Are you too dumb to vote?

Sure, ignorance is rampant among the American electorate, as Rick Shenkman argues. But without The People, there would be no Democracy as we know it.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Populism, Books,

Are you too dumb to vote?

“Just How Stupid Are We?” There’s no getting around the provocation of that title, and if your mouth is already forming the words, “Not stupid enough to read this book,” then pause and give author Rick Shenkman his proper due. By questioning whether American voters have the capacity to think straight, he has ensured that he will never win an election and probably won’t scare up a lot of readers, either. But at a time when Obama and Clinton and McCain have been hustling around the country trying to feel the common man’s pain, it’s oddly bracing to hear someone argue that the common man is a pain.

If nothing else, it flies in the face of a great many clichés. “The people have spoken.” “The people are always right.” “Government of the people … by the people…” Well, you know the rest. Or maybe you don’t. Because, according to Shenkman, Americans don’t know a hell of a lot, and some of us are, by any available metric, D-U-M dumb.

“No one thing can explain the foolishness that marks so much of American politics,” writes Shenkman, former journalist and founder of History News Network ( “But what is striking is how often the most obvious cause — public ignorance — is blithely disregarded … We feel uncomfortable coming right out and saying publicly, The People sometimes seem awfully stupid.”

For starters, they know nothing about government or current events. They can’t follow arguments of any complexity. They stuff themselves with slogans and advertisements. They eschew fact for myth. They operate from biases and stereotypes, and they privilege feeling over thinking. The result is a political system of daunting irrationality, and rational people like Rick Shenkman are paying the cost.

Don’t look for things to get better, either. With the decline of political bosses, party machines and labor unions, the hoi polloi no longer have anyone telling them how to think — even as polls, referendums and ballot initiatives place an ever greater premium on their opinions. “Nothing in our past experience,” writes Shenkman, “justifies the belief that people in these circumstances are up to the task that history has now given them … Our confidence in democracy rests on a myth.”

Stated this baldly, Shenkman’s thesis has the sting of novelty, but in its rough outlines, it’s no different from what Alexander Hamilton was arguing more than 200 years ago. Indeed, as Shenkman usefully reminds us, our constitutional history betrays from the very start “a constant tension between faith in The People and contempt for them.” Madison and Jefferson may have talked a good game, but many of the Founding Fathers lived in terror of mob rule, which is why, under the original Constitution, only the House of Representatives could be directly elected.

If it had been up to conservatives, that would still be the case today. Indeed, until Nixon and Reagan seized populism for anti-populist ends, America’s right wing (the late William Buckley included) had very little use for representative democracy. By contrast, Shenkman argues, liberals actually swallowed the myth of mass wisdom and so were all the more stunned when The People turned on them for such crimes as embracing the rights of women and minorities. The upshot is that we are now “in the pitiful position that neither liberals nor conservatives are prepared to say to The People: stop and pay attention. Liberals cannot because their ideology leaves them unprepared to find fault with The People. Conservatives have not because The People repeatedly put them in power.”

But are The People really such a bad bargain? We can all, of course, muster at least anecdotal evidence of American stupidity. We’ve seen “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” We’ve watched Jay Leno flummox bystanders with the most basic questions. (“How many doors in a four-door sedan?”) I know of more than one journalism professor who’s been forced to quiz students on current events because tomorrow’s news reporters don’t actually follow today’s news.

But the more Shenkman tries to define our stupidity, the more slippery it becomes. Short-sightedness is part of it, he says. Boneheadedness, wooden-headedness, good old-fashioned numbskullery. But where are the statistics to show we are living in “an Age of Ignorance”? We’re told that students forced to listen to NPR for a whole hour liken the experience to “torture.” Depending on the hour, I might agree with them. A study finds that 22 percent of Americans can name all five members of TV’s “Simpsons” clan, but only one in 1,000 can name all five First Amendment freedoms. I’ll admit I’m among the 999 — on the spot, I couldn’t come up with “petition for redress of grievances” — but what exactly makes these fact sets worth comparing, other than that each numbers five? Is a widespread familiarity with the most intelligent and subversive comedy in American TV history really a cause for despair?

Shenkman has an equally tough time gauging our irrationality (though, again, each day brings fresh evidence). He criticizes voters for measuring economic success by employment and not productivity, as economists do. But isn’t employment how the economy manifests itself to the average citizen? Similarly, Shenkman considers voters irrational for buying into George H.W. Bush’s “no new taxes” pledge. Surely, though, that makes them not irrational but credulous.

And in truth, the condition that Shenkman seems to be anatomizing is not so much stupidity as malleability. Americans are very good, he says, at being manipulated and lied to (to buttress his point, he offers a brief history of political ads) and we’re equally good at lying to ourselves. Is it any wonder, then, that our current president was able to ram such an ill-advised war down our throats?

But again, this won’t quite pass. A sizable number of Americans opposed the Iraq war from its infancy, and a majority of Americans opposed it once it became clear the Bush administration had trumped up the casus belli. The 2006 congressional elections and the dismal state of Bush’s poll rankings are persuasive testimony that the masses, one way or another, are tuned to the world around them.

At any rate, representative democracy is a hard genie to put back in the bottle. As Shenkman admits, with more than a touch of rue, “We cannot fire the American people.” He holds out hope, however, that we can downsize them. Among the bizarre trial balloons he lofts for enhancing political discourse are requiring voters to pass civics tests (shades of the Jim Crow literacy tests), letting state legislatures once again choose senators, and restoring the Electoral College’s historic autonomy in electing presidents.

A counter-revolution, in other words, that would roll American governance back to the good old days of Hamilton (without, presumably, rolling over women and blacks in the process). It would all be pretty alarming if it weren’t so hopelessly, even endearingly, unrealistic and if it didn’t arise from a fundamental misreading of the electoral process. Elections are not, despite the fond wishes of academics like Shenkman, examinations. A basic understanding of the issues is certainly an asset to a voter, but the decisions we make about candidates can’t help being informed by all the things that Shenkman distrusts: emotions, hopes, values.

I tend to vote Democratic, for example, not because I’ve scrutinized the party platform down to the last plank but because I approve, in general, of how Democrats want to use their power. The same, I assume, holds true for many Republicans. And so the seemingly blinkered outcomes that drive Shenkman crazy — Clinton supporters overlooking his crassness, Bush supporters overlooking his obtuseness — can actually be seen as exercises in priority setting. We may not like what our leaders are doing, but we continue to like who they are and how they look at the world. Simply because these sentiments can’t be assayed through true-false questions is no reason to deny their validity. Even in the voting booth, the heart has its reasons.

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His books include "Mr. Timothy" and "The Black Tower."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>