Are American Voters Stupid?

Commentator: 
Tom Shipka
Audio: 
Transcript: 

Consider the following facts about the American people:

  • Only two out of five of us can identify the three branches of government;
  • Less than half of us know which nation dropped the atomic bomb;
  • Only one-third of us know that the Congress, not the President, declares war;
  • Only 30% of us know that members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms and only 25% of us know that Senators serve six-year terms;
  • Most Americans continue to believe that the 9/11 terrorists came from poverty or were neglected as children despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary;
  • A generation ago presidential speeches were pitched at the level of twelfth graders. Today they are pitched at the level of seventh graders;
  • Even after the 9/11 Commission had stated publicly that Saddam Hussein had provided no support to Al Qaeda, a poll showed that half the population still insisted that he had; and
  • Only 25% of us can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment but more than 50% of us can name two members of the Simpson family. (1)     These revelations, and many others, come from Rick Shenkman, an Emmy Award-winning reporter and historian, in his new book entitled Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter. (2) The vaunted wisdom of the American people, Shenkman says, is a myth. When it comes to government and politics, we are ignoramuses - ill-informed, apathetic, and easily manipulated. (3)

Shenkman says that while there was never a Golden Age in which the American electorate had extensive knowledge about our government and how it functions, the past sixty years has seen a persistent dumbing down of voters. Studies show that today "young Americans know far less about politics than their counterparts did a generation ago, even though they spend more time in school." (4) Ours has become a culture of entertainment and consumption dominated by television. (5) The invasion of the home by television brought superficiality, sound bites, slogans, and inane ads. By 1963 TV had supplanted newspapers as the primary source of news. (6) Newspapers had provided detail, subtlety, and nuance which were lost in TV news. With TV, images trump facts (7), politicians are "brands" to be marketed (8), and how people look and talk count for more than their knowledge, accomplishments, or problem-solving skills. (9) As time passed fewer and fewer Americans read about, talked about, and cared about public affairs. (10)

What does Shenkman propose to do to change all this? The most important change we need in America, he says, is to reintroduce civics as a mandatory subject in grade school, high school, and college. (11) The reading of newspapers and other news sources must be a part of this. (12) When proficiency tests are given, they must test for knowledge of government as well as knowledge of math and science. (13) All first year college students should be given weekly current events tests and those who pass with flying colors should receive federal tuition subsidies. (14) Finally, outside our schools and colleges we need "democracy parties," social gatherings where issues are discussed in depth. (15)

Shenkman says he is trying to be "the Paul Revere of American civics." (16) I, for one, hope that he succeeds.


 

  1. The five freedoms granted by the First Amendment are speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition for redress of grievances. The Simpson family members are Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. The facts listed here are given in Rick Shenkman, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, Basic Books, 2008. See pages 20, 20, 24, 19-20, 136, 17, 4, and 13 respectively. Other facts reported by Shenkman include these. Only half the population knows that President George W. Bush favors privatizing social security (p. 35). In 2006 36% of the population believed that the U.S. Government was complicit in the 9/11 terrorist attack despite the fact that there was no evidence to support such a view (p. 130). On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, only one in seven Americans could find Iraq on the map (p. 14). Most Americans cannot name their Congressional representative or their two U.S. Senators (p. 24).
  2. Basic Books, 2008. Other books by Shenkman include Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths and Presidential Ambition. You can learn more about him on his blog entitled How Stupid? See http://howstupidblog.com. A good recent interview of Shenkman by Robin Lindley, a Seattle journalist, is at http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/55966.html.
  3. Page 168.
  4. Pages 117-118. See also p. 111.
  5. Page 181.
  6. Page 103. Today only one out of five Americans in the 18 to 34 age group read any part of a newspaper regularly. (p. 26)
  7. Page 110.
  8. Page 121.
  9. Page 102.
  10. Schenkman says that today "The People" find politics "boring," that they are "ignorant and irrational about public affairs," and that their opinions about politics are "usually muddled." (p. 76)
  11. Page 177-178. Shenkman proposes that a non-partisan commission draw up national civics tests. (p. 180)
  12. Page 179.
  13. Page 178.
  14. Page 179. The federal law setting up this fund, he says, can be called The Too Many Stupid Voters Act. (p. 179)
  15. Page 180.
  16. See the interview by Robin Lindley referred to above in footnote 2.

© 2008 Tom Shipka