Blogs > HNN > The Dumbing Down of Voters

Jun 23, 2008 7:55 am

The Dumbing Down of Voters

This blog is run by Rick Shenkman, the author of the new book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter (Basic Books, June 2008). Mr. Shenkman, an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter, is an associate professor of history at George Mason University and editor of the university's History News Network.

THE THOUGHT occurs to almost everybody, I would suppose, that politics today is conducted at a lower level than it used to be. Not many voted against William Howard Taft because he was fat or Abraham Lincoln because he was thin. One can't imagine Franklin Roosevelt being judged by how badly he bowled or how convincingly he knocked back a tumble of scotch. Indeed, studies show that the speeches presidents gave a half-century ago were pitched at the 12th-grade level - five grades above the level of speeches given by presidents over the last generation.

Which brings up a paradox. Decade by decade Americans are getting smarter and smarter, and decade by decade our politics is getting dumber and dumber. How can we explain it?

In 1940 six in 10 Americans hadn't gone past the eighth grade. Today, most Americans have attended college. Partly as a result of their added schooling, Americans today are more tolerant of dissent and less racist. But surveys show that increased schooling doesn't correspond to a higher aptitude for civics. To put this bluntly: Americans today are no better informed about politics than their grade-school educated grandparents. With respect to some subjects they are less well-informed.

Like Americans in the 1940s, Americans today barely understand basic facts about our government. Only two in 10 know we have 100 US senators. Only four in 10 know we have three branches of government and can name them. Only a third know that Congress has the power to declare war.

They are no better informed about the identity of the people running the government. Only four in 10 could identify William Rehnquist, the long-serving chief justice of the US Supreme Court, more than two decades into his term. Only two in 10 can name the current secretary of defense, Robert Gates. A Harvard study by Thomas Patterson found that Americans today are less able to articulate the differences between the two major parties than voters in the 1950s.

With respect to complicated issues Americans are at sea. In the 1990s, Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter undertook a comprehensive review of surveys measuring Americans' knowledge of politics. The results were shocking. They found that only 14 percent could correctly answer three-fourths of basic questions about foreign policy, barely a passing grade. And foreign policy oddly was one of their best subjects. Only 11 percent could pass a test involving questions about domestic policy, and only 5 percent an economics test. (Americans' best subject was history, though there aren't many history teachers who would find this easy to believe.)

Many political scientists have tried to explain away such results ever since surveys in the 1940s began turning up evidence of Americans' gross ignorance about politics. These apologists argue that Americans use shortcuts to compensate for their lack of knowledge. A voter, for example, who does not follow the daily news may nonetheless decide that he should vote for Candidate X because his local newspaper endorsed X and he generally agrees with the positions the paper takes.

Unfortunately, what the polls show is that Americans cannot make up for their lack of basic knowledge even if they shrewdly employ shortcuts. The harsh truth is that ignorant voters are sitting ducks for wily politicians. This is why millions were so easily misled when the Bush administration dropped hints that Saddam Hussein played a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. One study by the University of Maryland found that nearly 60 percent of Americans were convinced that Hussein was helping Al Qaeda when we undertook our invasion. A majority based their support for the war on this flagrant misunderstanding.

Why hasn't education helped voters become smarter about politics? Television is a big part of the explanation. Once television replaced newspapers as the chief source of news, this happened around 1965, shallowness was inescapable as Americans began judging politicians by how they looked and acted. Another factor was the collapse of the traditional two-party system and unions. Once voters stopped taking their cues from party and labor bosses, they were largely on their own as they sorted through the complicated choices they face.

If politicians were angels, we wouldn't need smart voters. But they aren't. One of the most pressing issues of our times, though few talk about it, is therefore the acknowledgement of the limits of contemporary voters and strategies to make them smarter.

This article first appeared in the Boston Globe.

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Michael Davis - 6/30/2008

That's not his point. Mr. Clayson's point is that you willfully ignore the 1990's and the several UNSC resolutions that Saddam ignored or flouted. You ignore the numerous Democrats who called for Saddam to be removed.

