Blogs > HNN > The Dumbing Down of American Politics: An Interview with Rick Shenkman

Oct 21, 2008 7:20 pm

The Dumbing Down of American Politics: An Interview with Rick Shenkman

The following interview was conducted by Robin Lindley for Real Change, a Seattle newspaper. Mr. Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney. He is a past chair of the World Peace through Law Section of the Washington State Bar Association, and has worked as a law teacher and as an attorney with federal and local agencies, and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King as an attorney with the Select Committee on Assassinations, US House of Representatives.

From his office in Seattle's Pioneer Square, historian and journalist Rick Shenkman is leading a one-man campaign to fight a nationwide epidemic of voter ignorance.  “I’m trying to be the Paul Revere of American civics," says Shenkman, who is lecturing around the country this fall on why it’s important to be an educated voter and to promote a program of citizen education on politics, current events and constitutional government.

Shenkman’s campaign launched with his lively and provocative new book Just How Stupid are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (Basic Books 2008), a frontal assault on the limited wisdom of the American voter and an outcry against the dumbing down of news and politics. 

As the election approaches, Shenkman's observations on voters today are timely and, perhaps, urgent.  He charges that most Americans don't care about politics and don't know much about it. 

His book contains disturbing anecdotes and statistics. For example, studies of contemporary Americans show that only 1 in 5 know we have 100 senators, only 2 out of 5 can name the three branches of government, and only 1 in 7 young people can find Iraq on a map.

According to Shenkman, as Americans pay less attention to political issues, they understand less about pressing issues than the voters of the 1940's, and are much more susceptible to comforting bumper-sticker slogans and raw emotional appeals. 

Shenkman also offers suggestions to reawaken public thought and debate and provide people with the knowledge to meaningfully participate in the political process.

Shenkman's book sparked a national conversation about our national political IQ since it was published earlier this summer, and he has appeared on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," NPR, KUOW, CNN, KING 5's "Up Front," and other programs. 

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss praised Shenkman's book: "At a moment when Americans are choosing leaders, Rick Shenkman's brisk, provocative and vigorously argued book implores us to rethink our roles as citizens and improve our political environment.  There could not be a better time for this important message."  The book was also "highly recommended" by the Library Journal.

Shenkman has a background as an Emmy-winning reporter, best-selling writer and historian.  He is devoted to debunking historical myths, and his other books include Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History and Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things Done.  He also is the editor and founder of the History News Network, a website that features articles by historians on current events and history in the news.  He lives in Seattle.

Shenkman recently discussed about his new book and his campaign for voter education.

Robin Lindley:  Your title Just How Stupid are We? is provocative, but the book actually presents a more nuanced viewed of voter ignorance or misinformation.

Rick Shenkman:  I’m not calling the American people stupid.  That would be as stupid as when politicians say the American people are smart.  You simply cannot meaningfully generalize about 300 million people.  

You can argue that our politics are often stupid because politicians count on the people being grossly ignorant about basic facts of how our government works.  That’s why we talk about Barack Obama’s bowling score or Hillary Clinton knocking back a drink in a bar in Pennsylvania because those are all issues susceptible to public debate by people who don’t know anything.  We’d rather talk about those issues because they’re fun and everyone can have an opinion about it, as opposed to having an opinion about tax policy or national health care where you’re talking about facts and need to know something.

Here’s a point of the book:  You may resist the argument I make that Americans are fairly ignorant about politics, but I assure you that politicians fully have absorbed that message despite what they say about how smart the American people are, and they [assume] that Americans are fairly ignorant.  That’s why they don’t stand on the stump and go into concrete detail because they know it will go over people’s heads.  People will be bored,  or change the channel, or not understand it.  Or you’ll give the opposition facts to use against you.  So they stay away from that concrete thing.  There’s a wonderful line from John Kennedy where a speechwriter tied him to a particular number on an issue, and Kennedy afterwards grew enraged with the person [who] drafted the speech, saying, Never hang a number around my head because that’s something I can’t wiggle out of.

RL: How does your work to demystify and demythologize history fit with your new book? 

