Just How Stupid Are We?

Facing the Truth About the American Voter


By Rick Shenkman

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Levees break in New Orleans. Iraq descends into chaos. The housing market teeters on the brink of collapse. Americans of all political stripes are heading into the 2008 election with the sense that something has gone terribly wrong with American politics. But what exactly? Democrats blame Republicans and Republicans blame Democrats. Greedy corporate executives, rogue journalists, faulty voting machines, irresponsible defense contractors-we blame them, too. The only thing everyone seems to agree on, in fact, is that the American people are entirely blameless. In Just How Stupid Are We?, best-selling historian and renowned myth-buster Rick Shenkman takes aim at our great national piety: the wisdom of the American people. The hard truth is that American democracy is more direct than ever-but voters are misusing, abusing, and abdicating their political power. Americans are paying less and less attention to politics at a time when they need to pay much more: Television has dumbed politics down to the basest possible level, while the real workings of politics have become vastly more complicated. Shenkman offers concrete proposals for reforming our institutions-the government, the media, civic organizations, political parties-to make them work better for the American people. But first, Shenkman argues, we must reform ourselves.


Praise for Rick Shenkman's
Just How Stupid Are We?
"What Shenkman does not do is chortle, Mencken-like, about stupidity. He offers plausible suggestions for how the knowledge level of the American electorate might be raised to a respectable threshold."
"Shenkman combines his talents as a reporter and a historian to assess why the American voter can be rational and yet so capable of "being played like a fiddle" by politicians . . . highly recommended."
Library Journal
"In lucid, playful prose . . . Shenkman initiates an important conversation in this book and makes welcome suggestions to reinvigorate civic responsibility and provide people with the knowledge and tools necessary to efficaciously participate in the political process."
Publishers Weekly
"With wit, passion and devastating evidence, Shenkman compels us, the praised and petted 'American people,' to look in the mirror for an explanation of why our elections are travesties of informed, intelligent debate. Lively and crucial, the book reminds us, however we vote, that there's no such animal as 'democracy for dummies.'"
—BERNARD A. WEISBERGER, author of America Afire
"The bad news is that Americans are ignorant, short-sighted, and swayed by meaningless phrases; the good news is that things could get better—if we start speaking honestly about the problem. Rick Shenkman's book is a crucial starting point in that process."
—JON WIENER, Professor of History at University of California at Irvine and author of Historians in Trouble
"Are manipulative politicians and an intimidated media the only reasons we've had to suffer through the Bush years? What about the American people? Why don't they stop, pay attention, and think for themselves? In his candid and hard-hitting history of American political culture, Shenkman offers a compelling and disturbing analysis of the American people and why we get the government we deserve."
—RUTH ROSEN, Professor Emerita of History,
University of California, Davis


MAGGIE: Truth! Truth! Everybody keeps hollerin' about the truth. Well, the truth is as dirty as lies.
BRICK: Can you face the truth . . . ?
BIG DADDY: Try me!
BRICK: You or somebody else's truth?
BIG DADDY: Bull. You're runnin' again.
BRICK: Yeah, I am runnin'. Runnin' from lies, lies like birthday congratulations and many happy returns of the day when there won't be any.
—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Author's Note
After The Bad Bush Years there is a deep yearning in America for change. Many of us cannot wait for the headline: "George W. Bush Leaves Office." Along with millions of Americans, throngs around the world will no doubt cheer the news of his departure, as will I.
But as the reader will see, I am convinced that it is too easy to blame our mess on Mr. Bush. And I do not believe that his replacement by a leader who is less partisan and more competent and sensitive to civil liberties will begin to remedy what ails us.
What went wrong, went wrong long before Mr. Bush's ascendancy. His flaws simply gave us the unwelcome opportunity of seeing what heretofore had remained largely invisible.
We have had enough books about Mr. Bush, and I, for one, frankly am tired of them. What we need now are books to help us understand us. What has happened did not happen as a result of a single leader's mistakes. We had a hand in it.
The cliché is that people get the government they deserve. If that's true, why did we deserve Mr. Bush?
That is the question I set out to answer.

