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Yes, We Are Stupid, Rick Shenkman

It has been widely reported that liberals are more pessimistic than conservatives. Although I am not sure I buy the research I certainly fall into the liberal progressive pessimist category when it comes to the political process and the American public’s ability to read and think, seriously, about both the candidates and the issues.
Because we don’t, most of us. We don’t read much. We certainly read little that challenges our conventional thinking, in spite of the plethora of good political writing available to us. And we are loathe to search out anything that takes time, even though the Internet is readily available to many of us. Because virtually all Americans have a television (or three or four) and it’s much simpler and easier to just turn it on to our “news” channel of choice and be told how to think and what we should know.
Rick Shenkman’s new book, Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing The Truth About The American Voter is nothing new, but depressing nonetheless because he has it absolutely right. We really can be stupid. Witness Linda Kaplan Thaler’s editorial in a recent Huffington Post that reads, in part:
In other words, the key to winning, fellas, is to make sure you’re not just listening to the voters, but you’re really hearing them, as well. Be someone they can relate to. Someone they truly admire. Someone they can really like… Because when the issues of health care, energy, and our sinking economy have been debated in 75,000 Town Hall meetings across America, and voters are demanding to hear more about the heady issues — they’ll still end up voting with their hearts.
We can’t possibly be encouraged by this. We’re still voting for a politician because he seems like us or we think we would like him? Isn’t that what has gotten us into this mess in the first place? Actually, it’s gotten us into just about every political mess we have ever been in, and, perhaps, some of the political good places we have found ourselves in. But by accident.
Shenkman says we don’t read. Check. We don’t go to alternate news sources. Check. We don’t really find out what a candidate thinks. Check. And we make our decisions based on all of that non-information. Check. And then we wonder why we got who we got? Yup.
I have known all this for years and decried it. But speaking about it makes people think you’re an elitist, someone who is “better” than everyone else. No, not better, I argue. Just better informed. Better able to argue a point. Better able to know what the real issues are, and to vote on those and not fall for some sleight of hand. Better to see you with, my dear, as Red Riding Hood’s faux grandmother said.

And now, because Obama is articulate, thoughtful, educated and willing to think hard about a position rather than just give an easy answer AND is willing to also understand that compromise may be necessary to get the job done (and he’s honest about it) he is labeled both an elitist and a flip-flopper. Ye gads.
I don’t think Barack Obama hung the moon. I don’t even think he is a genius; or a rock star. I think he’s brilliant the way Bill Clinton was brilliant, but also less politically savvy (too many promises early on). I think he is smart enough to surround himself with people who know stuff he doesn’t (but then, Bush did that). Mostly, however, he is the right man at the right time in the right political climate.

But people say they still don’t know him. Even as savvy a politico as Jonathan Martin said Tuesday on NPR that the Democratic Convention would be the first opportunity Americans got to form a real impression of Obama, when he speaks to 75,000 people in a football stadium. That simply is not true. There is a ton of information on both candidates available to anyone who wishes to do a little bit of work before they vote. They don’t need to wait until the convention and listen to a speech that will be pretty and inspiring but cannot, and should not, cover everything he is as a man and everything he would wish to do as a president.
Some people will wait until the last moment and then vote with their “hearts.” The swing voters and the undecideds will be interviewed ad nauseum, as though waiting until November to decide between the candidates was a virtue instead of an absurdity. And the media will nod sagely when people say that they don’t have enough information to make an informed choice. What they mean, of course, is that they haven’t been spoon fed enough to make them comfortable with one candidate over the other.
No. Not many of us will go to any effort to read and think before we vote, which is a tragedy. We still want small, easily digestible newsbites, commercials that make us feel good and the occasional knock-out punch that threatens to derail a candidacy. An example? Critics were all over Obama for his vote on the FISA bill and didn’t even bother to check (nor did the media reporting it) for Obama’s statement of defense on his website (part of which is below)—well reasoned no matter what you think–which even his supporters don’t seem to want to read, never mind his detractors.
(T)he compromise bill is far better than the Protect America Act that I voted against last year. The exclusivity provision makes it clear to any President or telecommunications company that no law supersedes the authority of the FISA court. In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people. But in a free society, that authority cannot be unlimited. As I’ve said many times, an independent monitor must watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people. This compromise law assures that the FISA court has that responsibility.
The Inspectors General report also provides a real mechanism for accountability and should not be discounted. It will allow a close look at past misconduct without hurdles that would exist in federal court because of classification issues…
Now, I understand why some of you feel differently about the current bill, and I’m happy to take my lumps on this side and elsewhere. For the truth is that your organizing, your activism and your passion is an important reason why this bill is better than previous versions. No tool has been more important in focusing peoples’ attention on the abuses of executive power in this Administration than the active and sustained engagement of American citizens. That holds true — not just on wiretapping, but on a range of issues.
But are we active and engaged? Some of us, yes, but enough of us? Enough of us to make sure that 2008 isn’t another 1968? Or another 2000 or another 2004? We have plenty of examples where the American public sat back and thought things would turn out well. They didn’t; not by a long shot.
Why do we insist our candidates be as ill-informed as we are? Obama, for his flaws, is a smart, articulate man. Smarter and far more educated and articulate than most of the voters. Does that mean we can’t see our way clear to voting for him and would rather have someone with whom we feel “comfortable?” Yikes!

1 thought on “Yes, We Are Stupid, Rick Shenkman”

  1. “We have plenty of examples where the American public sat back and thought things would turn out well.” Have they so far for this administration?

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