RS: The new book grows out of that work because I was always preoccupied with myths—illusions that people have that conceal the real world from them, so instead of seeing the world as it is, they view the world through glasses that distort reality.  Myths drive our politics because people who know little about politics are much more susceptible to myths than otherwise, and myths shape and warp their thinking.  It’s very important when we’re listening to politicians to distinguish what’s real and what’s mythologized, and to assess what the politicians are saying.  

You can’t judge the politicians and what they’re saying on the surface.  Almost always behind whatever a politician says is some myth or several myths that they are exploiting to create a bond with the members of the audience.  Quite often, they are playing off a myth that they are like the common man.  That’s why you heard Al Gore in 2000 when he was running for president talking about when he was a boy he went home and plowed the muddy fields on his grand pappy’s farm, and then, when he got really worked up, he’d talk about when his mother was a young woman, she had worked as a waitress for 25-cent tips, which was all to create a bond between Gore and the audience.  What he neglected to talk about was how he actually grew up in a Washington, DC hotel, he’d been to one of the most exclusive prep schools in the country, and went on to Harvard for college, so he’s not really got the background of the ordinary man, but he would neglect that, and talk about these other things because that played into the myth of the common man, which all politicians love to play into.  And that’s what people respond to because they don’t know enough to talk about the issues meaningfully.

RL: You present some stunning statistics on voter ignorance such as more citizens know the names of the cartoon Simpson family characters than know the number of members of the US Senate.

RS: They are astonishing.  Only two out of five Americans know we have three branches of government and can name them.  If you don’t know we have three branches of government, how can you participate in the public debate about how our government functions? 

Another astonishing statistic is that only half of Americans understand that the Congress declares war.  Naturally then, when presidents invade countries without a threshold declaration of war, people aren’t up in arms because they’re not cognizant of what the Constitution requires, which gives presidents a chance—depending on public ignorance—to engage in a very aggressive foreign policy that would have appalled our Founding Fathers.

The people don’t pay attention in a consumer’s republic.  Everyone knows the price of gallon of milk or a gallon of gasoline, but they don’t understand the basics about how our government functions.  That was predicted by the great American philosopher John Dewey in the early twentieth century who saw the consumer republic emerging in outline, and saw that there were so many diversions for our attention, we wouldn’t pay much attention to politics. 

In the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin said, All Americans are politicians now.  In the twenty first century, we’re all consumers, we’re not all politicians.   Most of us don’t care about politics.  Most of us don’t vote. 

We’ve got a different kind of society than the founding fathers anticipated.  In some ways, that’s good.  They didn’t anticipate women and blacks voting.   I wouldn’t want to replicate their vision of the good society—it’s a far cry from what we think of as a good society.  But in some ways they got it right, and we get it wrong, but unfortunately we’re stuck with the society that we’ve got.

RL: What inspired Just How Stupid are We?

RS: Every book has multiple sources of inspiration.  For this book, there were two in particular.  One, I was riding my bicycle to work one day, listening to an audio book by George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant.  Lakoff goes on and on about how important frames are in political debate, and says the reason the Democrats had been losing election after election was because they don’t know how to frame issues and Republicans do.  I thought this is the most superficial explanation of what’s gone wrong with the Democratic Party that I can imagine. 

I was so furious that, by the time I arrived at the office, I’d sketched out a book exploring eight to ten myths that drive our politics because I believe that myths drive politics.  The Democratic Party has been woefully deficient in understanding the role myths play in politics.  The Republicans got it when Reagan played with myths and Democrats didn’t. 

When you frame an issue, you try to put it in terms that ordinary people understand even if they’re not experts, but myths operate in a much larger context so you have to take into account history and the way that issue evolved over time and space.  For example, the “Myth of the People” comes from the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal”—the basis for one of the most profound myths that the common people are equal to anybody else on earth.  And that means that almost every politician pays obeisance to that myth.  That’s a more sophisticated approach—taking into account that myth—than taking into account simply the frame, which is abstract, outside of history.   So anger at Lakoff was one inspiration for the book. 

In addition, and more particularly as a trigger, were the surveys that indicated Americans by overwhelming majorities believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.  There was no factual basis to believe this when the Iraq war [was launched], and yet some 60 percent by one poll, and [up to] 70 percent of Americans, believed it was true.  In other words, ignorant voters were misled by the Bush-Cheney administration, and nobody was really talking about it.  I was shocked by this.  How could we not talk about this? 

