5 Myths About Those Civic-Minded, Deeply Informed Voters
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 article first appeared in the Washington Post.
One thing both Democrats and Republicans agreed about in their vastly different conventions: The American voter will not only decide but decide wisely. But does the electorate really know what it's talking about? Plenty of things are hurting American democracy -- gridlock, negative campaigning, special interests -- but one factor lies at the root of all the others, and nobody dares to discuss it. American voters, who are hiring the people who'll run a superpower democracy, are grossly ignorant. Here are a few particularly bogus claims about their supposed savvy.
1. Our voters are pretty smart.
You hear this one from politicians all the time, even John McCain, who promises straight talk, and Barack Obama, who claims that he's not a politician (by which he means that he'll tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear). But by every measure social scientists have devised, voters are spectacularly uninformed. They don't follow politics, and they don't know how their government works. According to an August 2006 Zogby poll, only two in five Americans know that we have three branches of government and can name them. A 2006 National Geographic poll showed that six in ten young people (aged 18 to 24) could not find Iraq on the map. The political scientists Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, surveying a wide variety of polls measuring knowledge of history, report that fewer than half of all Americans know who Karl Marx was or which war the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought in. Worse, they found that just 49 percent of Americans know that the only country ever to use a nuclear weapon in a war is their own.
True, many voters can tell you who's ahead and who's behind in the horse race. But most of what they know about the candidates' positions on the issues -- and remember, our candidates are running to make policy, not talk about their biographies -- derives from what voters learn from stupid and often misleading 30-second commercials, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
2. Bill O'Reilly's viewers are dumber than Jon Stewart's.
Liberals wish. Democrats like to think that voters who sympathize with their views are smarter than those who vote Republican. But a 2007 Pew survey found that the knowledge level of viewers of the right-wing, blustery "The O'Reilly Factor" and the left-wing, snarky "The Daily Show" is comparable, with about 54 percent of the shows' politicized viewers scoring in the "high knowledge" category.
So what about conservative talk-radio titan Rush Limbaugh's audience? Surely the ditto-heads are dumb, right? Actually, according to a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Rush's listeners are better educated and "more knowledgeable about politics and social issues" than the average voter.
3. If you just give Americans the facts, they'll be able to draw the right conclusions.
Unfortunately, no. Many social scientists have long tried to downplay the ignorance of voters, arguing that the mental "short cuts" voters use to make up for their lack of information work pretty well. But the evidence from the past few years proves that a majority can easily be bamboozled.
Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, after months of unsubtle hinting from Bush administration officials, some 60 percent of Americans had come to believe that Iraq was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, despite the absence of evidence for the claim, according to a series of surveys taken by the PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll. A year later, after the bipartisan, independent 9/11 Commission reported that Saddam Hussein had had nothing to do with al-Qaeda's assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, 50 percent of Americans still insisted that he did. In other words, the public was bluntly given the data by a group of officials generally believed to be credible -- and it still didn't absorb the most basic facts about the most important event of their time.
4. Voters today are smarter than they used to be.
Actually, by most measures, voters today possess the same level of political knowledge as their parents and grandparents, and in some categories, they score lower. In the 1950s, only 10 percent of voters were incapable of citing any ways in which the two major parties differed, according to Thomas E. Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who leads the Pew-backed Vanishing Voter Project. By the 1970s, that number had jumped to nearly 30 percent.
Here's what makes these numbers deplorable -- and, in fact, almost incomprehensible: Education levels are far higher today than they were half a century ago, when social scientists first began surveying voter knowledge about politics. (In 1940, six in ten Americans hadn't made it past the eighth grade.) The moral of this story: Schooling alone doesn't translate into better educated voters.
5. Young voters are paying a lot of attention to the news.
Again, no. Despite all the hoopla about young voters -- the great hope of the future! -- only one news story in 2001 drew the attention of a majority of them: 9/11. Some 60 percent of young voters told Pew researchers that they were following news about the attack closely. (Er -- 40 percent weren't?) But none of the other stories that year seemed particularly interesting to them. Only 32 percent said that they followed the news about the anthrax attacks or the economy, then in recession. The capture of Kabul from the Taliban? Just 20 percent.
Six years later, Pew again measured public knowledge of current events and found that the young (aged 18 to 29) "know the least." A majority of young respondents scored in the "low knowledge" category -- the only demographic group to do so.
And some other statistics are even more alarming. How many young people read newspapers? Just 20 percent. (Worse, studies consistently show that people who do not pick up the newspaper-reading habit in their 20s rarely do so later.) But surely today's youth are getting their news from the Internet? Sorry. Only 11 percent of the young report that they regularly surf the Internet for news. Maybe Obama shouldn't be relying on savvy young voters after all.
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Dana Seilhan - 9/19/2008
Are you really suggesting that we should judge someone's educational level by what grade they've completed?
I have had exactly one quarter of community college and when it comes to knowledge about the world I run circles around some people with bachelor's degrees. I suppose having been a Navy brat and lived in three countries (including this one) might have had something to do with it, but who knows?
My little girl's dad almost didn't make it out of high school on time because of a teachers' strike in his district. Apparently they judged his fitness for graduation by how many days he attended.
