RALEIGH – If Forrest Gump’s mama was right that “stupid is as stupid does,” then there are many politicians, activists, and political commentators whose recent public behavior makes them as thick as old molasses.
It has become all the rage to ridicule one’s political opponents as not just mistaken but stupid. Democrats are doing it right now by making fun of the so-called Birthers who question President Barack Obama’s place of birth. They refer to polls indicating that significant numbers of Republican-leaning voters aren’t convinced that Obama was born in the United States.
It wasn’t that long ago, however, that it was the Republicans doing the name-calling. Back in the 2006-08 period, they had a field day pointing out the large number of Democratic-leaning voters who thought that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job. They were called Truthers – which is, of course, what the term Birther is a response to.
I don’t think it’s an accident that GOP types resorted to ridicule back when their political prospects first darkened, and that Dem types are resorting to it now that their favorite public policies and politicians are in trouble. When things don’t appear to be going your way, there is a strong temptation to come up with excuses. On losing teams, some coaches blame players for failing to execute excellent game plans while the players blame their coaches for devising lousy game plans. Employees of companies losing market share often do something similar.
In politics, those facing or coping with electoral losses save their egos and their heartfelt beliefs by blaming the ignorance (if not always the stupidity) of the voters. It’s a phase. When the political winds shift, as inevitably they do, the voters suddenly become wise and knowledgeable.
With regard to Truthers, Birthers, and other Flat-Earthers, my advice is for everyone to just calm down and stop making such jackasses of themselves.
Instead of assuming the worst, take a closer look at the particular poll questions involved and apply a little common sense. For example, when a voter responds to a question about where Obama was born with uncertainty, don’t assume that he must necessarily believe the president was born in Kenya, Indonesia, or the planet Vulcan. Some of these voters may indeed doubt the official story – doubting the establishment is a venerable American tradition, after all – but others are likely just not sure whether Hawaii became a state before or after Obama’s birth, and whether that matters in determining his citizenship.
Rather than yanking a single juicy poll question out of context and using it to declare large swaths of the voting population to be idiots, folks should look at broader measures of voter knowledge. They’ve been around for decades.
For example, the Pew Research Center has released a number of nationwide surveys through its Pew Knowledge Project. The most recent one I can find, from April 2009, examines public knowledge of such issues as the recession, bank bailouts, and foreign policy. Here are some of the key findings:
• Out of 12 questions on the news survey, the average number of correct answers was 7.4. The highest rate of right answers, 83 percent, involved a question about the federal government creating policies to encourage banks to lend. The lowest rate, 38 percent, came when respondents were asked how many American troops had died in Iraq.
• Republicans were slightly more likely (8.1) than Democrats (7.2) or Independents (7.3) to answer questions correctly. This is a familiar finding in such quizzes. You’ll also typically find that men score a little better than women, older voters score better than younger voters, and the propensity to answer correctly rises with income and education. None of these findings necessarily speaks to intelligence, by the way. Differing patterns of news consumption probably explain a lot of it. And if you think that only those who can remember the current Dow Jones average or war casualty counts are capable of casting wise votes or are worth paying attention to, you have a distorted view of human wisdom in my opinion.
Both of America’s political coalitions, the Center-Right and the Center-Left, include people who know a lot about current events and people who know little. The proportions don’t differ all that much. It is silly to pretend otherwise. Some might even say it’s stupid.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation