely in my lifetime, I would look at all the obstacles placed in the way of a scientific education by our federal system, that allows elitist anti-intellectuals to control the curriculum.
You are sounding like the organic conservatives who, after the French Revolution, railed against the revolutionaries for worshipping the Goddess of Reason; i.e. themselves. I am thinking of de Maistre, and de Bonald.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/16/2008

One big problem is that the House of Representatives has not been enlarged from 435 members since 1913, when the population of the U.S. was about 100 million, after havng been enlarged several times from 1789 until 1913. We should have 1,300 House members today if each congressman was to represent the same number of people he did in 1912. And it's nonsense to claim the Congress could not function in that case. With the same Rules Committee setup they could govern with any number if members,

My district was represented by a hard-left congressman for 15 years prior to the census of 1990, and has been represented by a hard-right congressman since 1992, following re-districting. The leftwing incumbent of seven terms did not even try to run again after one look at the new map. My point is this: In all of those thirty years there was NO WAY the district could have been carved into two, and elected either two rightwingers or two leftwingers--it would necessarily have elected one of each. Had it been divided, far more residents of the district would have gotten a sympathetic representative to listen to their complaints, and each congressman would know personally a much higher percentage of his constitutents. And if you had split the district into three, you would have had numerous highly contested elections over those 30 years--instead of none.

It is not clear to me, either, whether direct election of U.S. Senators was a good idea. This is the same situation just described with representatives. If you are represented by a Senator Stevens or a Senator Kennedy, for instance, and do not agree with him about anything, you have been effectively disenfranchised for several decades. Would senators elected by the state legislatures have been better? Who knows, but they couldn't have been any worse. Many or most senators are now elected with out-of-state money, which might be much more difficult when statewide saturation advertising did not help, and when the state legislators themselves were ambitious for the job.

R.R. Hamilton - 6/16/2008

You write, "As John Patrick Diggins, a Reagan biographer, astutely observes, the Founding Fathers believed that 'the people are the problem and government the solution'".

Under the Founders, the franchise was limited and so was government. Until the 1930s, the size of peacetime federal government never exceeded 2% of GNP. Now it is about 23%, with total government at about 40%. The most important thing government did in 1808 was to protect rights; today in 2008, it is a cash cow. People have responded to the change quite rationally. Today, when everyone can vote himself a living from the national treasury, anyone who does not try to do so is acting irrationally -- or is some sort of philosophical Don Quixote.

Classical liberalism is dead -- or at least nearly comatose in the form of the Libertarian Party. The Marxists (with the most anti-Liberal of all philosophies) took over that appellation ("liberal") and sent the real liberals scurrying for the exits.

Btw, the "people" did not support Gulf War II because they falsely thought there was a connection between Saddam and 9/11. It's clear from a review of history that Americans thought that -- by leaving Saddam in power after Gulf War I (and the failure of the uprising there in 1991) -- a final showdown with Saddam was inevitable. 9/11 provided the opportunity, but not the reason. (Btw, during World War II a lot of Americans thought Hitler had caused Pearl Harbor somehow.)

Judith Apter Klinghoffer - 6/16/2008

Document: Zarqawi in Iraq Long Before the War Started (See translation and interesting finds)
Pentagon/FMSO Pre-war Iraq documents ^ | March/17/06 | jveritas

Posted on Friday, March 17, 2006 2:37:56 PM by jveritas

In regards to the Iraqi intelligence documents that discussed Al Zarqawi presence in Iraq, as posted on the Foreign Miliarty Services Office (FMSO) website (document ISGZ-2004-019920 ) it appears that the some in the Iraqi intelligence apparatus provided the accurate information about Zarqawi presence in Iraq with attached pictures of him, but when the information reached the Director or a Director of the Iraqi intelligence he dismissed it as not accurate. This is interesting since it seems there was an intended cover up by this top Iraqi Intelligence officer about the presence of Zarqawi in Iraq despite the much stronger evidence that he was already in Iraq.

I am posting below the translation of the FMSO document ISGZ-2004-019920 and I will make it in a chronological order and please note that I put illegible word(s) when the word(s) in the pdf document is(are) very blur and cannot be read with accuracy and that it is hand writing documents and not printed so it make difficult to read some of the words:

Page 7 of the pdf document: This is a letter from an Iraqi intelligence officer dated August/7/2002 (7/8/2002 per Iraqi date numbering system) talking about the presence of individuals from Al Qaeda inside Iraq and that they possess multiple passports. The has attached pictures of Ahmad Fadil Nazal AlKhalayla that we know him by his nick name of Zarqawi (Abu Musaab Al Zarqawi) and some other individual.

Page 7 translation:

Secretary 384 7/8/2002

In the name of God the Merciful

From I.M 53/1/5

Document No 513387 per our letter 3077 in 23/6/2002 and in reference to proclamation illegible number numbered 9096 in 8/1/2002. Information are available from a trusted source about the individual existence of illegible word our letter above inside the country and they are accused of dealing with the Al Qaeda organization that is lead by the Saudi Osama Bin Laden and they possess more than one passport. illegible word to the respectful Mr. Director of the apparatus illegible word 515 to direct your sources to track the existence of the people mentioned above within your work domain and inform us in case you prove this 515. illegible words your view to inspect the pictures of those mentioned with the pictures of the Jordanian community with your work domain 535 illegible word tourist hotels, residential apartments, rented homes. Relate the subject illegible words with our boss.


End of page 7 translation

Page 4, 5, and 6 of the pdf document were the attachments that the Iraqi intelligence officer attached to his letter and it contain pictures of two individuals and one of them ispage Ahmad Fadil Nazal AlKhalayla or better know to us a Zarqawi (pages 4 and 5).

Page 8 is very illegible, page 9 is almost blank with a foot note saying “Regarding the possibility of Al Qaeda individuals entering the country”, and page 10 is a blank cover letter with no writing on it ( On the right hand corner it is written “ The Iraqi Republic Presidency of the Republic, Intelligence Service).

Page 2: This a letter from intelligence officer R.K dated on 17/8/2002 asking the Director to review the information in the letter from I.M 53/1/5 (Letter posted, translation of page 7) because they (R.K group) claim that do not have any indication of the existence of such individuals of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Page 2 translation:

Please review regarding the letter of M 53/1/5 3387 in 7/8/2002. Upon further inspection of the information in it, we have no indication about this and therefore we suggest answering M 53. With regards

Signature R.K 17/8/2002

End of page 2 translation .

The “it” in the above refer to letter of M 53 and the “this” refer to the information about Al Qaeda members entering Iraq.

Page 3 is a reply to the letter of R.K from the Director Ismail Mohamad (Initial M.I or I.M) and basically it says that after they inspected the content of the letter from M 53 they found no indication of the existence of these individuals within the public.

Translation of the letter in page 3

To the respectful Mr. R.K

M.I Reply

We would like to show you the following:

1. We received the letter of M 53/1/5 numbered 3387 on 7/8/2002 in regards of the existence of members from Al Qaeda organization in the country.

2. From the inspection of the information through our sources and friends within our domain and also bureau (3) we have no indication of the existence of the mentioned individuals within the Public.

Please review.. and we suggest to put the letter aside.. with regards


Secretary for Ismail Mouhamad


End of page 3 translation.

Now in page 1 you will find the answer from I.M 53/4 (The Director) to the I.M 53/1/5 who is wrote the original letter about AL Qaeda member in Iraq. Again the letter from the Director says that there is no indication of Al Qaeda members in Iraq.

Translation of page 1

Secret and Immediate Letter

To I.M 53/1/5

From I.M 53/4

Document number 15701 and your letter numbered 3501 in 15/8/2002, we have directed our sources and there was no indication for us about this. We will provide you with the latest in case we receive it. Finished

Secretary 17/8 Youssef 17/8


M 53/4


End of page 1 translation

David Fitzsimons - 6/16/2008

The issue of "voter ignorance" and the possibilities of "democratic competence" have been long debated on the pages of the peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal _Critical Review_. See especially Volume 18 (2006).

Ron Wulkan - 6/16/2008

Excellent observation and well-written.

Well Done!

Can't wait to start reading 'Just How Stupid...'

Maarja - 6/16/2008

As a general observation, I wonder whether criticism (explicit or even implicit) is the best way to get people to change their behavior. Don't most people think of themselves as competent and capable of doing the right thing? There are a lot of barriers to overcome in urging people to learn more about any subject.

Here’s an area where I failed in trying to do that. I briefly subscribed to a mailing list for a profession which is related to my present and past governmental functions (historian and former archivist). Soon after subscribing to it, I saw the subject of the replacement of the U.S. Archivist in 2005 come up in passing. A couple of people offered their views. I saw a clear implication that the subject previously had been discussed on the Listserv. I posted some observations on the subject from my perspective as a former National Archives. I used a tone of "here's how it looks to this former insider." But I disrupted the conventional wisdom and an accepted way of looking at the issue that had taken hold among the subscribers previously. To my surprise, right after I posted my take on the matter, I was slapped down in an off-list email by one of the subscribers.

I was the only historian who posted on that List. I hung on as a subscriber for about a year but finally left the mailing list. I made some virtual friends there and received some private messages, which told me that some individuals found my postings very informative and interesting. A few said they gained insights into how historians worked.

But in the end, I came to see the primary function of the Listserv as a team building place for the practitioners of the profession for whom it was intended. I concluded that they needed to feel good about themselves and the jobs they did. The Listserv served an important role as a morale boost for the practitioners. Moreover, it had firmly established rituals and conventions for posting messages. Many of mine did not fit those conventions and I was reluctant to put on the mask that was required. I finally concluded that my attempts to get subscribers to look at issues differently were disruptive and unsettling. I understood why the group relied on its conventions and established thinking and finally just decided to unsubscribe from the mailing list rather than disrupt the group.

Would I have won over more people had I initially only lurked on the List, looked to see if there were any King of the Hill dynamics, and spent some time flattering those who appeared to be the List Alphas? I don't know. But I do know that telling people "here’s what you need to consider in judging this”can be very challenging, even among people whose jobs are related to history. In this case, the professional group shared many common characteristics and rituals. Many may have shared Myers Briggs typing. It was pretty easy for me to figure out over time what was the prevailing group dynamic. How much harder to reach people with differing interests, Myers Briggs types, sources of news, and so forth, as Rick suggests needs to be done.

The Masked Millionaire - 6/15/2008

Some people are born to lead but most are born to follow.

Once the great mass of people who are followers get something in their heads, no matter what the facts dictate, they will follow each other off the cliff.

Our leaders should protect us from ourselves. But they don't. They are only interested in power and money.

The Masked Millionaire