To me, this was a ten-alarm fire that so many people could get such an important point wrong about the most important event of our time and nobody would comment on it.  They’d talk about WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and other things, but here was this elephant in the room, and we didn’t talk about it because it violated that “Myth of the People.”  We didn’t want to believe that the people could be so wrong about something that was a question of fact. 

And a year after the Iraq war began, when the 9/11 Commission came out with its report saying flat out that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, still 50 percent of the American people insisted that Saddam was somehow connected with 9/11 if not directly behind it, and that’s just flabbergasting.  How can you run a democracy if people don’t get the basic facts right about important events?  You can’t.   Thomas Jefferson two centuries ago said that freedom and ignorance don’t go hand in hand, and anybody who thinks they do thinks something that never was and never will be.

RL: As you point out, Saddam’s lack of involvement in 9/11 was widely reported in newspapers, but many people no longer read newspapers.

RS: They certainly don’t read very much.  Since around 1965, Americans’ chief source of information about politics has been television.  Before that, it was the newspapers.  Newspapers were simply better conveyers of information.  

All kinds of studies show that people who read about politics in newspapers [have] a much more sophisticated and knowledgeable understanding of what’s going on in the world than those who simply watch television.  That’s a problem considering that television is ubiquitous.  

When I’m asked if I’m hopeful about the Internet, at the moment [I have to say], the Internet hasn’t affected our politics too much except that it’s allowed certain politicians who have mastered the medium to get donations, but there’s not much evidence that ordinary voters by tens of millions are turning to good, reliable sources on the Internet for news.   People are calling up blogs, which tend to reinforce their own views and don’t necessarily give them insight s into how the government works or what’s going on in politics.

For all the talk about the Internet, people get most of what they know about politics from television.  It’s even worse than that: people get most of what they know about the positions of the candidates on particular issues from those dumb 30-second spot commercials on television.   If that’s not a definition of stupidity, I don’t know what is.  That’s just mind-boggling.

RL: And you speak with authority on the influence of television given your background in broadcast journalism.  Your Pioneer Square interviews revealed that Seattleites were as ill informed on political basics as American voters generally.  Are Seattleites just as stupid as other Americans?

RS: What our survey research showed when I was managing news editor at KIRO-TV was that our audience is more literate than almost any other audience.  The Seattle audience contains almost the highest percentage of regular book-reading people in the country. 

When I first came on board at KIRO as managing editor we commissioned a million-dollar research study of our audience to find out what they wanted.  The [research firm found] first and foremost, our audience was interested in news about earthquakes because this is an earthquake-prone region.  Second, they wanted news about the weather, then they wanted sports, and way down at the bottom of the list was politics. 

When I was managing editor, I still insisted that we run political stories, but it was very difficult to lead the newscast with a political story because we knew that our audience by and large wasn’t interested in politics, and they would turn it off, and we would lose viewers.  So we still did political stories back then at least, and we had to be careful of the number we did because we didn’t want to alienate the audience.

While it would be nice to hold news directors responsible for the dumbing down of newscasts, which is evident for anybody watching local news over the last 20 years, my sympathies are with the news directors who have to deal with the audience they’re given.  News stations aren’t philanthropic enterprises.  They’re run by corporations, which have to worry about the bottom line, and to meet the expectations of the audience.  And the audience isn’t there for politics. 

In addition, there’s a structural problem there’s no way of getting around.  The local news here [in Seattle], for instance, doesn’t just mean local in Seattle.  KIRO News is viewed from Vancouver, Washington, to Vancouver, BC, so if KIRO TV puts on a news story about Seattle politics it will immediately lose a substantial part of the audience that doesn’t care about local Seattle politics, because of the area Seattle broadcasts to--[what's called] the Area of Dominant Influence (ADI).   Every ADI extends beyond the political boundary of a single jurisdiction, so news directors fear, even if they have a big city like Seattle, if you focus on Seattle politics, you’ll lose the outlying audience.  It’s a terrible problem, and we face that locally even with a fairly literate audience out there. 

When I first got into local TV news, about 25 years ago, it was difficult to be an idealist, but these days it’s impossible to be an idealist in local TV news, things have gotten so bad.  The bean counters are demanding that local TV news shows bring in so much money that you cannot afford to put quality news programming on the air or you lose your audience.  Instead, local news focuses on human-interest stories, which should be part of the mix, but when you have exclusively human-interest stories, people aren’t learning about their community.  As a result, the local TV news operations are doing a disservice to their communities.  There is no risk of losing their licenses because the FCC doesn’t take seriously its mandate to make sure that local news operations meet community needs. 

RL: The predominant local news philosophy seems to be “if it bleeds, it leads.”

RS: That’s always been the case, but in the back end of the old newscast you had beat reporters who were telling you about what was going on with the environment, the space industry, the airline industry—all local concerns.  I still have a lot of friends in the local TV news business and they’re very frustrated.  Today it’s impossible to really feel good about what you put on local TV news.

RL: Do you have any further thoughts on what you’re seeing in Seattle?

RS: Can people reading local newspapers become knowledgeable voters here?  Sure they can.   But the audience for local papers is declining and people are growing more and more indifferent to news, whether nationally or locally.  That’s unfortunate, because the world is getting only more and more complicated, not less complicated.  

RL: You write that the citizens of the 1940s, although less formally educated than voters today, knew more about politics.  How do we know this?

RS: First, here’s a paradox we need to think hard about.  In 1940, six in ten Americans hadn’t gone past the eighth grade.  Today, most Americans have had some college education, and yet our politics have grown more simplistic and dumber over the last half-century. 

People have measured the intellectual content of the speeches of presidents and found a steady decline.  The speeches of Franklin Roosevelt and the presidents before him were pitched at five grade levels above the speeches today.  This should worry us. 

Political scientists only began measuring what people know about politics in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  The surveys indicated from the beginning that Americans were grossly ignorant about how politics works and the people who run the country.   The statistics showed a fairly steady level of ignorance in most areas decade after decade, but in some areas today Americans know less than their parents and grandparents.  For instance, in the 1950s only 10 percent of Americans could not articulate a single difference between the two major parties.  By the 1970s and early 1980s, that was up to near 30 percent. 

In addition, if you look at what’s debated in politics today, it’s often more superficial issues than a half century ago, and the reason is that Americans a half century ago were taking their political cues from party bosses and labor bosses.  Now party and labor bosses don’t exist or don’t have much influence.   This change began in the 1950s, and the people were on their own and made up their own minds about politics.  What politicians discovered was that you could bamboozle them by talking up stupid issues.

RL: And misinforming the people?

RS: And misinforming them.  In the past, when a party boss told you how to vote, it wasn’t ideal, but at least when the voter went into the voting booth, the party boss told the voter to vote for this candidate because he’s good for you: he’s going to raise your wages or get a subway built in your neighborhood, or something that was concrete and real. 

Once people were on their own and getting most of their information about politics from television, they wound up voting for somebody not because he’d raise wages, but because they liked the way he parted his hair or because he came across well in a debate or [because of his] wife or the way he interacted with his children.  Superficiality, which is always present in politics, became magnified.

RL:   And you find the pernicious influence of television since at least the 1950s.

RS: We tend to think of John Kennedy as the first television president, but it started in the 1952 campaign.  That’s when Eisenhower ran the first 30-second spot commercial.  You even had a commercial developed by Walt Disney, a wonderful cartoon, “I like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike.”

RL: In that campaign, Ike’s opponent Adlai Stevenson was more nuanced with a more complex worldview.  In this year’s campaign, it seems Barack Obama also talks about complicated issues.  Will that hurt Obama?

RS: I haven’t seen him actually do that too often.  Most of the time, I think he’s delivering a very simple message playing on myth that he’s been peddling, very effectively—better than any Democrat ever has—the myth of himself as an iconic American.  A person whose father was from Africa, whose mother was from Kansas.  His father was black, his mother was white.  You wouldn’t think that their offspring would be considered a serious candidate for president, but here we are in the twenty-first century and he is.  He’s playing on the old myth that any boy can be president of the United States. 

That’s a marvelous story that we, as Americans, instinctively respond to.  In almost every speech he alludes to it, even when he was in Germany talking to 200,000 Germans in Berlin, because his real audience was not those 200,000 Germans; it was the 300 million Americans back home. We love that, so I don’t expect that he will suddenly cease playing on that myth.  He may work in more substantive speeches now and then, but I think basically his speeches will play on myth because he has sized up the American people. 

RL: Have you seen any hopeful developments in the past few months, perhaps as the result of Barack Obama’s campaign?

RS: It’s always hopeful when a politician draws a crowd because apathy is one of the poisons of democracy.  The fact that he’s been able to reach people and attract these enormous crowds and enthusiasm is a plus because people who are fired up about politics will probably read more about it and vote in higher numbers.  People who don’t vote tend to know least.  If [Obama] can turn out increased voters in 2008, that’s a plus. 

I’m a little afraid that you’ve got a charismatic candidate who, because of his charisma, is driving up interest in politics, and once he goes away, we’ll lapse back.  You don’t want your political system dependent on the arrival of a charismatic candidate every few years.   We don’t get charismatic candidates very often and, in any case, I’m a little uncomfortable with charismatic politicians because I want our politics to be rational and charisma suggests it’s more emotional than rational.

I want my president to know how to maneuver the levers of power and to inspire us.   Inspiration is an important quality.  Garry Wills says you can’t have a leader without followers.  It’s important that they have a certain amount of charisma.

RL: You stress the increasingly democratic nature of our government.

RS: We’ve become a much more democratic country.  The left wing argues that special interests are in charge in Washington DC, [and] the common man’s interests therefore get neglected.  

I argue, from a historian’s perspective, over the past hundred years, we’ve never been more democratic than now with women and blacks voting.  The views of ordinary people are taken into account with initiatives and referendums.   It’s not party bosses that pick nominees for the two parties now; it’s people that do it in primaries. Public opinion polls taking the pulse of the people weekly, daily and sometimes hourly, and politicians live in fear of getting in front of an issue without the public behind them.  They are studying those polls carefully to find out what the people think, and then following public opinion. 

Here’s the paradox:  at the same time we’re becoming more democratic, the people know less and less.  The people in charge—the American people—are really driving the bus of American democracy down the highway with their foot on the accelerator, and they don’t know very much.   How scary is that?  At least in the past if the American people were ignorant about some issues, they weren’t the ones making the big decisions.  So we get this terrible conundrum. 

I welcome a more democratic society, but the more democratic we get, then the smarter the voters need to get.  And our voters aren’t getting smarter; they’re getting dumber, and that’s a problem.  And I want to live in a country of smart voters because dumb voters are sitting ducks for vile and manipulative politicians.  

If politicians were angels, we wouldn’t need to worry about that, but I don’t know of too many politicians who are angels.  They put their own interests ahead of those of the community and the country.  Usually there’s a confusing meld of the two, and they themselves can’t see how their own interests diverge from the public interest.

In a society where politicians aren’t angels, you’ve got to have smarter voters,  and that’s really what I’m imploring the readers of the book to recognize. 

RL: Vice President Cheney, of all people, said that “the verdict’s in” or “the people have spoken” after polls supported an administration position.

RS: What’s interesting is that you usually think of Dick Cheney as being indifferent to public opinion.  It was convenient for him at the moment—and self-serving—to [say] that the public’s behind us, and that ends the story.  Of course, on other issues, he and President Bush argue that they don’t care what the public thinks, and they’ll just do what they think is right.  When confronted [recently] and told the American people didn’t agree with the administration, [Cheney’s] one word response was, “So?”

RL: With the Iraq war, the Congress has been complicit in the myth that they don’t have war-making power, and permitted the president to take the lead, and hasn’t made unified strides to end the war, despite the 2006 election when voters indicated they wanted the US out of Iraq.

RS: They’ve not been very brave, and Congresses for the last half-century, with the exception of the 1970s, have not been brave.  They’ve been happy to let the president take the lead on foreign policy so if the war goes well, they can say we supported the president, and if the war goes badly, they can say it’s the president’s war: it’s Johnson’s war, it’s Nixon’s war, it’s Bush’s war.  We had nothing to do with it.  So they give themselves a pass, and blame the president when it’s convenient. 

This is political cowardice.  They don’t want to stand up and be counted.  If they followed the Constitution, they would insist that there had to be a vote on a declaration of war any time a president wants to take us to war.   That would have been the case with Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and the Iraq war—and each time they took a pass. 

