A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
I want to blame the media. I want to blame the Bush administration. But we have to get past it. We've done that for years now, and that's not going to solve anything. One of the statements I make in the book is that if politicians were angels, we wouldn't need smart voters. But the politicians aren't angels. The media, corporate run -- they're not angels. And that's not going to change.
-- Rick Shenkman, author, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter
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Pundit, author and lecturer Rick Shenkman would like American voters to do a better job of informing themselves. In Just How Stupid are We?" Facing the Truth About the American Voter he prods, cajoles and examines just why we don't know more before strolling up to our polling places. But he's not just finger pointing. He identifies systemic problems and institutional issues that do make it harder to judge the candidates than it used to be.
One great aspect of Rick Shenkman's book is his humor. He outlines, for example, a proposed piece of legislation called the "Too Many Stupid Voters Act" requiring Americans to become better informed about current events and public policy.
Rick Shenkman is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and the former managing editor of the CBS affiliate in Seattle. He was the host, writer and producer of a series for The Learning Channel inspired by his books on myths, and he currently edits the George Mason University online History News Network.
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BuzzFlash: Rick, in your book Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, you say it would be stupid to say that the American people are stupid. And it's just as stupid as saying American people are smart. In other words, it is impossible to generalize.
But our politics are often stupid, and there are times when no other word, harsh as it is, seems to capture the essence of the turn politics has taken in recent years. In a democracy, how can the politics be stupid and the people not stupid?
Rick Shenkman: I want to be provocative by using the word "stupid," but I don't want to just insult people. I want to draw the attention of the public to this question of how do we get smarter voters.
Our politics are clearly dumb. I don't think there's too many people who would disagree with that. But we don't then take the next natural step and ask, how can smart voters be putting up with it?
The fact is the politicians count on people being dumb. They gear their statements, their speeches and their policies to people not getting things, and not understanding the complexity of issues. That's what I want to draw our attention to.
BuzzFlash: Maybe it's not that many of us are dumb, but that we're not well-informed. You've got a lot of great statistics in the book. Only two out of five voters can name the three branches of government. Only one in seven can find Iraq on a map. Only one in five know that we have 100 U.S. senators. Although more than 50% of Americans can identify at least two members of "The Simpsons" family, only 25% can name more than one right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Only 20% of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 read a newspaper on a daily basis. And a Washington Post poll in September 2003 found that 70% of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. A majority continued to believe this even after the 9/11 Commission reported the claim was groundless.
Now if someone is stupid, then it means they can't process basic information. But in this case, they're misinformed. This didn't pop into people's heads. Someone had to give them this information, namely, the Bush administration through the corporate mainstream media. The President of the United States, and particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, to this day keep implying that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. So what's the difference between being misinformed and stupid?
Rick Shenkman: I've got a five-part definition of stupidity. The first part is when people exhibit gross ignorance. If there is information that's widely available, that any person with a brain and an ordinary 100-IQ could find out and absorb, and they don't, then to me, that's a failure of their civic responsibility. And I'm going to say that's a kind of stupidity.
Two is negligence -- the refusal to consult available and reliable news sources.
Number three is wooden-headedness -- we believe what we want to believe, regardless of the facts.
Four is short-sightedness, where we have short-term thinking. For instance, with gasoline prices, we went ahead and proposed a price freeze now, so that we can fill up our SUVs without making any changes, even though long-term, we know that would be unfortunate for the country.
And five is my catch-all category of bone-headedness, which is letting fear and hopes and meaningless slogans drive our thinking.
BuzzFlash: The last type you mentioned is a much discussed issue. A number of books examine the appeal, particularly since 9/11, of what some call demagoguery. As homo sapiens our sense of fear is an outgrowth of that innately felt fear of being preyed upon that exists throughout the animal kingdom. If you're a lamb and there's a pack of wolves coming after you, you have a sense of fear. We, as humans, have inherited that innate fear.
After 9/11, we were constantly shown pictures of Osama bin Laden. We were told by Dick Cheney and Bush that the threat of a nuclear Iraq to the United States was an imminent danger. To this day, Dick Cheney contends there was a relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, even though the CIA and the 9/11 Commission repudiated that.
A lot of people believe the Vice President of the United States. Even former press secretary Scott McClellan has pointed out the Bush administration has been misleading the American public. Is a percentage of the American public stupid for believing them? Or should the administration be blamed for misleading the American public?
Rick Shenkman: For years now, I think we had been focused on government leaders who had made mistakes and given out misinformation. The other side of the equation of our politics, is the public's responsibility. If you're going to have a democracy, you can't pander to the people. You can't condescend to them. They have to take responsibility. It is time for the public to take responsibility. Quit blaming all these others.
