Are Americans Stupid?
Bill Maher has a piece at HuffPo arguing that Americans are a bunch of idiots who should just shut up and let people who know what they’re talking about make decisions on tough issues like health care reform.
[T]ake the health care debate we’re presently having: members of Congress have recessed now so they can go home and “listen to their constituents.” An urge they should resist because their constituents don’t know anything. At a recent town-hall meeting in South Carolina, a man stood up and told his Congressman to “keep your government hands off my Medicare,” which is kind of like driving cross country to protest highways.
I’m the bad guy for saying it’s a stupid country, yet polls show that a majority of Americans cannot name a single branch of government, or explain what the Bill of Rights is. 24% could not name the country America fought in the Revolutionary War. More than two-thirds of Americans don’t know what’s in Roe v. Wade. Two-thirds don’t know what the Food and Drug Administration does. Some of this stuff you should be able to pick up simply by being alive. You know, like the way the Slumdog kid knew about cricket.
Not here. Nearly half of Americans don’t know that states have two senators and more than half can’t name their congressman. And among Republican governors, only 30% got their wife’s name right on the first try.
Sarah Palin says she would never apologize for America. Even though a Gallup poll says 18% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth. No, they’re not stupid. They’re interplanetary mavericks. A third of Republicans believe Obama is not a citizen, and a third of Democrats believe that George Bush had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, which is an absurd sentence because it contains the words “Bush” and “knowledge.”
People bitch and moan about taxes and spending, but they have no idea what their government spends money on. The average voter thinks foreign aid consumes 24% of our federal budget. It’s actually less than 1%. And don’t even ask about cabinet members: seven in ten think Napolitano is a kind of three-flavored ice cream. And last election, a full one-third of voters forgot why they were in the booth, handed out their pants, and asked, “Do you have these in a relaxed-fit?”
And I haven’t even brought up America’s religious beliefs. But here’s one fun fact you can take away: did you know only about half of Americans are aware that Judaism is an older religion than Christianity? That’s right, half of America looks at books called the Old Testament and the New Testament and cannot figure out which one came first.
And these are the idiots we want to weigh in on the minutia of health care policy? Please, this country is like a college chick after two Long Island Iced Teas: we can be talked into anything, like wars, and we can be talked out of anything, like health care. We should forget town halls, and replace them with study halls. There’s a lot of populist anger directed towards Washington, but you know who concerned citizens should be most angry at? Their fellow citizens. “Inside the beltway” thinking may be wrong, but at least it’s thinking, which is more than you can say for what’s going on outside the beltway.
And if you want to call me an elitist for this, I say thank you. Yes, I want decisions made by an elite group of people who know what they’re talking about. That means Obama budget director Peter Orszag, not Sarah Palin.
Kelly snarks, “Just ask any progressive. They love ‘the people’. They want to help ‘the people’. They want equality, fraternity, mutual respective and constructive dialog.”
And the meme’s spreading. Greg Sargent reports that Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel says Democrats attacking other Democrats are “f-king stupid.” And president Obama wants people who disagree with him to shut up.
What’s interesting here is that Maher’s largely right on the facts. We’ve known for decades that people are wildly ignorant about basic facts. Some of it’s explainable by getting caught off guard or not quite understanding the question. But anyone who has taught college freshmen knows that even fairly bright folks can be astonishingly ignorant.
It doesn’t follow, however, that people are too stupid to make judgments on issues. People may not be able to answer the question “Name the branches of the U.S. Government” but they probably know that we have a president, a Congress, and courts and have some vague sense that there are checks and balances. They may not know how much of our budget is spent on foreign aid but they know that they’d rather spend their money at home. They know that abortion is legal and controversial even if they don’t know the name of the case that made it so or even understand that the Supreme Court is responsible.
The nature of representative democracy is that the people make judgments on broad policy directions and elect people to govern them accordingly. The details are left to the elected representatives and, increasingly, to unelected bureaucrats with actual subject matter expertise.
To the extent that the public’s misunderstanding of the issues makes it difficult to make changes that presidents and congressmen think are necessary, it is incumbent on these leaders to explain themselves better. Obama is a fine orator and gets more television time than “Seinfeld” reruns. If he can’t persuade people to buy what he’s selling, he might need a new product.