The Problem
The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
Are America's voters prepared to shoulder the responsibility of running the most powerful nation on earth? Do a majority know enough? Care enough? Think hard and clearly enough?
A sign of our self-confidence as a people is that we regularly call attention to the dumb things our politicians say and do. But who takes the voters to task for their foolishness? Any dolt can make fun of a politician. What if the real problem isn't with them but with us—or, to be more precise, those among us who exhibit habitual stupidity?
To be blunt: We are, it seems to me, guilty of a certain kind of cowardice for our failure to inquire deeply into the mistakes the voters make. Even after 9/11, when fresh thinking was needed most, we neglected as a society to confront harsh truths about the limits of the public's wisdom. Busy spreading democracy around the world, we refused to reflect bravely on the defects of our own. Instead of admitting our flaws, we settled, somewhat defensively, on the myth that we are a good and great people with noble aims.
The willingness to address our myths calls for a certain amount of courage. The thesis of this book is that courage of the sort we need has been in short supply of late. We have allowed the myth of The People to warp our politics, limit the choices of our leaders, and hinder us in our war with Islamist terrorists, putting our democracy, and possibly even our lives, in danger. While pundits on both the Left and the Right have advanced vigorous arguments about a seemingly endless number of hot topics, they have largely ignored how the voters' limitations have sabotaged us time and again. One of the purposes of this book is to provide various ways to have a constructive conversation about this most sensitive of subjects.
Presumably most Americans would agree that honesty and clear-headedness are desirable. So why has it been so difficult for us to achieve these twin goals? The conclusion I have reached is that we may not truly desire the truth, however sincerely we believe that we do. The record of our history suggests that, given a choice between a harsh truth and a comforting myth, we have been inclined to embrace the latter.
We flatter ourselves that we are, in the wake of 9/11, a serious people—or, at any rate, a more serious people than formerly. But seriousness surely means, if it means anything, the willingness to face facts, even those facts that may give us a bad case of indigestion. And this, as we shall see, we have not been willing to do.
Our problem is twofold. Not only are we often blind to the faults of the voters, owing to the myth of The People, but the voters themselves frequently base their opinions on myths. This is a terrible conundrum. Democracy is rooted in the assumption that we are creatures of reason. If instead, as seems likely, we human beings are hard-wired to mythologize events and our own history, we are left with the paradox that our confidence in democracy rests on a myth.
Of all our myths, I believe the myth of The People to be the most dangerous one confronting us at present. The evidence of the last few years that millions are grossly ignorant of the basic facts involving the most important issues we face has brought me to this sad conclusion. As became irrefutably clear in scientific polls undertaken after 9/11 by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), millions of Americans simply cannot fathom the twists and turns that complicated debates take.
In January 2003, three months before our invasion of Iraq, the survey-takers found that a majority of Americans falsely believed that "Iraq played an important role in 9/11." Over the next year and a half PIPA polls indicated that a persistent 57 percent believed that Saddam Hussein was helping al Qaeda at the time we were attacked. (Other polls came up with higher numbers. For instance, in September 2003 a Washington Post poll found that 70 percent of Americans believed Saddam was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks.) In the spring of 2004 the 9/11 Commission flatly stated that Saddam had not provided support to al Qaeda. The Commission's findings received saturation coverage. Nonetheless, in August of the same year, according to a PIPA poll, 50 percent were still insisting that Saddam had given "substantial" support to al Qaeda. (A full two years later, in 2006, a Zogby International poll indicated that 46 percent of Americans continued to believe that "there is a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.")
The illusion that Saddam was behind 9/11 had real-world consequences. A poll for Investor's Business Daily and the Christian Science Monitor cited by the PIPA researchers found that 80 percent of those who backed the Iraq War in 2003 said that a key reason for their support was their belief that Saddam had ties to al Qaeda.
Another clear indication of public ignorance concerned the claim that Saddam possessed "weapons of mass destruction," which became such a ubiquitous part of the national conversation that the phrase soon became known by its initials: WMD. Poll results show that the voters were quick to absorb the administration line, but only slowly came to realize that they had been snowed.1 As late as the spring of 2004 a clear majority remained unaware that experts such as Hans Blix (head of the UN weapons inspectors), David Kay (the former head of the Iraq Survey Group), and Richard Clarke (the national coordinator for counterterrorism) had firmly concluded that Iraq lacked WMD at the time of our invasion, even though their findings had received wide publicity.
Finally, there was the question of world opinion. By all measures the Iraq War was unpopular around the world. On the eve of the war millions protested, bitterly denouncing George W. Bush and the United States. In several countries these were the largest anti-American rallies ever held. Opposition was strong even in countries that were traditional American allies, such as Spain. Most Americans, however, did not comprehend the isolation of the United States. According to PIPA, the majority either believed that world opinion was about evenly divided or actually favored the war (31 percent were in the second camp). Only 35 percent realized that the planned invasion had drawn far more criticism than support.
Given all this, a robust debate about public opinion would seem warranted. If Americans cannot think straight about events of the magnitude of 9/11 and the Iraq War, what can they think straight about? But no such debate has been forthcoming. Instead, we have had endless arguments about the media and the nefariousness of the Bush administration. Both of these arguments have merit, in my opinion. But they were never pushed far enough to get to the real problem.