The presidents were maneuvered into putting resolutions before the House: in 1964 the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, in 1990 the Persian Gulf war resolution, and in 2002 the Iraq war resolution.  But they were of a different magnitude than when you say declaration of war, and that forces people to get serious.  For instance, the resolution passed in late 2002 on Iraq was not a declaration of war.  In fact, Sen. Hillary Clinton argued throughout the primary campaign that she wasn’t voting for war.  In other words, the members of Congress were never required to put their feet to the fire and say whether they wanted a war.   They left that decision up to the President, and that’s a violation of the US Constitution.  The only reason the public doesn’t rebel is they don’t even know what’s in the Constitution. 

RL: Since Reagan, it seems that people have increasingly felt that government has no role in their lives and, in effect, Reagan told them that government wasn’t there to help them.  Does some of this ignorance or apathy go back to a feeling that it doesn’t pay to be interested in government because it won’t help us anyway?

RS: That’s a part of the puzzle of what’s happening in politics.  Back when you had the government establishing big programs, people understood that the government has an impact on them.  Ruy Teixeira, a political scientist, has argued in several books that the Democratic Party needs to go back to it’s New Deal roots and fight for the passage of big government programs that help working class voters so that people get the connection: that voting for Democrats gets you government programs that actually help you in your life. 

Part of what happened in the 1960s in the Great Society was we passed a bunch of programs perceived to help poor people and not middle-class or working-class people, and working-class people lost interest in the Democratic Party.  They thought you’re the party of poor people and minorities, not my party, and they drifted to the Republicans who found different ways to appeal to working-class voters.  

One thing the Democrats could do to restore their viability in American politics, and I favor this, would be to establish a national health insurance program.  If people could see that in their own lives a program passed by a Democratic Congress and Democratic president actually lifted the burden of health insurance anxiety from their shoulders, they would get very quickly, “Oh, politics matters, and government matters.” 

RL: You also find that, since Reagan, politicians are “all populists now.”

RS: One of the problems we face is that nobody wants to criticize the public.  We all pretend that the voice of the people is the voice of God.  Dick Cheney cites public opinion polls when it’s convenient, saying “the people have spoken,” and the implication is the voice of the people—you can’t question it.  It’s the voice of God.  And liberals are natural celebrators of the people back to the days of Andrew Jackson, so they don’t point out the weaknesses in public opinion. 

The problem is that public opinion is often wrong, often misguided.  In their pandering mode, politicians say the American people are very smart.  In fact, this is something new.  Up until 1980, conservatives were frequently drawing attention to weaknesses in public opinion, then suddenly they stopped doing so, and they became populists just like the Democrats.  Why?  Because of Ronald Reagan who had been an FDR/ New Deal Democrat, and even when he changed his political colors and became an ideologically conservative right-winger and a Republican, he retained his love and romantic celebration of the common people.  In addition, he and other conservatives began winning election after election.  Naturally, if you’re winning elections, the last thing you’re going to argue is that the people don’t know what they’re doing because obviously they’re doing something pretty smart—they’re putting you in office. 

We’ve reached a point where neither Republicans nor Democrats draw attention to mistakes the public is making.   This isn’t healthy in democratic societies.  The system works only when we can have an open and honest discussion of problems.  If the people are off the table, you can’t have that honest public discussion. 

I’m calling on us to be true to democracy, which means everything has to be up for public debate, including the people’s wisdom.

RL: You’re sparking a national discussion.  How are the responses to your message?

RS: The responses, I’d say, are 75 percent favorable.  Once in a while a cranky reader says I’m condescending or expecting too much of the people.  On an interview on KUOW radio in Seattle, a caller complained at the end of a long day, after putting in a lot of hours at work, the last thing he wants to do is read the news.  I said that, if you don’t want to read the paper, if you don’t want to accept these responsibilities, then move to Russia because the leaders there take it as their responsibility to tell you how they will run the government and don’t consult you.  That was a rhetorical flourish; I don’t expect anybody to move to Russia, but I’m trying to make the point that we have obligations as citizens.  One listener was incensed that I was harsh and judgmental and condescending, and I understand why he thought I came across that way, but I’m not trying to be a scold here.  I’m trying to inspire people to think more deeply about politics, and shame people into it. 

RL: Some may prefer a paternalistic government without their participation.

RS: It’s crazy, because this is a democracy.  Some say the founding fathers didn’t set up a democracy, [but] a constitutional republic.  That’s how they set it up, but the democratic features have become stronger and stronger over time.  We’re voting on a lot of issues through initiative and referendums.  We’re selecting our leaders directly through primaries.  And with public opinion polls, politicians are responding daily to what the voters want.  That feels more like a democracy than a representative government.

 One quick reading of the Constitution, and you understand that the democratic features were minimal at the outset.  The founding fathers made only one half of one branch—the House of Representatives—directly responsible to the people.  The Senate was going to be picked by state legislatures, the president elected by the Electoral College, the entire judiciary nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.  There weren’t many democratic elements, and since we’ve become much more democratic than [the founders] ever anticipated.  They were worried about the many dominating the few and they identified with the few.  They were alarmed by the many.

RL: In grade school, we read a little newspaper called My Weekly Reader and had a quiz on current events each week.  I still remember some random facts from that paper.

RS: We’ve virtually stopped teaching civics in American schools, sometime in the sixties, and I think it’s very unfortunate.  I know civics has a 19th-century, fuddy-duddy feel to it with Mrs. McGillicutty at the front of her class listing the three branches of government, and students scribbling it out and memorizing it.  But people don’t get this through osmosis.  You have to be exposed to this. 

One solution that I offer in the coda of my book is to pass a law requiring all institutions of high learning that accept federal funding require incoming freshman to take a weekly current events quiz, and make their graduation dependent on getting a passing grade as a means of forcing people to read the newspaper.  I don’t want to force voting or have a civics test for voters.  That would be too intrusive. 

Clearly, it also should happen in grade school and high school, but it must be an ongoing commitment; something people are constantly talking about and thinking about.  Otherwise, it gets lost, and they’d rather read People or Us magazine, and find out about Lindsay Lohan than what’s going on politically.  You have to inculcate these beliefs early with the commitment to reading the newspapers, and you have to reinforce it over and over.

RL: You’ve mentioned that your own graduate-level journalism students didn’t want to read newspapers and didn’t seem interested in current events.

RS: I was teaching journalism at a university near Washington, DC, in a graduate-level seminar, the final pit stop before [the students] got their M.A.s.   They weren’t reading the paper, and it was obvious.  I finally required weekly current events quizzes.  I felt terrible about it.  I thought it was condescending, but it actually worked.  I made it 25 percent of their grade and they read the newspapers so they could pass the class and get their degrees. 

RL: How do you deal with the reality of our consumer culture and the fascination of many people with technology and other diversions?

RS: I’m not a policy maker.  I’m a historian.  In the book, I’m trying to analyze how we got to this point where most people don’t know much and why that’s so dangerous in a world where we’re the last remaining super power so that when we blunder the consequences are worldwide.  The policies I recommend are one, this law [on required civics testing in college], and two, reviving the political parties and labor unions.  Republicans led the way when they organized their voters through churches.  People organized in mass institutions tend to vote more and know more.  That’s why I want us to revive these other institutions.

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More Comments:

Jason Paul Mekeel - 12/7/2008

A lot of people are not even aware of this phenomenon.

HNN - 10/28/2008

I'm not opposed to parties framing issues. My objection was to Lakoff's implication that issues can be framed outside their historical context.

As for our ignorance of facts: 1. if you are going to go around boasting about your democracy you ought to be better grounded in reality than most Americans are. 2. "what are you going to do?" Read the NYT every day would be a good start as well as conservative mags like the Weekly Standard and National Review. That would go a long ways toward creating an informed citizenry. 3. By most measures Americans are less well informed than the voters in other industrialized democracies. We and Great Britain usually score at the bottom, northern European countries score at the top.

Michael Davis - 10/27/2008

But I think our country is no less ignorant of facts than many others.
However, the deleterious effects of television are correct; as are the woeful lack of reading that goes on today.
What are you going to do?

Oh, and politics IS about framing issues. Both parties have been doing it and will continue to do it.
Where have you been the past 18 months??