The Ignorant American Voter

Historian Rick Shenkman laments the breed in his new book, "Just How Stupid Are We?"


Rick Shenkman, author of "Just How Stupid Are We?"

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The voter you describe, supportive of the war and the Bush administration, sounds like a conservative. How do you defend this book as anything more than a liberal screed?

I know this plays into a narrative of contemporary conservatives where liberals are finding fault with working class Americans, but I hope I provide enough context in the book that people see this is not a liberal's manifesto. This is an American's manifesto about something that is really wrong with the country. One thing I hope to do is remind conservatives of their own history. It used to be you could always count on conservatives to raise questions about the people. But one reason Ronald Reagan won is that conservatives started celebrating the common man just like liberals always did. So now you have two main ideological groups in the country saying the voice of the people is the voice of God. As I say in the book, we're all populists now. That's fine, but the voice of the people often isn't the voice of God. The people make mistakes. And if you don't have conservatives pointing that out, then the system is out of whack. Democracy depends on having a sustained conversation about our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Rather than being stupid, could Americans just be too trusting of their leaders?

It's very curious. Before this last half-century, Americans were very trusting of their leaders. But that all changed after Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-contra. I don't think you can have a democracy without people trusting their government, but if the last half century has shown anything, it's that healthy skepticism about our leaders is probably warranted, if not a wholehearted cynicism. And I certainly wouldn't want to embrace a wholehearted cynicism. That's too grim a reading of the lessons of the last half century. But at the same time, they need to be skeptical. What I argue in the book is we have to reform ourselves. We can't just say to leaders, "You have to be better leaders," or to the media, "Do your job better." If this is going to be a democracy, we have to take responsibility as voters. Is there any evidence that voters in other countries are smarter or more responsible voters?

I'm not an expert on other countries. My study of the last 30 years is focused on the United States. Our democracy is so different for so many reasons. We don't have tribal ancestry that unites us. What unites us are our ideas, and that creates a far different set of challenges for our democracy than for another democracy in the rest of the world. What I try to do is talk about comparing Americans today with Americans of the past and talking about our own history. What can be done to un-dumb the American voter?

My point is not that we need to go back to a system where party or labor bosses were in charge of the system. We have a vibrant democracy today, and that's a good thing, but we need to simply acknowledge that the ordinary voter is not as smart as they should be. They are susceptible to manipulation and being conned, and once we admit that, we have to figure out how we can have a country of smarter voters. That's why I end the book on an optimistic note, because I think we can get there. My No. 1 suggestion that is easily implemented is to ask every college student their freshman year to take a current events quiz weekly. I think that would have an enormous effect on the country.