Take the debate about the media. It focused almost wholly on statistics indicating that Fox News viewers were far more likely to hold misinformed opinions about both 9/11 and Iraq than people who relied on other sources of information. These statistics were alarming. According to the PIPA researchers, 80 percent of regular Fox News viewers held erroneous impressions about Saddam's ties to al Qaeda and his possession of WMD. In contrast, only 23 percent of those who followed the news on the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio were similarly misinformed. Fox viewers were also more likely than the PBS/NPR audience to believe that world opinion favored the Iraq War. But these findings, interesting as they are, prove only that the media played a critical role in forming public opinion. They do not tell us why the public passively absorbed false information. Worse, by focusing on these findings in the way that many critics did—placing emphasis on the media's failures rather than on those of the public—the critics left the impression that the public was an innocent bystander. Because the debate was limited in this fashion, voters did not come in for the criticism they deserved.
The other argument critics made was that the Bush administration played on Americans' fears and misled them with misinformation. Like the argument about the media, this one was true. Evidence abounds that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and political consultant Karl Rove repeatedly exploited the fear of 9/11 terrorism. During the 2004 campaign Cheney brazenly suggested that if John Kerry were elected the United States likely would face another attack. Tom Ridge, the first head of the Department of Homeland Security, admitted in 2005 that the administration periodically raised security threat levels based on flimsy evidence and over his objections. The public got the false impression that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda because administration officials explicitly said so. In December 2001 Cheney, in an appearance on Meet the Press, said "it's been pretty well confirmed" that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met "with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April, several months before the attack." But while highlighting the Bush administration's manipulation should we not also wonder about the public's susceptibility to it? Plenty has been said about the deceivers, but little about the deceived. Why were so many people deceivable?
Our reluctance to entertain questions about public opinion is both strange and singular. In all previous periods of American history the expression of doubts about The People has been a marked feature of mainstream public debate. In response to the widespread use of propaganda by both the Allies and the Central Powers in World War I, so-called nervous liberals such as Walter Lippmann worried that ordinary people left to their own devices could easily be led astray by demagogues. In place of the "barbarism" of mass democracy Lippmann recommended that experts (he had himself in mind) be given the responsibility for guiding public opinion. John Dewey, though ostensibly an optimist, presciently warned that in a consumer society, which at the time had not yet fully materialized, voters would be hard-pressed to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens given the available distractions. A people who spend their evenings attending movies, listening to the radio, and taking automobile rides would take less interest in politics, making them increasingly vulnerable to manipulation, he predicted. And then there were the fears that popped up in the 1930s when liberals anxiously worried about the appeal that fascism might have to the vast armies of the unemployed.
Happily, Americans did not turn toward fascism, but events in our own time have confirmed the broad outlines of the indictment Lippmann and Dewey made. Shockingly, however, elites in the country have not seized the moment of the Iraq disaster to educate the public about the frighteningly large dimensions of the failure of millions to absorb basic facts about critical issues. While some critics who had warned against the invasion from the beginning have played the unhelpful "I told you so" game, and others have chronicled the step-by-step mistakes the administration made, virtually none have explored what the public's approval of the war on the basis of misinformation says about the maturity of our democracy. In the media, if not in the academy, thoughtful questions about the wisdom of The People have been met with near dead silence. (The contempt for ordinary voters frequently expressed by left-wing bloggers distressed by the victories of President Bush and the Republicans in 2002 and 2004 does not count. The bloggers offered a sneer, not a critique.)
We have more reason to worry than the "nervous liberals" that large groups of American voters can be swung with demagogic appeals. Whereas in the twentieth century fascism did not come to the United States, in the twenty-first, rank appeals to fear based on misinformation succeeded in winning the support of an overwhelming majority of Americans. In the 1930s the critics based their analyses upon what they worried might happen. Our situation is more dire. We know that in fact the masses can be moved by fear and misinformation, because they were. The critics in the '30s overestimated the dangers they imagined; the likelihood that America would turn fascist was slight. But we refuse to admit that what has happened, happened.
Experience teaches us that we can muddle through despite the serious deficiencies in the American public's capacities. But complacency may not be warranted. Over the last four decades American politics has become increasingly democratic, putting more and more power directly into the hands of ordinary voters. Nothing in our past experience justifies the belief that people in these circumstances are up to the task that history has now given them.
I am not, however, pessimistic. Reform of both ourselves and our system is plausible as well as desirable, as I point out in the final chapter of this book. If we want a country of smart voters who can't be played like a fiddle we can certainly have one. I, for one, know that's the kind of country in which I want to live.
Before proceeding further I should point out that myths are not synonymous with lies. Some myths supply a needed grand narrative to help us define who we are and what values we cherish. As I have written elsewhere, I would no sooner want to dispense with the George Washington myth than I would want to take Santa Claus out and shoot him. A world without myths is inconceivable.
My goal here is not to abolish myths. It is, rather, to draw attention to them. Once we can see them they lose their power to twist and confine our thinking. With regard to the myth of The People, what needs explaining is how we arrived at the point where voters could get so much wrong about 9/11 and Iraq without there being a sustained public debate about their responsibility for the situation. In the remainder of this book I will try to explain how this happened.
Our generation is not unique in having to face its myths. Every generation of Americans has had to do the same, as various challenges presented themselves. Nor is our failure to deal with the myths of our own time conspicuous. Failure has been more common than success in these kinds of efforts in American history. But it is worth remembering that failure is not inevitable. On occasion, Americans, acting under pressure, have cast off dangerous and beguiling myths, as we did during the Civil War under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, who in 1862 memorably told Congress it was time to consider freeing the country's slaves: "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