Now if there had not been any sources of information easily available that brought into question the statements made by the administration on the eve of the Iraq war, I would say fine -- give the people a pass. They didn't know. But the information was out there. It was on the front page of The New York Times. It was in every local paper in the country. Even the Daily Oklahoman -- not one of the great papers in this country -- had stories which would have led any inquisitive voter into second guessing what the administration was saying.
Certainly there was reason to doubt the claim that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. So they were not paying attention. And millions aren't paying attention. We need a wake-up call, and, in fact, we've had a wake-up call, which was the polls showing that 60%, 70% of the American people thought that Saddam was behind 9/11. That's just factually not true. There was no connection between him and 9/11. But people can believe that.
That should be their wake-up call that something is radically wrong with our democracy. And for the most part, we're not even talking about it. We want to keep blaming Bush. I'm tired of blaming Bush. I'm tired of blaming the media. Nobody has taken a hold of people and said, look, the people have got to take responsibility if it's a real democracy. Otherwise, we're just plain condescending to them.
BuzzFlash: You say don't blame the media, but you do.
Rick Shenkman: I want to blame the media. I want to blame the Bush administration. But we have to get past it. We've done that for years now, and that's not going to solve anything. One of the statements I make in the book is that if politicians were angels, we wouldn't need smart voters. But the politicians aren't angels. The media, corporate run -- they're not angels. And that's not going to change.
We can improve the voters, though, and do it through a variety of means. That's where I want to shift the focus, because the conversation has become so stale. Beating up on George Bush at this point is almost pointless.
BuzzFlash: In your book you address the issue of television. What is the role of television in the dumbing down of America?
Rick Shenkman: If you look back at the American people in 1940, six out of ten hadn't gone past the eighth grade. Today most Americans have had some college experience, so you would think that we're better schooled, and we should therefore be smarter voters. But we're not.
So you have to look around and say, how come? There are two major factors that really stick out. One is television, which is so shallow that, once it replaced newspapers as the chief source of news, which happened around 1965, shallowness became inescapable in our politics. Americans began judging politicians by how they looked and acted.
Another factor was the collapse of the two-party system and the unions. Voters stopped taking their cues from party and labor bosses, and they were largely on their own as they sorted through the complicated choices that they face as voters.
If you take those two factors, it's almost inevitable that you would have the kind of politics we have today. What I say in the book is that we don't even have a system. We have a non-system.
Nobody would have sat around and designed a system where most voters get most of what they know about where the candidates stand on issues from thirty-second spot commercials paid for by big donations from special interests. That's not a system. That's chaos. And yet that is our system. It's our non-system system.
BuzzFlash: You say the voters of America have to take more responsibility for being ill-informed. When Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas? came out, many reporters said Kansans were miffed at his idea that they didn't know what they were voting for, or they were voting against their own interest based on pandering and so-called values voting.
The title of your book is provocative, too. Critics will say you're an elitist if you say people are being fooled, that they're voting on guns and God, or they're ignoring their own economic self-interest. What do you say to the voter who says you're insulting me, I know what I'm voting on. You just don't agree with me. What do you say to that voter?
Rick Shenkman: First of all, even though I really enjoyed reading Thomas Frank's book, I disagreed with his thesis. He's making the argument that it's elitists who have been rigging the American system. He argues that the system is rigged against ordinary folks, and that's why they're being diverted by all these values questions.
Actually, I have no problem with voters voting on values. I'm gay, and one of my important values is tolerance for gay people. When I listen to politicians, I want to hear what their vision is on gay rights. To me, that's as important as somebody in Kansas maybe saying abortion is a critical issue for them. I don't know if you can remove values from politics and say that what counts are economic interests, which is what Thomas Frank claims. I part ways with that.
The larger question is whether it is condescending to people to explain what's really going on in their society. I don't think it is.
When I go around the country and lecture to college audiences about this subject, I say, when you listen to a politician, you have to listen in two different ways. First, you listen and you just experience the emotional reaction that you're having. Then you listen again, and you have to ask yourself why am I having the emotional reaction to various things that he or she is saying? So many times, you're having the emotional reactions because they're pushing some emotional button, which is grounded in some myth.
One of the myths that they will push is the common-man myth -- that they are just an ordinary person, just like you in the audience. Politicians have been doing this ever since the 1830s, when they started running as the Log Cabin candidates -- saying they were basically rags to riches, just like other Americans. It's a way of creating an emotional bond between the leader and the audience.
What I'm suggesting is that people need to be conscious that they are being manipulated. That's one of the reasons why I wrote the book -- to draw attention to this. Don't just listen to what politicians say on one level. Figure out why it is you're having either a positive or a negative emotional response to them. Then sort through that. What is that about?
