The long Iraq war. The bungled Hurricane Katrina response. The credit crunch. A quick look at the newspapers will give many voters reason to doubt the wisdom of America's political leaders. Unfortunately, Americans are doing little to educate themselves about their leaders and their policies, says bestselling author and George Mason University historian Rick Shenkman in his new book Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter. Shenkman cites some damning facts to make his case that Americans are ill-prepared to guide the world's most powerful democracy. Only 2 of 5 voters can name the three branches of the federal government. And 49 percent of Americans think the president has the authority to suspend the Constitution. But, for Shenkman, the severity of the problem snapped into focus after Sept. 11, 2001, when polls showed that a large number of Americans knew little about the attacks and the Iraq war that followed. He blames some of the public's misunderstanding on the White House message machine, but he argues that Americans did little to seek the truth. "As became irrefutably clear in scientific polls undertaken after 9/11...millions of Americans simply cannot fathom the twists and turns that complicated debates take," Shenkman writes. Shenkman spoke to U.S. News about the competence of the American voter. Excerpts:
What made you first ask the question, "Just how stupid are we?"
There's been no issue more important in the last generation than 9/11 and the Iraq war, and Americans didn't understand basic facts about it. I found that very disturbing, and I wanted to explain how to account for that and then how to have an intelligent conversation about this. It's a very sensitive subject. I want us to be able to sit down, calmly review the evidence, and one, like alcoholics, admit we have a problem; and, two, try to figure out how we remedy that problem.
What evidence most concerned you?
Even after the 9/11 Commission, a majority of Americans believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq even after the Commission said there weren't. Only a third of Americans understood that much of the rest of the world opposed our invasion. Another third thought the rest of the world was cheering our invasion, and a third thought the rest of the world was neutral. If you're going to get that much wrong about the most important issue facing us, it's hard to have much confidence in our democracy.
Widely disparaging the American voter as stupid must have made you a bit nervous.
Obviously, the title is provocative. We went with it because we want to draw attention to the issue. I think people understand our politics have gotten pretty dopey; and those people interested in learning why—I hope they pick up this book and see how the history of the last half century has brought us to this point. I see a paradox and an irony. At the same time America has become much more democratic—between the use of polls, referendums, and initiatives, the Voting Rights Act of the 1960—people have become less capable of exercising their democratic responsibilities.
How do you account for that?
Americans are getting what little information they have about the candidates from 30-second commercials, and that's insufficient as a basis for deciding how you're going to vote and what you think about our politics. In the past, people got most of their information from newspapers—that was a much better source. And when they were members of large mass groups like political parties or labor unions where their party bosses or labor bosses helped guide their thinking about politics, they had a better grasp of who at least was going to butter their bread better. Today people are really on their own, and the book tries to demonstrate that people can't handle their responsibilities as well as they ought to. In a competitive capitalistic society like ours, where there is a great emphasis on entertainment, people are not inclined to sit down and study a newspaper and figure out what's actually going on in politics. That leads to very superficial politics.
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.