Gross Ignorance
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
Just how stupid are we? Pretty stupid, it would seem, when we come across headlines like this: "Homer Simpson, Yes—1st Amendment 'Doh,' Survey Finds."
About 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition for redress of grievances). But more than half of Americans can name at least two members of the fictional cartoon family, according to a survey.
The study by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just 1 in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.
—Associated Press, March 1, 2006
But what does it mean, exactly, to say that The People are stupid? About this there is unfortunately no consensus. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who confessed to not knowing how to define pornography, we are apt simply to throw up our hands in frustration and say: We know it when we see it. But unless we attempt a definition of some sort we risk incoherence, dooming our investigation of stupidity from the outset. Stupidity cannot mean, as Humpty Dumpty would have it, whatever we say it means.
Five defining characteristics of stupidity, it seems to me, are readily apparent. First is sheer ignorance: ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions and who's in charge. Second is negligence: the disinclination to seek reliable sources of information about important news events. Third is wooden-headedness, as the historian Barbara Tuchman defined it: the inclination to believe what we want to believe, regardless of the facts. Fourth is shortsightedness: the support of public policies that are mutually exclusive, or contrary to the country's long-term interests. Fifth, and finally, is a broad category I call bone-headedness, for want of a better word: the susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simplistic diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears.
The problem with a list like this is that it raises as many questions as it is designed to answer. What is fact and not fact is often unclear. The use of bad judgment is not clearly distinguishable from stupidity. Which sources of information are reliable is frequently a matter of subjective judgment, with liberals and conservatives reaching different conclusions. One man's "empty slogan" can be another's inspiring bon mot. Further, stereotyping is a function of time and place. A white voter who stereotypes blacks today would probably be considered stupid in many quarters, but not two centuries ago in the era of the Founding Fathers, when racial prejudice was nearly universal. Norms change. And it would be foolish to try to pretend that they don't and that standards of stupidity can be applied abstractly across the generations.
It is obvious that all of us are likely to be guilty of stupidity from time to time. This is worth remembering. Doing so may help save us from drawing too harsh a judgment about the public. We cannot demand that the masses should meet a standard that is beyond the grasp of any one of us individually.
Having defined stupidity—more or less—we face another problem: measuring and assessing it. We usually measure public opinion through the use of polls. Assuming the polls are accurate (which itself is problematic as polls are often misleading, either because the questions are poorly phrased or because the sample is unrepresentative), how do we assess the findings? If, say, half the respondents do not know that the Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia, as happens to be the case, does that entitle one to conclude that The People are stupid? Or is a higher percentage required—say, 51 percent? And if we are to grade the public in this manner, what shall we say constitutes a passing or failing grade? Must The People answer ten out of ten questions incorrectly to be given a failing grade? Eight out of ten? Six out of ten? I do not believe that there is a neat and tidy answer to the question I have posed. It is perhaps enough just to ask the question. For by asking it we readily glean just how complex this whole subject of public stupidity is. And as a starting point that's a pretty good one. This book is not intended to provide a definitive answer to the question of how stupid we are. I would be happy simply to help make the question a part of our everyday public debate.
Taking up the first of our definitions of stupidity, how ignorant are we? Ask the political scientists and you will be told that there is damning, hard evidence pointing incontrovertibly to the conclusion that millions are embarrassingly ill-informed and that they do not care that they are. There is enough evidence that one could almost conclude—though admittedly this is a stretch—that we are living in an Age of Ignorance.
Surprised? My guess is most people would be. Like the students I encountered in 2004 as I was giving lectures on


On Sale
May 12, 2009
Page Count
256 pages
Basic Books

Rick Shenkman

About the Author

Rick Shenkman is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter, a New York Times bestselling author, and the editor and founder of George Mason University’s History News Network. An associate professor of History at George Mason University, he lives in Seattle, Washington.

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