Low-information nation: Palin, Beck, Tea Partiers and American ignorance


Information is the currency of democracy. –Attributed to Thomas Jefferson
Get a brain! Morans –Sign displayed by conservative protester

The defining battle between Obama and the rightwing attack machine was over health insurance reform. The summer of town halls and tea parties was the official descent into the bizarre reality we face today, with Quran burnings, mosque-free zones, disappearing oil spills, rampant climate denial, conservative ‘feminism’, the assault on women’s reproductive rights, legacy theft of Dr. King, rehabilitation of George W. Bush, and shunning of the left.

During the health care debate, one question loomed largest for me: what did Americans really understand about the issue? If policy wonks and political professionals vehemently disagreed about various provisions and outcomes, how could a non-expert citizen, overwhelmed with the demands of daily life, fully comprehend the complexities of the health insurance overhaul? When media outlets and pollsters trumpeted the public’s support or opposition to the bill, what were they polling? Genuine knowledge or vague impressions? Analytical conclusions or parroted soundbites?

That’s obviously not to say that citizens need to be experts to have legitimate opinions, but that if the opinions are based on a lack of understanding, or in some cases utter misunderstanding, shouldn’t the first order of business be to better explain the issues and educate the public rather than use erroneous views as evidence of the inherent value of the proposed policy?

A January Pew survey examined what Americans know – and don’t know – about health care:

The public has consistently expressed strong interest in the health care debate, but relatively few Americans can correctly answer two key questions related to the Senate’s consideration of health care legislation. In the latest installment of the Pew Research Center’s News IQ Quiz, just 32% know that the Senate passed its version of the legislation without a single Republican vote. And, in what proved to be the most difficult question on the quiz, only about a quarter (26%) knows that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate and force a vote on a bill.

Pew’s findings apply not just to health care, of course, but to the entire range of important issues facing the country. What value do we assign to voters’ views on deficit reduction, for instance, when leading economists can’t get their thoughts straight? And how can Americans make determinations about politicians, parties and issues without at least a basic comprehension of the underlying policies?

Now, far from being a screed against the supposed ‘ignorance’ of the American public, this is meant to raise the question of how to better communicate and debate good ideas without having them mangled in a partisan media filter.

No matter how shallow their knowledge, people are programmed to believe they are right and will withstand a significant amount of cognitive dissonance before reason kicks in and alters their view, if ever.

Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, the vast majority of participants in our national debate genuinely believe they possess the necessary facts and have reached a fair judgment. It’s a mistake to attribute bad faith to a wide swath of the population. So when a Tea Party member sounds off about “defending” the Constitution, it’s perfectly plausible to assume they know little about the document but authentically believe they are expressing fealty to it. Still, we can’t settle for a national dialogue disconnected from facts and truth.

Pew tells us that “Republicans do somewhat better than Democrats on the knowledge quiz,” so this isn’t about left or right, but the following clips reflect the kind of misinformation fueling political passions.

I don’t find these interviews humorous, I find them scary. Politics is the one discipline where we’re all expected to be knowledgeable enough to make decisions that affect our shared future. Unless we’re doctors, no one expects us to give medical advice; unless we’re architects no one expects us to design buildings. But if we’re going to debate the future of our country, there has to be some basis in fact, rationality, in knowledge and information.

It’s daunting to realize how much we don’t know and how our most serious decisions are often based on the flimsiest of information and understanding. As a former jazz musician, I’ve listened to countless hours of music, but it’s taken me years to realize what it means to fully appreciate the depth of the art form, the intricacies of tone, timbre, harmony, rhythm, improvisational originality, the interplay of instruments in an ensemble, the subtleties of syncopation and timing. No matter what the field, it takes a huge investment of time and effort to develop anything close to a detailed understanding – and there’s always more to learn.

This, of course, applies to politics and policy. Interpreting the Constitution is a major intellectual and moral undertaking. It’s not something you do through bumper-sticker slogans. When Glenn Greenwald warns that President Obama is undermining the Constitution by authorizing the assassination of US citizens without due process, it’s a debate we should have. When Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck reduce the Constitution to handy jingoistic soundbites, it precludes a real debate.

The single most under-appreciated and understated aspect of American life, the proverbial elephant in the room, is that most Americans have little more than a cursory understanding of the issues and history on which they base their political beliefs and decisions.

In a moment of candor, outgoing Republican Senator Bob Bennett (Utah) recently said, “The public has “no understanding” of what Congress does.”

Another Pew survey finds:

Asked to name the current chief justice of the Supreme Court, and given four possible names, nearly one-in-ten Americans (8%) choose Thurgood Marshall, despite the fact that Justice Marshall left the Supreme Court roughly 20 years ago, and passed away in 1993. In fact, very few Americans can name the current chief justice in a Pew Research news quiz; just 28% were able to correctly identify John Roberts. Another 6% thought the recently retired Justice John Paul Stevens was chief justice, while 4% named Sen. Harry Reid. A majority (53%) admitted that they did not know the answer.

Ezra Klein points out the difficulty of campaigning in a low-information environment:

The auto bailout is a perfect example. By and large, it worked. The automobile sector stabilized. GM, Chrysler and Ford are all posting profits. Millions of workers who would’ve gone down with the car companies still have their jobs. America retains an automotive industry that’s both competitive in developing markets like China and starting to scrap with the Japanese and German automakers in the high-tech, green-car market. But the policy wasn’t popular. Few liked it. Some thought it socialism. Some thought it cronyism. Which presents, of course, a difficulty for the White House: Saving millions of jobs and the American auto industry at an ultimately very small cost to the taxpayer is the sort of major policy accomplishment you should be able to run for reelection on. But what if people don’t really understand that you did it, or that it worked, or that it didn’t cost them much?

Until we work to rectify the problem of a dumbed-down public discourse, we’ll keep spinning our wheels – or going backward.

UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer praises the Tea Party’s loyalty to the Constitution:

Indeed, it is among the most vigorous and salutary grass-roots movements of our time, dedicated to a genuine constitutionalism from which the country has strayed far.

How do you reconcile that with the anecdotal evidence in the clips above that Tea Party adherents have no familiarity with the document?

MORE:

Low-information nation: What do Americans really know about “big” government?
Low-information nation: Whose Constitution is it?