Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth about the American Voter
by Rick Shenkman
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
During the fourth season of The Simpsons, there was an episode where the residents of Springfield gathered in a contest to see who could kill the largest number of snakes on what is called Whacking Day. After Bart and Lisa (with the help of Barry White) show the townspeople the error of state-sanctioned snake slaughter, Springfield's Kennedy-esque mayor arrives with an armload of pre-killed snakes, inciting boos and hisses from the now-enlightened crowd. Mayor Quimby hollers back, "You're all a bunch of fickle mush heads," to which the crowd responds, "He's right. Give us hell, Quimby."
The animated incident is a wonderfully realized crystallization of the problems discussed in Rick Shenkman's book Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth about the American Voter. As everyone is rushing to assign blame for the current financial crisis in Washington and on Wall Street, there has been little mention of the role voters played. President George W. Bush's approval ratings have sunk to subterranean lows, and, for all the hand wringing going on, no one has addressed the obvious question: why did a smidge over 50% of the voting public re-elect a president whose clearly-stated policies created such turmoil?
Shenkman's answer is that we aren't as smart as we like to think we are, and the evidence he presents is fairly damning. For example, in recent surveys, only 21 percent of Americans polled could name the current secretary of defense, only 35 percent knew that Congress can override a presidential veto, and, appallingly, 49 percent believe that the president can suspend the Constitution. "Why are we so deluded?" Shenkman asks. In answering his own question, he goes on to say, "The error can be traced to our mistaking the unprecedented access to information with the actual consumption of it." This in turn lays the groundwork for the other corroding influences on our collective political prudence: myth, television, and political polling.
Ultimately, however, because of our reluctance to address myths of The People and their collective wisdom (or lack thereof), we are doomed to choose elected officials not because of where they stand on issues of substance, but, rather, because they seem like a guy we'd want to have a beer with or because they remind us of ourselves. Shenkman even goes so far as to say that even suggesting that the voters may not be in the best position to judge the issues is political taboo.
In Just How Stupid Are We?, Shenkman writes in an easygoing, yet thorough and non-partisan manner. He illustrates the root problems in not only a general lack of curiosity about the issues, but also a failure of our educational systems to instill in citizens the basic lessons of civics and civic responsibility. Shenkman also addresses the fundamental core issue that would be most difficult to change, and that is voters tend to be, he writes, "primarily social creatures rather than political creatures." Changing that social aspect would go far in solving these issues.
Sadly, his solutions are a bit vague and idealistic. He suggests that Democrats follow the Republican example of increasing membership ranks by making it easy for workers to join unions and pursuing them the way Republicans sought the evangelical congregations. Of course, the solutions for revitalizing union memberships are complex and can fill volumes, and he's not the first person to suggest this. He places his faith in the Internet and in blogs, but as these activities fragment the population into similarly aligned camps. I don't see these tools doing anything more than further insulating voters and re-affirming tightly held beliefs. The fact that there are still voters out there who believe that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim helps illustrate my skepticism.
However, making politics a social aspect of citizens' lives (whether through unions or church congregations) is an honorable pursuit, and Shenkman is on the right track. At the very least, Just How Stupid Are We? will help Americans discuss the elephant in the room that is voter ignorance, willful or otherwise. And in a culture that continues to trend alarmingly towards anti-intellectualism, that's a good start.