Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Americans Are Not Stupid

Newsweek recently published an article called “How Dumb Are We?” about Americans’ ignorance of our own political system—38% of the 1000 people polled failed the US Citizenship Test (take the quiz). Although it’s easy to tut-tut over how awful things are, and the magazine encouraged that thinking with the inflammatory subtitle "The country's future is imperiled by our ignorance," I thought the very last paragraph of the article (which most people probably didn’t make it to) was very revealing.

Stanford communications professor James Fishkin has been conducting experiments in deliberative democracy. The premise is simple: poll citizens on a major issue, blind; then see how their opinions evolve when they’re forced to confront the facts. What Fishkin has found is that while people start out with deep value disagreements over, say, government spending, they tend to agree on rational policy responses once they learn the ins and outs of the budget. “The problem is ignorance, not stupidity,” Hacker says. “We suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.”

The American people are not stupid. As I said in an earlier blog post, the more information people were given during the health care reform debate, the more they supported single-payer plans. But our politicians do not want an informed populace. They want an ignorant populace so the people don't get in their way. Political campaigns are not about issues and ideas, they are about the manipulation of voters' emotions by PR masters. Noam Chomsky has quite a lot to say about how democracy is impossible with this kind of manipulated populace in his new book "Hopes and Prospects." He observes that the public relations industry, in Advertising Age, named Barack Obama the marketer of the year for 2008:
The industry’s regular task is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices, thus undermining markets as they are conceptualized in economic theory, but benefiting the masters of the economy. And it recognizes the benefits of undermining democracy in much the same way, creating uninformed voters who make often irrational choices between the factions of the business party that amass sufficient support from concentrated private capital to enter the electoral arena, then to dominate campaign propaganda.
Our ignorance serves the interests of the plutocratic elite who control this country. The Newsweek article has some other explanations for American's ignorance, given by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker. He argues that our political system is quite complex compared to most European countries' parliamentary system, so it's inherently difficult to understand. Mr. Hacker also blames the high level of poverty in this country--poor people are poorly educated. His last point is that our ignorance of politics stems from our reliance on market-driven television programming rather than public broadcasting, which “devotes more attention to public affairs and international news, and fosters greater knowledge in these areas.”

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