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Yeh, We Are Stupid, Rick Shenkman

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It has been widely reported that liberals are more pessimistic than conservatives. Although I am not sure I buy the research I certainly fall into the liberal progressive pessimist category when it comes to the political process and the American public’s ability to read and think, seriously, about both the candidates and the issues.

Because we don’t, most of us. We don’t read much. We certainly read little that challenges our conventional thinking, in spite of the plethora of good political writing available to us. And we are loathe to search out anything that takes time, even though the Internet is readily available to many of us. Because virtually all Americans have a television (or three or four) and it’s much simpler and easier to just turn it on to our “news” channel of choice and be told how to think and what we should know.

Rick Shenkman’s new book, Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing The Truth About The American Voter is nothing new, but depressing nonetheless because he has it absolutely right. We really can be stupid. Witness Linda Kaplan Thaler’s editorial in a recent Huffington Post that reads, in part:

In other words, the key to winning, fellas, is to make sure you're not just listening to the voters, but you're really hearing them, as well. Be someone they can relate to. Someone they truly admire. Someone they can really like… Because when the issues of health care, energy, and our sinking economy have been debated in 75,000 Town Hall meetings across America, and voters are demanding to hear more about the heady issues — they'll still end up voting with their hearts.

We can’t possibly be encouraged by this. We’re still voting for a politician because he seems like us or we think we would like him? Isn’t that what has gotten us into this mess in the first place? Actually, it’s gotten us into just about every political mess we have ever been in, and, perhaps, some of the political good places we have found ourselves in. But by accident.

Shenkman says we don’t read. Check. We don’t go to alternate news sources. Check. We don’t really find out what a candidate thinks. Check. And we make our decisions based on all of that non-information. Check. And then we wonder why we got who we got? Yup.

I have known all this for years and decried it. But speaking about it makes people think you’re an elitist, someone who is "better" than everyone else. No, not better, I argue. Just better informed. Better able to argue a point. Better able to know what the real issues are, and to vote on those and not fall for some sleight of hand. Better to see you with, my dear, as Red Riding Hood’s faux grandmother said.

And now, because Obama is articulate, thoughtful, educated and willing to think hard about a position rather than just give an easy answer AND is willing to also understand that compromise may be necessary to get the job done (and he’s honest about it) he is labeled both an elitist and a flip-flopper. Ye gads.

I don’t think Barack Obama hung the moon. I don’t even think he is a genius; or a rock star. I think he’s brilliant the way Bill Clinton was brilliant, but also less politically savvy (too many promises early on). I think he is smart enough to surround himself with people who know stuff he doesn’t (but then, Bush did that). Mostly, however, he is the right man at the right time in the right political climate.


But people say they still don’t know him. Even as savvy a politico as Jonathan Martin said Tuesday on NPR that the Democratic Convention would be the first opportunity Americans got to form a real impression of Obama, when he speaks to 75,000 people in a football stadium.  That simply is not true. There is a ton of information on both candidates available to anyone who wishes to do a little bit of work before they vote. They don’t need to wait until the convention and listen to a speech that will be pretty and inspiring but cannot, and should not, cover everything he is as a man and everything he would wish to do as a president.

Some people will wait until the last moment and then vote with their “hearts.” The swing voters and the undecideds will be interviewed ad nauseum, as though waiting until November to decide between the candidates was a virtue instead of an absurdity. And the media will nod sagely when people say that they don’t have enough information to make an informed choice. What they mean, of course, is that they haven’t been spoon fed enough to make them comfortable with one candidate over the other.

No. Not many of us will go to any effort to read and think before we vote, which is a tragedy. We still want small, easily digestible newsbites, commercials that make us feel good and the occasional knock-out punch that threatens to derail a candidacy. An example? Critics were all over Obama for his vote on the FISA bill and didn’t even bother to check (nor did the media reporting it) for Obama’s statement of defense on his website (part of which is below)—well reasoned no matter what you think–which even his supporters don’t seem to want to read, never mind his detractors.

(T)he compromise bill is far better than the Protect America Act that I voted against last year. The exclusivity provision makes it clear to any President or telecommunications company that no law supersedes the authority of the FISA court. In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people. But in a free society, that authority cannot be unlimited. As I've said many times, an independent monitor must watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people. This compromise law assures that the FISA court has that responsibility.


The Inspectors General report also provides a real mechanism for accountability and should not be discounted. It will allow a close look at past misconduct without hurdles that would exist in federal court because of classification issues…
Now, I understand why some of you feel differently about the current bill, and I'm happy to take my lumps on this side and elsewhere. For the truth is that your organizing, your activism and your passion is an important reason why this bill is better than previous versions. No tool has been more important in focusing peoples' attention on the abuses of executive power in this Administration than the active and sustained engagement of American citizens. That holds true — not just on wiretapping, but on a range of issues.

But are we active and engaged? Some of us, yes, but enough of us? Enough of us to make sure that 2008 isn’t another 1968? Or another 2000 or another 2004? We have plenty of examples where the American public sat back and thought things would turn out well.  They didn’t; not by a long shot.

Why do we insist our candidates be as ill-informed as we are?  Obama, for his flaws, is a smart, articulate man. Smarter and far more educated and articulate than most of the voters. Does that mean we can’t see our way clear to voting for him and would rather have someone with whom we feel “comfortable?” Yikes!

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About Lisa Solod

  • It is a big problem, and one which is not difficult to discern; evidence of its existence is everywhere. The bigger problem, unfortunately, is that there is no obvious or even obscure solution — at least I haven’t thought or heard of any.

    Problems are abundant, and while constant reminders of them are interesting, tossing out a few potential solutions or at least palliatives would be even more interesting and productive.


  • Yikes. Dead on, I’m afraid. Not everyone is going to take the time to do research on the candidates. I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of this myself, especially in local elections. Heck, my mother voted for JFK just because he liked the way he looked, and because he was Catholic.

    Not anymore, though. We can’t afford not to pick apart any candidate.

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    Thanks Dan. You’re right. But if you read my article carefully you will see I do give suggestions, too. Read, think. Pay close attention. Realize how important your vote is. Vote with your head and not your eyes.

  • bliffle

    Part of the problem is the dumbing down of citizens by The Media. It is to their advantage to have obedient consumers rather than critical observers. So they unite together to tell us that it IS important that we would like to “have a beer” with a candidate (even one whose appeal is partly that he doesn’t drink beer). And they avoid issues, for that would endanger a Media Person becoming unpopular with some part of the Consuming Public.

    The Media tells us that what is important is NOT the issues, but rather the horse race. Of course, because they sell advertising space at the race track. They tell us that what is important is whether McCains speech in Peoria affects the blue-collar vote, NOT whether it has this or that effect on policy.

    This is entirely non-partisan. There is no leftwing press or rightwing “MSM” of any significance. What there is is a non-partisan suckup media that will do anything to avoid issues and policies in order not to endanger their coziness with Big Power Centers, like the federal government and the leadership of the two political parties.

    We were trained for this by the incessant pavlovian advertising training of the past 50 years by the best psychologists in the world working at the behest of the largest, richest and most powerful corporations in the world. All for one purpose: not just to promote sales but to control the WAY that sales are made so that no upstart can unseat them.

    We have been taught that Extrinsic Values promoted and controlled by the advertisers are the important values. It is more important that a car attracts a beautiful lover than that it carry you comfortably and cheaply to your destination. Why, that would be mere Intrinsic Value!

    So the extension of Trivial Pursuit from junk products to junk politics is a simple exercise.

    And so it is.

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    Yup. The media, which I used to work for, is a huge part of this problem and others I shall write about. It’s unfortunate but too true.

  • Clavos

    It is interesting to me, bliffle, that whatever the controversy, the villain you always postulate is industry.

  • Lisa,

    I did read the article, closely, and agree that we should all, obviously,

    Read, think. Pay close attention. Realize how important your vote is. Vote with your head and not your eyes.

    Unfortunately, our failure to do these things is part of, if not the root, problem. How do you suggest that we be induced to do these things? That would possibly come close to offering a solution.


  • Biffle,

    The economic powerhouses of the country doubtless have their flaws. However, I couldn’t miss the constant use of the passive voice in your comment. We are the victims, because they are doing bad things to us and are perverse.

    The media do what they think we want them to do, because (if they are correct) that produces money. Doing what we don’t want them to do produces bankruptcy.

    I recall a comment by a former and longtime FCC commissioner who explained the concept of the public interest, convenience and necessity as used in the original Communications Act as follows: public interest meant that radio programming should be interesting, convenience meant that the radio receivers should have easy to use station selection devices and on-off switches, and they just threw in “necessity” because it sounded good. He was only joking, but I don’t think he was too far off the mark. If the programming is interesting, we will listen to it and advertisers will pay the stations to present it. If we don’t like it, we can change to another station or turn the damn thing off. Necessity — gracious me, there are all sorts of alternative sources of information for those fortunate people who know how to read.


  • As spot-on an assessment of the Obama candidacy – even at this early stage – as I have read.

    I do take issue with your assertion that it is necessarily absurd to wait until the last minute before deciding who to vote for. That’s true if one isn’t going to give the election the slighest thought in the meantime; but someone who’s firmly made up their mind in July to vote for Squeaky McClean in November is likely to be blind and deaf to changing circumstances that might provide serious grounds for doubting the wisdom of such a vote.

    You also say that there is a plethora of good political writing out there. This is no doubt true, but unfortunately – and please forgive the shameless self-plug here – there is also just as much bad political writing. The trick is in deciphering which is which.

    At the root of it all is the common perception that politics is boring. It isn’t, but the way to convince people of this is not to allow the media to turn it into yet another celebrity sideshow. Let’s face it, Barack Obama talking about hillbillies in Pennsylvania can’t compete with Britney Spears going out without any underwear on.

  • Doc,

    You say,

    Let’s face it, Barack Obama talking about hillbillies in Pennsylvania can’t compete with Britney Spears going out without any underwear on.

    Why, oh why, am I reminded of a comment from a by-gone era that

    I would rather be in bed with Marlyn Monroe stark naked than with General MacArthur in full dress uniform?

    Of course, that was back when they were still alive.


  • Was that Groucho Marx, Dan?

  • Doc,

    No, I think it was his semi-cousin, Karl.


  • Baronius

    Lisa, if it helps, you sound like I did eight years ago. It’s always easier to detest the American voter when he’s picking the other party’s candidate. When he starts picking yours, he just seems wiser.

    I agree that the mainstream press does a bad job at election coverage. But then again, no one watches them.

    But how many of those “independent moderate undecideds” really are undecided? A lot of people would rather answer “don’t know/undecided” than admit to their political preference. Some people act as if they’d vote for either party because it makes them feel open-minded, but invariably choose the same party in the voting booth. And some people take queues from others whose opinions they trust.

  • Lee Richards

    Maybe being interested in and able to study issues, evaluate platforms, analyze candidate’s records, use facts and reasoning to compare candidates and parties isn’t the norm in America.

    Maybe those of us who try to do those things exceed the norm and large numbers of our fellow citizens who can’t or won’t try to, for whatever reasons, fall below the norm when compared to us.

    Barely half of us even bother to vote usually. Isn’t that the minimum responsibilty expected of a citizen during election season? If many neglect that–and they do by the tens of millions–they’re sure to fall below the norm of well- informed voter.

    What I’m saying is, a careless, ignorant or indifferent voter may seem stupid to us but, maybe it’s not their stupidity that’s the issue but rather OUR expectations for them that are unrealistic. There are always kids in school who, while not stupid, fall below the norm(the school’s expectations)in some subjects.

    This is not to excuse people who are lazy, won’t think for themselves, or just don’t care. But I wonder if we tend to judge others based too much on our standards, beliefs, interests, and behaviors?

    I’m largely uninformed(by MY neglecting to become more knowledgable)when it comes to doing car repair;does that make me stupid, or below the norm of professional mechanics?

  • Lee,

    I’m largely uninformed (by MY neglecting to become more knowledgable) when it comes to doing car repair; does that make me stupid, or below the norm of professional mechanics?

    Me too, in spades. I recently figured out into which hole the gasoline goes. However, we can usually find a good or at least acceptable mechanic. Unfortunately, we shouldn’t try to find someone else to vote for us.


  • Lisa Solod Warren

    To Dan:
    If I could make everyone care about the election and what it means and make everyone informed about it, well, then I would have to be elected president:)
    But I think the change comes from both the bottom up and the top down.
    1. Improve our schools. Teach civics. Make it okay to be smart and informed. And since we live in a capitalist society, provide an incentive. Go back to states’ rights and make each state responsible for having the best education they can, before they get federal money. Make it a competition. Give an oral civics test to all kids before they graduate eighth grade and again before they leave high school. Not a test to study for….but a knowledge test, a conversation.
    Make sure the states are responsible for ALL schools, not just the ones in rich districts.
    Hold a governor’s conference and make sure each gov gets the info he/she needs to make the changes and knows what the consequences are.

    2. Reform educator education. Make being a teacher a profession that pays real money and demands real talent. This would have to start at large state and public colleges that train a lot of teachers. Again, incentives, incentives.

    3. Make it financially expedient and morally responsible for corporations to put money back into our social systems rather than take obscene profits and huge bonuses. Again, provide incentives, tax cuts, etc. for success.

    4. Elect a leader who is not afraid to be creative, who is not worried about being popular but who is worried about justice, equality, and good over money and special interests.

    5. Convince Americans that taking care of others is not communist or socialist but Biblical. Since the large majority of Americans belive in God anyway (which is why I don’t have a problem with faith based initiatives as long as they are based on the same ten commandments that our judicial system is based on).

    6. Get the media off the fear wagon and the bad news ledes and get them to do something real for a change. Stop the bloody soundbites. Now THERE is something that should be a crime. Sixty days incarceration for each stupid soundbite!!!!

    I could go on….. but it demands both ground level ideas and leadership and government leadership AND the only way this free market society will buy into it is to make it competitive and worth it. Cynical? yup. But it might work.

    As for the garage mechanic…. Well, it is a lot easier to find a new mechanic than it is to find a new president. Doesn’t work for me as a metaphor. A mechanic is who we pay for goods or services we either don’t wish to or can’t find or do ourselves. The President of the US is, as the media tells us, the most powerfull man in the world. Big difference.

  • Lisa,

    I agree, even with respect to the garage mechanic. Actually, I was just having some fun with Lee about that.

    Unfortunately, being rather long in the tooth, I have become cynical and suspect that there are no viable solutions which can actually even begin to work until they (we?) begin to have snowball fights in Hell. I certainly hope that the younger folks do a better job.


  • Clavos

    “I certainly hope that the younger folks do a better job.”

    Have we, compared to our parents’ generation?

    Maybe a little. Progress, real progress, is nothing if not slow.

  • bliffle

    “The media do what they think we want them to do, because (if they are correct) that produces money.”

    This excuse is often invoked on behalf of the media outlets, but I think it hasn’t been true for many years. Looking back 100 years we can easily find cases where powerful leaders are not content to allow the media to satisfy this idea. They do NOT want the media to allow the media to publish Ida Tarbell and other ‘muckrakers’, even tho the reading public desires it. They took assertive steps to defame and suppress such “news”.

    In modern journalism it is easy to find examples of cases where the principle of “giving them what they ask for” is defied in favor of some pre-determined agenda. This is non-partisan and both leftists and rightists complain about it.

    Even media consumers, those whom the media cite in their “give ’em what they want” excuse are leaving traditional media, presumably because they haven’t been getting what they want.

    Even with the new media on the internet we see that the Chinese are not “getting what they want”, they are, in fact getting what the Chinese government WANTS them to get.

    Nobody can leave the media to “give ’em what they want”. As soon as some Marxist-Leninist nitwits take over a country they dominate the newspapers and TV stations so that they can give the public what They want. And we start a Radio Free Podunk to pipe in the media content We Want.

    No, it won’t do. The media can’t blame their lousy content on their readers.

  • Jeff Roe

    Just curious: as both of the finalists continue to “move toward the center”, what does this say about their personal belief system – their convictions? If they are going to adjust their positions and statements based on what their pollster tells them is the most popular position – how is that change?

    And what happens after the election? Does we really believe that the winner will stick to the positions they needed to have or say to get elected? How STUPID are we?

    Whatever happened to sticking to the positions, statements, or belief system you’ve had your entire life. This way, you don’t have to rely on your teleprompter or your speechwriter to know what to say, you are talking from the heart based on conviction.

    Actually saying what you believe in your heart. What a concept!

  • bliffle

    “It is interesting to me, bliffle, that whatever the controversy, the villain you always postulate is industry.”

    Your mistake, clavos. The ‘villain’ that I, or one would think, any alert person would see, is excess concentration of power. It’s a very conservative principle. You remember ‘conservatism’ don’t you? That was before the neocons replaced respectable conservatism with mere president-worship.

  • Cindy D

    Prelude to a bliffle. (RE #4)

    And before god invented the media (good book to read here*) he invented school to prepare us to be good consumers.

    School is where we learn not to think too much. If we have a love of learning (which most children naturally do) we will be lucky if it survives in school. We will learn to attend to superficial. Facts, dates–the best regurgitators are good college material.

    One thing we will learn is we aren’t worthwhile unless we can afford to buy the right “look” with the right accessories. We will continue as adults to try to find comfort in purchases.

    School comes before the media in training the cogs to fit into the machine.

    *Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge–And Why We Must by Kalle Lasn

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    Agreed. Schools do a lousy job of teaching kids to think independently. They teach to the test, whichever one is in vogue this week. They graduate kids who know nothing. And consumerism? Yeh, howdy. For a wonderful take on this, read Judith Warner’s column in yesterday’s New York Times and check out those comments. She bought into the keeping up with the Jones’ big time. And she’s supposed to be smart.

  • Lee Richards

    RE # 23:

    Because politicians use schools as political footballs and to turn us against each other.

    I think every politician ought to have to pass the competency test for high school seniors before they could run for office.

  • bliffle

    How sad to recollect the PTA and school board meetings I attended when I had young children, only to see partisans struggle over which doctrines to inculcate the children with, and which dangerous ideas and words to shield children against.

    “Huckleberry Finn”, in fact all Mark Twain, was banned for it’s unclean, incorrect, ideas and words. And now, all these years later, a daughter still castigates Twain for his ‘racism’. Being 42, an MD, doesn’t seem to have inspired her to actually read the works.

  • Lee Richards

    Interesting that so many who criticize books and films for their “bad” content never bother to read the books or see the films;they just want them banned for everyone.

    On the other side are those who want Bibles and commandments everywhere, including schools, when they haven’t actually read or studied them either.

    Schools should, of course, teach facts. More importantly, they should help kids learn how to think for themselves so they can make sense of the facts they learn. Partisan politicians, pressure groups and the federal government only get in the way of that goal.