Opinion: Daily Journal

The Ignorant and the Idiotic?

RALEIGH – An alliance of the ignorant and the idiotic.

That’s essentially how I’ve heard from left-leaning talking heads in the past few days describe the 2004 electorate that reelected George W. Bush, retained a Republican Congress and GOP majority of state legislatures, and expanded the Republican majority among the nation’s governors to 29-21. I heard the sentiment from nationally syndicated talk host Ed Schultz, who suggested that a large number of American voters would believe anything if repeated often enough. I heard it from some “person-on-the-street” interviews on National Public Radio. It’s been all over the web and, sometimes ineptly camouflaged, in newspaper columns and editorials.

Much of it reflects an anti-religion prejudice (which you don’t have to be zealously religious to recognize as debilitating) and is based on the false but widely disseminated notion that the Republicans’ 2004 victories resulted from surging turnout among churchgoers and cultural conservatives. Their percentage of the electorate actually appears to be virtually unchanged from 2000 to 2004. More of them voted, but do did more secular-minded voters. A better reading of the data would be that foreign policy mattered a lot more to swing voters in 2004 than it did in 2000, and Bush retained and somewhat expanded the Republican Party’s traditional advantage over Democrats in this area.

On the web, embittered liberals and Democratic activists are peddling spurious stories, urban legends really, about how IQ is inversely correlated with voting Republican. In reality, no correlation exists. And with regard to education, the 2004 vote fit a fairly old pattern: both those with the least (high-school dropouts) and and the most (those with graduate degrees) tended to vote Democrat, albeit slightly in the first case, while the middle group of high-school and college graduates tended to vote Republican.

It is an intellectual dead end to attribute a disappointing political loss to the ignorance or idiocy of the electorate. For one thing, unless one is a perpetual loser – or Ralph Nader, but I repeat myself – today’s loss may well be followed by tomorrow’s win. Would the voters have suddenly lose their mental impairments, then? Especially problematic for the liberal Democratic version of this argument is the inconvenient fact that a trend towards rising educational attainment in recent decades has coincided with rising percentages of self-identified “conservatives” and improving Republican political fortunes. Of course, go back in time far enough and you will find rising educational attainment in the early 20th century coinciding with rising support for government growth and “progressive” public policies. Like I said, this is a dead end.

It is far more productive to think of voters with whom you disagree not as rubes or morons but simply as fellow, competent citizens who see the world differently from you. We all have varied experiences and sources of information that help to shape our political preferences. Furthermore, these factors change over time, as do those political preferences. We should find new ways to share these experiences and information sources across the political aisle, to try on other people’s ideas in order to better understand them, rebut them, or perhaps even adopt them.

Surely we can all agree that it is quite possible to be rational, informed, and wrong. The disagreement comes in assigning the “wrong” label. In the public sphere, that’s why we held elections this year – and why we’ll repeat them in the not-too-distant future.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.