You don't point out that we are still in Kosovo nine years after bombing the place to hell and back. I get the feeling that action was okay in your mind because our leader had a capital D after their name. (I'm glad you voted for Ronald Reagan; but you should know everyone else just about voted for him too.)

You fail to realize that 18, yes 18, European nations supported our action in March of 2003. Americans were apprised of all these facts. Who cares if Saddam wasn't behind 9/11?? He supported Abu Nidal in the 80's. That's a fact. He committed genocide against the Kurds in 1988. That's a fact.

Why do you continue to hector us about how we went to war under false pretenses? Aren't those named above enough regardless of what the administration's official line was?

Michael Davis - 6/30/2008

Newspapers are dead, and will be extinct very soon. Young people do not read papers.
The alternatives are CNN, i.e. The Anna Nicole Network;
Fox News, i.e. The Missing White Girl Network;
and MSNBC, i.e. The Network Only Three People Watch.

Unfortunately, hard news is not something people care about here anymore. Doesn't bode well for us.

Rodney Huff - 6/30/2008

Hi Maarja,

I too was responding to his earlier comments, which dealt primarily with a discredited form of biological determinism. Our discussion then turned towards patriotism, which, as you detected, he simply equates with flag-waving and "we're number 1" hoorays.

I responded by suggesting that uncritical cheerleading or Panglossian apologies does not reflect patriotism (it actually reflects deep-seated narcissism - the group "I" belong to is, of course, the best, and everyone should be indoctrinated to believe this, without question - now how totalitarian is that?).

That's when you joined discussion with your business analogy, which seemed to clarify or defend the position that I held - i.e., criticism of one's government should not be considered unpatriotic.

According to your business anlogy, the boss is wise to listen to criticism and suggestions from below concerning the direction taken by the company. Here, America is presumably the company, Bush the CEO, and We the People are like employees stuffing the suggestion box in the break room.

But the business analogy has got it upside down. In a democratic society, We the People are the employers; the president is the employee who is accountable to us.

It's a sign of the erosion of our democracy that people are so easily given to think of our government in terms of a business model - which confirms and reinforces in theory what has been taking place in practice, i.e., the subordination of the rights of real people to those of corporations and the irresponsible way power is exercised without accountability.

All of this should prompt us to ask: Is America as democratic as it professes to be? I'd say that, to the extent that it is more business-like, our government is less democratic.

Julian Feuerbach - 6/29/2008

Yes, that's exactly the type of education Rick is focused on. However, this is not the type of education our country needs.

Anataol Lieven wrote, "America keeps a fine house, but in its cellar there lives a demon, whose name is nationalism." Are students in elementary school asked to discuss this type of statement? Or are they too young? Do you think they are ready to discuss this in class when they reach Middle School? Still too young? Should I go on?

Here are two other quotes that our students are not asked to discuss in class. One if from from Richard Hoftstadter, "It has been our fate as a nation not to have an ideologies, but to be one." The other one is from Alexis of Tocqueville. Americans "are unanimous upon the general principles that ought to rule human society."

No one wants to deal with the demon in the cellar. That would be so unpatriotic and Un-American. Even the most liberal thinkers consciously or unconsciously share this ingrained belief.

Maarja Krusten - 6/28/2008

My sense is that Rick Shenkman is arguing that schools need to do a better job in areas such as civics. He seems to be focusing on establishing a foundation that will serve people well as they become adults. When I was in high school, we had classes called civics and problems of democracy. That's one way we learned the basic framework of government.

These days, that framework and some simple concepts seem hazy to some citizens. I noted the impact of that in an earlier comment under a similar essay (this one by Rick actually is a reprint of a column he had published in the Boston Globe, hence the repetition of some points). In posted comments at the Washington Post's website, a reader excoriated the judge who ruled earlier this month that documents from the White House Office of Administration could not be reached under the Freedom of Information Act. The reader sneered something along the lines of well, what else would you expect from an official of this Department of Justice. Except the district court judge is a member of the judicial branch, not the executive branch.

The ideas of separation of powers and checks and balances entirely were missing in the response of the poster. In the mind of the reader, there are these powerful, politically driven forces, all in the executive branch and all of which take orders from the President and act politically. A reader who understands civics might argue issues politically -- or not -- but he or she never would place a judge in DOJ.

I think that is the sort of education that Rick is focused on. His recommendation that students be quizzed on current events seems geared towards getting them exposed to following the news and perhaps developing a longstanding interest in it. Taking such quizzes was a part of my high school formal education in civics class during the 1960s.

Julian Feuerbach - 6/28/2008

My concern with this article is its faulty logic. Does attending school make you a smarter citizen? Does knowing facts about our government make a difference in the way we make political decisions individually or collectively?

I would argue exactly the opposite. Schools are a powerful means of socialization. I'm not concerned about their ability to inform citizens or misinform them but about their inability to take on the American Creed that informs our collective behavior, especially when it's time to vote.

Bottom line? What needs to change is the way we see ourselves, especially when it comes to foreign policy. This has to do with deep-seated values, not with our ability to tell the name of our current Secretary of State. You can be both a misinformed citizen and a critical one. Unfortunately, schools won't go that far. There are some sacred cows that we aren't ready to sacrifice.

Sofia Moura - 6/27/2008

“I would say in extenuation that the low life who represent us today are STILL forming the best government on earth by a mile”

I’m from Portugal. Can you please tell me how does my Government work? What about Spain’s government? What about Brazil’s government, or Belgium or East Timor or the Swedish government?

My claim is this: the kind of affirmation you make above is ridiculous (sorry), because you only can compare what you truly know. I could easily do the same kind of assertion about my own Government or say, perhaps, that in Portugal we keep a more critic eye about any political construction. And easily you could find yourself not agreeing with me, because is a fallacious statement. That is what I find terribly wrong with something like “the best on earth”. Earth is not only US backyard.

Maarja Krusten - 6/26/2008

Hi, Rodney. Actually, I wasn't trying to clarify anything you previously had written. I was responding to Mr. Hughes earlier points. That's why I mentioned that among the people I know, those who talk about issues don't fall neatly into cheerleaders vs. critics. I can't divide them into ones who want to build down America and ones who want to tear it down. There's no such bright line to be drawn among them.

Among the people I know, none can be divided into discrete groups, one patriotic, the other not. I have Republican friends and Democratic friends and I regard them all as patriotic. The point of my business model argument was that since a good boss doesn't apply a kneejerk label of disloyal to those who question what is being done within the company and why, I have trouble understanding why some people try do that type of labeling when discussing matters in the political sphere. It seems ineffective in the long run.

Rodney Huff - 6/26/2008

Hi Maarja,

I appreciate your attempt to clarify my position, but I think your business analogy is, well, not good.

First, if our government were based on a business model, then we citizens would be reduced to mere passive consumers. A democratic government requires the active participation of the people - and not just on election day.

Sadly, it does seem that many Americans have accepted the role of consumer and have disengaged from political life altogether, choosing instead to occupy their time with possessing and owning things - as if that were the only way to relate to the world, i.e., by owning more and more of it. (Of course, that's how advertising and marketing corporations would have it.)

It is relevant here to remember what Bush told us to do shortly after 9/11. He told us to go shopping! The subtext: Don't try to figure out what happened on 9/11. Don't even think about being thoughtfully engaged citizens. And look what we got for our unthinking compliance. We got the 9/11 Commission cover-up, courtesy of Philip Zelikow, who somehow passes as a legitimate historian on HNN. And, of course, we got the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The more we think of ourselves as mere consumers, the more we are made collaborators in our own disempowerment. Treating the government as a business only reinforces this dismal trend.

Second, if we want to salvage American democracy, it's not a good idea to think of the president as CEO of America. He is supposed to be a public servant. He works for us, not for some small group of rich investors eager to see larger dividends - although the opposite of "what ought to be" seems to be the sad reality.

Thus, thinking of government in terms of a business model only reinforces on the theoretical level what ubiquitous advertising and the corporate media do in practice.

Left without alternative theoretical frames of reference, complete with certain political implications for the individual-who-would-her-own-master, people may unwittingly accept the only role they perceive left to them in a mass consumer, post-industrial society.

We must return to the Enlightenment vision of the human individual that provided the basis for rejuvenated theories of self-governance - this time, without underestimating the role of the irrational in human affairs, for to do so again would be, well, unreasonable.

We can still be masters of ourselves; however, we are allowing ourselves to be theoretically browbeaten into servile, complacent, sheep-like consumers. To begin reversing this trend - to bring our government back under democratic control and away from corporate domination - we must abandon the business model of government and reassert the Enlightenment-based vision of self-government that moved the Founding Fathers.

Rodney Huff - 6/25/2008

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murder[er] is less to fear.”

- - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Rodney Huff - 6/25/2008

Unless Americans wake up and start demanding accountability from those in power, beginning with the impeachment of Bush and Cheney (for starters), we will be swept up in WWIII before we know it.

If we don't wake up, here's what's likely to happen, given the recent developments described above.

The next paradigm-shifting terrorist attack will be a nuclear one conducted by the same malevolent network of US and foreign government officials, CIA “assets,” and foreign moles which executed the attacks on 9/11. The device will be detonated in either the US or Israel, and the attack will be blamed on Iran - a classic false flag operation. The US will declare war on Iran and institute the draft. Draft dodgers, dissenters, and other "enemies of the state" will be thrown into the huge detention centers recently built by Kellogg, Brown, and Root, our habeas corpus rights trumped by “national security” concerns. And that will be the end of the Republic. An overtly fascist "national security" state will take its place.

Rodney Huff - 6/25/2008

It gets worse.

According to Edmonds, shortly after 9/11, there were a number of suspected moles that the FBI wanted to question, but the same State Department official intervened:

Following 9/11, a number of the foreign operatives were taken in for questioning by the FBI on suspicion that they knew about or somehow aided the attacks.

Edmonds said the State Department official once again proved useful. “A primary target would call the official and point to names on the list and say, ‘We need to get them out of the US because we can’t afford for them to spill the beans’,” she said. “The official said that he would ‘take care of it’.”

So the State Department official turned loose people who may have been complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

But there were others involved in the secret deals known to be complicit in 9/11.

At the time the Turkish-Pakistani mole network was infiltrating our government, Gen. Mahmood Ahmad was head of the Pakistan ISI. Edmonds says she listened to covertly recorded conversations that implicated Ahmad as well:

The Turks, she says, often acted as a conduit for the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy agency, because they were less likely to attract suspicion. Venues such as the American Turkish Council in Washington were used to drop off the cash, which was picked up by the official.

Edmonds said: “I heard at least three transactions like this over a period of 2½ years. There are almost certainly more.”

The Pakistani operation was led by General Mahmoud Ahmad, then the ISI chief. Intercepted communications showed Ahmad and his colleagues stationed in Washington were in constant contact with attachés in the Turkish embassy.

Gen. Ahmad (you probably don't know)was the one who ordered Al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Omar Sheikh to wire the lead 9/11 hijacker, Mahmud Atta, $100,000 just before the attacks. (Indian intelligence discovered the source of the wire transfer shortly after 9/11, and the FBI confirmed it.)

Strangely – or perhaps, not surprisingly – the only US media outlet to even mention this crucial piece of information was the Wall Street Journal, which saw fit to bury it in its online opinion journal:

So, the man who helped fund and coordinate 9/11 was also involved in pilfering nuclear secrets from the US military and passing them on to those “dangerous regimes” Bush has been warning us about.

Of course, in its final report, the 9/11 Commission maintained that the sources of the funds for the 9/11 attacks were neither known nor important. Amazing! So, according to the 9/11 Commission, who paid for 9/11 isn't important.... You would have to be stupid to believe this, right?

Historians! Didn't we learn from Watergate to "follow the money"?

Rodney Huff - 6/25/2008

Here’s the most frightening part of the article:

Khan caused an alert among western intelligence agencies when his aides met Osama Bin Laden. “We were aware of contact between A Q Khan’s people and Al-Qaeda,” a former CIA officer said last week. “There was absolute panic when we initially discovered this, but it kind of panned out in the end.”

It is likely that the nuclear secrets stolen from the United States would have been sold to a number of rogue states by Khan.

(Hear Sibel Edmonds at

Since Edmonds started blowing the lid off this operation, Bush has sought to make the illicit trade in nuclear secrets with Turkey legal. He has now asked Congress to approve the deals, undoubtedly seeking retroactive immunity for his cronies in the State department and FBI.

So much for the Bush Doctrine of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of rogue states and Al-Qaeda.

Rodney Huff - 6/25/2008

Bill Kristol, neocon editor of the Weekly Standard, wonders if Bush will bomb Iran if Obama wins presidency:

Note the Bush doctrine, as stated by Wallace: We will not allow the world’s most dangerous regimes to get their hands on the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Now check this out.

Sibel Edmonds started working as a translator for the FBI shortly after 9/11. While at the FBI, Edmonds discovered taped conversations that revealed foreign espionage activities involving the leaking of nuclear secrets to Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-services Intelligence (ISI), via well-placed Turkish agents or “moles.” The moles were positioned in highly sensitive government research and military institutions where they could obtain nuclear secrets by a high-level, bribe-taking State Department official.

When Edmonds sent the evidence up the FBI chain of command to expose these criminal activities, including evidence of drug-trafficking and money laundering tied to the mole network, she was fired. She has since been placed under a gag order by the Justice Department; but in closed Congressional hearings, FBI officials heard and corroborated her testimony. Since the hearings, the Justice Department has classified Edmonds’s testimony, invoking state secrets privilege.

It gets more interesting.

Though monitored by the FBI, this foreign mole network has been allowed to operate continuously since at least the Clinton administration in order to preserve favorable diplomatic relations.

The consequences of this tradeoff, you wonder?

Once in the hands of Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the nuclear secrets were then sold to none other than (drum roll…) Libya, Iran and North Korea – precisely those “dangerous regimes” that must not have nuclear weapons, according to the Bush Doctrine!

Maarja Krusten - 6/25/2008

I forgot to address this comment, it responds to Mr. Hughes' point about the boat people and I should have started out writing, "For Mr. Hughes." I'm grateful that I've never had to live in an environment where I was told by those governing the country in a totalitarin manner what I had to believe or say.

We all look at issues through the prism of our individual experiences. In past jobs that I have held, I've seen the inability to fully air out issues result in the escalation of some matters. I've also been in situations where letting people talk about things candidly led difficult problems to be resolved before they got out of hand. Or provided a key safety valve where one very much was needed. That's why I framed my argument in terms of business processes and continuous improvement.

Maarja Krusten - 6/25/2008

I understand your argument about refugees from Eastern Europe or the Vietnamese boat people. My own parents fled their homeland in the advance of the Red Army and I am grateful that they were able to come to the United States after the end of World War II.

Most people I know among my friends do not fall neatly into one of two groups, cheerleaders or critics of the U.S. To use a business analogy, if managers and employees couldn't stop and examine whether a process was working well or not, or a product needed improvement, companies soon would go out of business.

The very concept of continuous improvement in the business world depends on identifying problems and brainstorming about what should be done to fix them. In a hierarchical, top down environemnt, those discussions may take place among a handful of people. In a less hierarchical company structure, they may involve input from the lower levels as well. The latter approach may be more challenging to facilitate due to the number of voices and the differing perspectives but it has the potential for more realistic solutions and greater employee buy-in to what is decided. Either way, whether the discussion involves few or many people, a good corporate executive does not view those sitting at the table and talking about how to improve things as disloyal to the fundamental goals of the company.

Rodney Huff - 6/25/2008

That people have been able to improve their lives by coming to America does not mean we should abandon self-criticism and relax the effort to change what we don't like about ourselves.

We have a government that lies us into wars of aggression, and then refuses to be held accountable. And we have, for the most part, a nation of Babbitts who believe we shouldn't complain because we live in relative material comfort, as if Americans are being bribed with cheap, mass produced consumer goods to keep their mouths shut.

Or, amazingly, these Babbitts say because we CAN open our mouths and criticize the government - although we can't seem to actually change the structure and behavior of our government of, for, and by the "People" - we should, as Bill O'Really would say, shut up.

I'm not finding fault with "America." I find fault with the warlords who are running the show, who insist on exercising power without accountability. A very big difference there.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/25/2008

With respect to your faux patriotism and Pangloss-ism remark, I suggest you ask a few people who did not start out here what they think of our system. They will invariably tell you, with no little passion, that this is still, today, the promised land. Ask any Hungarians from 1956. Ask any of the Vietnamese boat people. There are, of course, self-styled patriots who are really subversives. They are the people who constantly find fault with America, and kid themselves that in so doing they are administering purgatives to a sick patient. Fortunately their snake oil is rejected by the overwhelming majority of us.

Rodney Huff - 6/24/2008

It is idiotic to maintain an opinion that has no empirical basis. There is simply no scientifically valid way of quantifying intelligence - whatever is meant by that.

Like most Americans, you apparently have relaxed into a conservative mood of complacency and Panglossian self-celebration - a form of faux patriotism.

And whether you like it or not, you are making an argument that has historically been used as justification for ethnic cleansing and eugenics programs.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/24/2008

Sorry. To say that human intelligence is not significantly determined by heredity is idiotic, in my opinion.

In a way I have contradicted myself regarding the people we send to Washington, but I would say in extenuation that the low life who represent us today are STILL forming the best government on earth by a mile, because the Founders' design was so excellent. So, yes, we should INDOCTRINATE our children to revere and preserve our wonderful government--far more than we are currently doing. And I applaud your choice of the word "indoctrinate" in this context, as highly appropriate.

As for believing in genocide, I plead not guilty. I don't believe in the selective breeding of humans, either, if that is what you mean by eugenics, although it would work.

HNN - 6/23/2008

It does.

I use the word stupidity merely for rhetorical effect to draw attention to a 10-alarm fire of a problem.

The problem is ignorance not a low IQ.

So go ahead--buy the book!

Peter Saracino - 6/23/2008

Agreed, but you and I can walk into a bar/pub/coffee shop just about anywhere on the planet and get into an argument with patrons about what should comprise "basic". These same folks are able to discuss in detail the history of the Ford Mustang, name every Stanley Cup winner, or give plot summaries for all the episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but they don't even care about understanding 9-11. These are clearly not stupid people but there is a militance in their ignorance of some subjects, politics especially. If your book addresses this militant ignorance and some potential remedies for it I'll be ordering a copy.

Clare Lois Spark - 6/23/2008

Rick and others, I have been asking myself for years when the dumbing down started. Sometimes I would blame the 1960s and multiculturalism, sometimes I would blame social psychologists in the Ivy League who destroyed the concept of the dissenting individual with a communitarian discourse.
Today I ask, did the South win the Civil War? Yes, slavery was abolished, but not mental slavery in the lower orders. It was the Yankee Puritans (often called Hebraic or Jewish in the commentary of their enemies) who valued popular education and literacy without the intervention of priestly intermediaries. And the Southern agrarians hated the damned Yankees as instigators of capitalism and democracy. In a prior post on this same subject, I asked Rick if he wanted to line up with these "Tories." The English Tories were established to counter the English Civil War of the seventeenth century; their descendants today can mask themselves as lovers of the people all they want, but true love educates everyone in the skills to choose leaders.
Don't blame "the people" for the continuing acid thrown in the face of "puritans." Try those upper-class WASPS who formed a major portion of the anti-imperialist, anti-Western movement, and who, like the agrarians, promoted what they imagined to be "the organic society."

HNN - 6/23/2008

Thanks Rodney!

Carlin's a hoot.

And I share with him the concern that consumers don't make very good citizens.

HNN - 6/23/2008

It's true that we are drowning in information. But we ought to be able to get the basic facts right about an event of the magnitude of 9-11. Yet as I've noted 50% of the American citizens continued to believe that Saddam was behind 9-11 even AFTER the 9-11 Commission set the record straight.

HNN - 6/23/2008

You sure can make an awful lot of assumptions about me.

I started out as a conservative, voted for Reagan and have never objected to the use of force as a last resort.

So sorry I don't fit the stereotype you're working from.

Rodney Huff - 6/23/2008

Carlin, ever insightful and funny, offers his views on why Americans seem to be getting dumber.


R.I.P. George

Rodney Huff - 6/23/2008

Biology does not determine intelligence. Intelligence is defined and evaluated according to cultural standards. IQ is a cultural construct. Stephen Jay Gould, along with scores of biological and cultural anthropologists, destroyed The Bell Curve argument years ago.

I also find it strange that you diminish the people who make up our government, arguing that we've been unable to " Washington anyone who could wash the diapers of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton," and then in the next breath say we ought to indoctrinate children to celebrate the "wonderful" government we have - a government that sees fit to play dumb politics with voters.

I question the education that leads one to such a contradiction and to a preposterous argument that has always provided justification for eugenics and genocide.

Peter Saracino - 6/23/2008

The problem with growing ignorance is global, and, in part, should be attributed to the fact that there are simply a lot more "facts" floating around. As the total sum of human knowledge increases, the relative level of individual ignorance rises with it. So, the modern college graduate isn't more or less smarter than his or her ancestors but is far more specialised when it comes to knowledge. People today aren't just more ignorant of politics but of science, mathematics, history, and so forth.

It's hard to blame someone who has to learn an entirely new programming language every 2-3 years for not being able to name the justices of the Supreme Court. Maybe this is what someone once meant when they said capitalism would eat itself.

Vernon Clayson - 6/23/2008

Mr. Shenkman, from his lofty perch, believes the majority of us are too ignorant to make a judgement about politicians. I disagree, mostly because he forms his opinions on news accounts that in no fashion represent the feelings of the public, they only represent the opinions of owners and editors, all slanted towards proving the public is ill-informed because they fail to read and view the news.
I'm not the first to say that yesterday's newspaper is fish wrap but I may be among the first to say that TV news is the next day's You Tube ridicule. Mr. Shenkman's reference to George Bush is proof positive of his bias, Bush was not alone in his opinions of Saddam Hussein, every member of Bill Clinton's coterie in the 90s made reference to the dangers of Hussein remaining in power in Iraq. Mr. Shenkman, history goes back before the era of George Bush, he resorted to real force, Clinton resorted to shooting a missile at an aspirin factory. Perhaps you wish Bush had fired a missile at an olive processing factory in Iraq. Get real, the world is a dangerous place. Hussein played his cards, George Bush called him. I'm fairly sure you are of the genteel love and peace persuasion, that crap won't even work in, for example, Washington DC and Detroit neighborhoods.

David Thaddeus Liebers - 6/23/2008

"Natural selection has been abused by modern medicine, which now is saving many babies who used to die. We rejoice in this, but it doesn't make the human race stronger. For various reason our least intelligent citizens are reproducing more than average citizens, and reproducing more people like themselves."

This is an incredible claim-- if you can find me an evolutionary biologist who says that decreases in natural selection over the course of ~200 or so years have measurably decreased intelligence (or even could hypothetically), I would be beyond surprised. I, too, lament the decline in American education, but suggest it is more cultural than evolutionary in the biological sense. The Laschian analysis is still persuasive to me, than yours.

"Why have there been so few great composers since then?....Why did we have so many like Lavoisier and Priestley, Bacon and Franklin, and Goethe and Dr. Johnson and Voltaire, not to mention Hume and Adam Smith, all packed into that same era?"

Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Gershwin, Copland, Shostakovich, Barber? I'm a big fan of the Romantic era, but some of the best orchestral and instrumental music has come out of the 20th century, even as music went in a completely different direction. I won't bother listing names, and to make comparisons between eras is like trying to compare Babe Ruth and Alex Rodriguez, but I assure you that people as smart as Priestley do exist and they are learning more about the world than he could have imagined.

I agree with your sentiment, however, and hope that today's lack of emphasis on erudition doesn't stick around for long.

HNN - 6/23/2008

Hi Julian,

I have run a series of articles on HNN concerning the themes I raise in the book, which are all themes that go to the heart of HNN's mission.

Each one tackles a separate issue, though I have been using some of the same data to bolster my points.

Over at POTUS earlier this year readers kept saying they wanted me to elaborate on questions concerning public ignorance. I kept saying that the issues were complicated and that's why I wrote a book.

For those who don't read the book these op eds are designed to provide some of the needed context for a debate of this sort.

Each essay corresponds to a different chapter in the book.

There's hardly a subject, it seems to me, more complicated than democracy. If I could treat the issues in one 700 word piece I would.

Tracy Krulik - 6/23/2008

You make some valid points, but I think the "we're right and you liberals are not just wrong, you are clearly morons" attitude is an example of why the quest for knowledge is screeching to a halt. Washington is so polarized politically that we're not seeing open, honest debate. The energy issue, as with the other issues facing our nation, needs to be viewed in an unbiased way with information sharing from both sides of the aisle. Only then can our government begin to function in a healthy, effective manner.

Julian Feuerbach - 6/23/2008

Wasn't this article already posted and discussed? I know that recycling is healthy for the environment but there are many other equally awful articles that haven't yet been discussed once.

HNN - 6/23/2008

Sending people to group therapy might have plenty of benefits.

I just want people to read the newspaper.

HNN - 6/23/2008

You're more pessimistic than I.

But I'm glad we're having this debate.

The public needs to be confronted with the truth about the limits of public opinion.

Richard Bohn - 6/23/2008

So why not force the cable people to make all American teevee's broken ... so that the only channel we can get is the one doing group therapy ... ?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/23/2008

You say "politics is conducted at a lower level than it used to be," but you could just as easily say "school is conducted at a lower level than it used to be."

You say "decade by decade, Americans are getting smarter," but you base that judgment only on the number of years they have, on average, been sitting in classrooms. If you don't believe those classrooms have been steadily dumbed down for the past 80 years, just get ahold of a 1925 fourth grade geography book, and marvel at the level of English prose, the vast content packed into its small type, the informative photographs, etc. This is a Chinese rice paddy, etc. (Or a South Carolina rice paddy). It was interesting to see the photos of water buffalo going around in circles...

I think the human race reached its apogee for intelligence toward the end of the 18th century, and has been getting steadily dumber ever since. Why have there been so few great composers since then? Why does the U.S. with 300 million not send forth to Washington anyone who could wash the diapers of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton, who sprang from a nation of only 3 million? Why did we have so many like Lavoisier and Priestley, Bacon and Franklin, and Goethe and Dr. Johnson and Voltaire, not to mention Hume and Adam Smith, all packed into that same era?

Natural selection has been abused by modern medicine, which now is saving many babies who used to die. We rejoice in this, but it doesn't make the human race stronger. For various reason our least intelligent citizens are reproducing more than average citizens, and reproducing more people like themselves. Etc. Besides, if you listen to the "learning" being dispensed in the typical American classroom today you will KNOW why we are not getting smarter! How would a youngster today, for example, ever learn at school that we must use oil heavily for at least the next two decades if our civilization is not going to come to a screeching halt? He won't. The poor twerp will regurgitate what he has heard from his liberal teacher, and tell you oh no, wind and solar power are coming to our rescue! Well har, har, hardy har har! If you believe that, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

Seriously, I think the elimination of rote memory work by "modern educators" has set back human progress tremendously. That is the answer to your question why education has not helped voters to become smarter about politics--or many other things. Knowledge of things like geography and spelling must be implanted in young minds when they are not old enough to ask, "Why the hell should I have to learn that?" Many things must be force-fed while the teacher is still God, such as details of the wonderful government we live under, how many senators has each state, and what is the length of their terms? Those things need to be taught to the child, and this cannot be done merely by instructing the tyke how to use the library, no matter how many soi-disant intellectuals say so how many times. They have, in fact, if I may say so, dropped Lady Liberty's torch, and it is floating somewhere around Sandy Hook.

I believe in the "pound it in" school, because if you did not know where Pakistan was before you left seventh grade, you never will know. I read somewhere a majority of college graduates today cannot identify the state of Illinois on an outline map. That is not something people should ever need to learn in college. And it's not easily Googled, either.

David Thaddeus Liebers - 6/23/2008

"If politicians were angels, we wouldn't need smart voters."

If politicians were angels, we wouldn't need democracy. Pure, intelligent and benevolent dictatorships would do just fine--it would make things a heck of a lot easier.