Schooling has become something of a cult in this country and most Americans will tell you, with a straight face, that it and education are one and the same. I know someone with a master's degree who hardly ventures out of her own house, much less does anything useful with her degree where her (lack of) career is concerned. Also, she continually amazes me with the simple, everyday things I would expect her to know with her degree of education; she's in her early thirties and just now learning them.
Abraham Lincoln became a lawyer simply by passing the bar. He had hardly any schooling. Most of the Founding Fathers went to school for a year or two to learn the bare-bone basics, if they attended at all. Look at what they accomplished by the time they were my age (34). People these days get BSs, BAs, PhDs, etc., coming out of their ears and all they can do is parrot what Faux News tells them. Something is very wrong here.
Charles Heidecker - 9/14/2008
I wouldn't call the Daily Show "left-wing." Newt Gingrich was a guest the other night, and McCain has been on over 20 times. The show does an admirable job of finding video clips that expose the hypocrisy and lies of Fox News commentators--how, for example, they sneered at the notion that Hillary Clinton had encountered sexism, but once Palin was nominated, they complained that she, like Hillary, was being subjected to sexism. My students were amused by their attempts to get Republican convention delegates to define "small-town values"; the delegates were unable to do so.
What, frankly, strikes me as stupid about too many Republican voters is their penchant for repeating the phrases of their leaders. So for months, they lauded McCain for his "experience" and now that McCain has stolen the "change" slogan, they enthuse about that. The newest buzzword is "executive experience" and is accompanied by contempt for "community organizers." They love to complain about "elitists," although McCain was a legacy admit to Annapolis (where he graduated in the bottom five of his class) and Bush to Yale. A Southern historian told me that he thinks the hostility to Obama stems from a dislike of imagining a black family in the White House. The comments of Mr. Hughes, above, suggest that racism is indeed driving the anti-Obama fervor--the Muslim rumors and the rest of that garbage.
I wish that all of these bigots and evangelicals would just move up to Alaska.
Charles Heidecker - 9/14/2008
On what evidence do you make these claims about illiteracy, etc.? And why are you assuming that all stupid voters are black ("inner-city")? Have you ever driven around West Virginia or Idaho or South Dakota?
You begin with some ugly stereotypes and you proceed to draw a conclusion from your ugly beliefs. Not very smart, in my opinion.
Prejudices and generalizations like these do not demonstrate intelligence or education.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/13/2008
Most of the most stupid don't vote. That is why you see the Democrats' inner-city voter registration efforts fail so abysmally every year, despite heavy financing. Many of those people also cannot read (thanks to their unionized teachers), and do not show up at the voting place because embarrassed to reveal they don't know how or where to print their names and addresses. And, fortunately, since they don't show up, the overall level of those who do vote improves.
vaughn davis bornet - 9/8/2008
I can't see that the text justifies the hostile headline about O'Reilly.
Vaughn Davis Bornet
Jules R. Benjamin - 9/8/2008
Rick certainly has plenty of survey evidence on his side. I don't chalenge those studies. In 1970, as Cambodia was being drawn more and more into the war in Vietnam, I was part of a man-in-the-street survey team. Concerning Cambodia, only 20% knew much if anything about it. The correct responsers to "who is Norodom Sihanouk" was close to zero.
Still, there are complexities here. People know a lot of things, they just don't know much about politics or foreign affairs. (Everybody knows the kind of person who is ignorant of the capital of Germany but does know the 1947 batting average of Ted Williams or every lyric of every Madonna song.) The problem is not stupidity but lack of interest.
Also, the media don't make much of an effort to inform the public. This may be why those who listen to, watch or read it don't know much more than those who don't. The media fear that if the news is not "sexed up," nobody will pay attention. The growth of the audience for shout radio may make that point. Still, a very different logic could be applied: People aren't interested in "hard" news because it does not seem relevant to their lives; moreover, the belief that "you can't fight city hall" is not a stupid one. (Actually, the chances of prevailing over city hall are greater than prevailing over Washington.)
Finally, while people may not have much factual knowledge about their nation or the world, they do have a lot of information nonetheless. Unfortunately, much of it is silly or wrong. This may sound like more bad news but it indicates that people are actually paying attention. They are, however, listening to their friends who know litle more than themselves. The average person is not averse to education, nor are they incapable of learning. They just have lousy teachers.
Jim Good - 9/8/2008
"The moral of this story: Schooling alone doesn't translate into better educated voters."
I think this makes your point more precisely than some of the rhetoric you used in your previous articles on this issue. Previously, you seemed to imply that quantity of education is equal to quality: "Americans are better educated now than they were 50 years ago" (my paraphrase). Although, on average, Americans may have more years of education, that doesn't necessarily mean they should be better educated in the arenas of politics or American history. Indeed, your point is that they aren't.
James W Loewen - 9/8/2008
An exercise reported in LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME shows that less educated adults were more likely to be doves throughout the Vietnam War. More educated adults were more likely to believe BS about the war, such as that it was intended to stop Moscow or Beijing, the domino effect, etc. So this is not new. But it's important and Shenkman makes the case well.
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