Often, it's about them claiming to be like us. It's Al Gore in 2000 running around the country claiming that he's an ordinary person because during the summers when he was growing up, he used to plow the muddy fields of his Grandpappy's farm. Then he'd throw in, for good measure, that his mother was a waitress who worked for 25-cent tips. This is to try to obviate the other facts of his life, which is that his father was a U.S. senator. He grew up in a hotel in Washington, D.C., and he went to one of the finest prep schools in the country. This is what I'm talking about.
I don't think, once you explain this to the ordinary voter, that they're going to be insulted by drawing attention to this aspect of our politics. This is just a fact about the way politics works. I'm going to subject it to some scrutiny.
BuzzFlash: I recently watched a documentary by Nancy Pelosi's daughter on the Evangelical movement that had originally been on HBO. It featured Ted Haggard as the main spokesperson for the Evangelical movement, before his fall from grace, so to speak. I gained some empathy for people who are Evangelicals from watching the film, but my problem is with their outlook that government should reflect their belief that America was meant to be a Christian Evangelical nation. I believe firmly that our nation intends people to have their own gender choice, religious choice, job choice and so forth. The evangelicals do know what they're voting for, though. As you said, they're voting for their values.
Rick Shenkman: Sure, sure. Let them vote for their values, and then we'll have a public debate about whether or not this is essentially a Christian nation, and whether the Founding Fathers were Christian, and how that played into their politics. We can get it out in the open, and we can debate it. I don't want to squelch that debate. I'm happy to meet the Evangelicals on common ground and find things that we agree with.
BuzzFlash: How can the American voter take more responsibility for being more fully informed and correctly informed?
Rick Shenkman: The first step is a little bit like Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step is to recognize you've got a problem. Voters have to come to grips with the fact that they're not as well educated as they should be about politics. As long as they are not, they are sitting ducks for wily, manipulative politicians. Once we have opened that debate, and we say, yes, let's have that debate, then we have to talk about what systemic changes we can make.
We certainly aren't about to kill our television sets. But here's what we can do. We can revive groups that help educate people about politics. Maybe we don't want to go back to the era of party bosses and labor bosses, but it sure would be nice if you lived on a block, and you could talk to your party captain, who can fill you in one on one. Or you meet with ten people on your street about here's what the party stands for. It'd be nice if Americans even understood what the parties stand for. They don't. They have less appreciation for the differences between the two major parties now than they did in the 1950s.
So I want to revive the old mass institutions. Labor unions would be particularly helpful for Democrats. Republicans have already kind of done this by organizing churches. They went after mass groups -- the churches where likely Republican voters were -- and educated their voters about the issues that they're concerned with. I don't have a problem with that, although I do think there's a danger if churches become too involved in politics.
But you have to reach people through mass institutions. What we certainly know is that when people are on their own, they can't get it. Sitting at home and absorbing the news from television and picking up little bits of information from thirty-second commercials -- we know that doesn't work. People on their own can't do it. They do need to participate in some larger groups.
Maybe the Internet will be part of the solution. Howard Dean used it to great effect four years ago to mobilize his voters. I think, at this point, not that many people are actually using the Internet in that way, despite the media hoopla. But maybe over time, that will be another means to educate voters.
I haven't even begun to talk about the civic education. I think there should be more importance placed on civics in high school and college. That would mean, for instance, giving current events tests to every freshman in every college in America. When I was a teacher of journalism in graduate school at American University in Washington, D.C., I found that I had to actually start giving current events quizzes every week to get the students who were journalism students to start reading the newspaper. Sure enough, it worked. By the end of the term, they were all reading the newspaper and they were all a heck of a lot better educated about current events than they had been when they came into the classroom.
BuzzFlash: The journalism students were not reading newspapers?
Rick Shenkman: They were too busy with other things in their lives, just like other Americans. This is where I can't think badly of ordinary Americans when you think of life in a rough-and-tumble capitalistic society like ours. There's only so much time to go around. You spend time with your family. You're spending time at work. At the end of the day, you want to just relax.
This is a consumer society, so the emphasis is on consuming and entertaining. I get that. I live in the same world. At the end of the day, after having spent the day in front of my computer, I kick off my shoes and I watch television, just like everybody else in the society. But we should recognize that there are problems with that, in terms of having a functioning democracy.
BuzzFlash: It is kind of interesting, given the the contentious debate over immigration in the past couple years, that to become a citizen of the United States, you have to pass the citizenship test and show more knowledge about the Constitution and the United States than most Americans have.
Rick Shenkman: Sure. Most Americans would flunk those tests. I'm not sure if a lot of our politicians could pass those tests. I actually took one of the tests a couple weeks ago just to see how hard they are. And, I bet you, there are a lot of politicians who would have a flunking grade.
BuzzFlash: We should mention, as we have in our review in BuzzFlash, that you've got a very good sense of humor in discussing a serious subject throughout your book. Thanks for the terrific book.
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BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, by Rick Shenkman, available from BuzzFlash.
Click here to read his blog, How Stupid?
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW