Monday, November 24, 2014

Can Americans really be that stupid?

According to a few friends that travel abroad frequently, stupid American jokes are fairly common.  Depending on which Americans you ask, maybe the joke is rooted in reality.  Last week, an unknown economics consultant and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Jonathan Gruber, gained national notoriety when video of him surfaced discussing the American voters.  According to Gruber, the controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA) only passed through Congress due to the "stupidity of the American voter." 

The statements from Gruber bothered many Americans due to the fact that he was a paid consultant who worked for the Obama administration in 2009, earning a six figure salary for technical support in creating various economic models about how the implementation of the ACA would affect the nation.

The semi-incendiary remarks offended many Americans and sent the Obama administration into damage control.  The president quickly distanced the administration from Gruber's remarks and reminded Americans that that ACA progressed slowly and was thoroughly debated in both houses of Congress.  Of course, Republicans quickly attempted to paint Gruber as the 'architect' of the ACA, and that is a bit of an exaggeration. 

Either way, both parties are ignoring an overarching question.  Are American voters actually stupid?  Perhaps stupid isn't the best descriptor.  Lazy.  Apathetic.  Ignorant.  Maybe those words provide a better understanding for Americans.  As a society, I would contend there are many indicators of this overall ignorance.

Voter turnout.  The United States is one of the most sophisticated democracies in the world, with numerous access points for participation in the political process.  Voter registration is simple.  The act of voting takes little time to complete, and despite the ease with which a person can cast a ballot and choose those who govern, many Americans sit at home and forfeit the most important right they have.  This past month, the United States had elections for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the seats in the Senate.  How did Americans respond?  With a voter turnout of approximately 36%.   How smart can you really be if you stayed home when you had an opportunity to vote?

Odd political choices.  When Americans do actually vote, the candidates whom they choose seems remarkably strange at times.  The various segments of our nation sometimes cause their intelligence to be questioned by the caliber of person they elect to office.  A notable instance would include Louis Gohmert (R-TX), who recently lamented the policy of allowing gay men and women to openly serve in the military.  His objection was that gay soldiers would leave us vulnerable to terrorism because they would be sitting around massaging one another.  Gohmert has been elected six times to the same House seat, and in each election, he's secured at least 60% of the vote.  Rep. Gohmert has been no stranger to statements that seem to make people question if Texans have a clue about who they're electing.

Okay, so maybe Gohmert is a borderline fool.  That doesn't mean all members of Congress are poor selections, does it?  How about taking a look at Congressman, Michael Grimm (R-NY), who just won his third election to represent the 11th district of New York despite facing 20 federal indictments for crimes such as campaign finance violations and not reporting over $1 million in income.  Grimm also made headlines for threatening a reporter for asking what Grimm believed to be unfair questions.  Grimm threatened to throw him off a balcony in the Capitol.

Last month, voters in the state of Washington elected a dead man into its state legislature.  According to many voters who spoke to newspaper and television news outlets, they were simply unaware that Democratic incumbent Roger Freeman died about a week prior to the election.

Somewhat paradoxically, information is more prevalent and easily accessible than it ever has been in all of human history, yet Americans continue to demonstrate they don't know as much as they should.

Popular culture.  Americans seem hopelessly lost in popular culture and trivial pieces of information.  We know all the things that don't matter.  What television shows are the most popular?  Americans soak up 'reality' programming, which amounts to mind-numbing melodrama that keeps us up to date on the scandal that is Kim Kardashian's life, but provides us nothing thought-provoking.

When we do take the time to follow politics, we are more focused on non-sense.  Not convinced?  Think about this for a minute.  Practically anyone over the age of 25 can tell you who President Bill Clinton had a sexual affair with, what drug he tried as a young man, and what musical instrument he plays.  However, can those same people name three policy achievements Clinton achieved during his two terms in office?  Heck, for that matter, can they name the three branches of government?

Because Americans spend more time digesting passive media, such as television, we have less time for examining the real issues.  Josh Clinton, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, stated the situation very succinctly:  "It’s pretty apparent that Americans routinely don’t know objective facts about the government." 

The setup of our republic.  One overlooked fact about the nation is that the men who wrote the Constitution saw the ignorance of the population as well and planned to deal with this.  The Constitution, in its original form, did not vest much authority with the people.  Only the House of Representatives was directly chosen by the people.  The members of the Senate were selected by their respective state legislatures.  Justices on the Supreme Court receive their job through appointment.  The president is chosen through by the members of the Electoral College.  The will of the people was kept away from influencing government too much because the Framers of the Constitution believed the great masses of people weren't fit for making such important choices. 

Are we, as Americans, really that stupid?  The statements made by Jonathan Gruber are unpopular because they're not politically expedient for members of government who need the masses to re-elect them.  Of course they won't call the public stupid, but they're probably thinking it. 

Also, the idea that large segments of the public are so uninformed about the important issues of the day frightens us, and rightfully so.  It's scary because an uninformed public still makes decisions about who to elect and what policies they endorse.  Moreover, this situation scares us because no one wants to believe they might actually be one of the stupid people.  With many Americans, it's not that they're stupid, but they are ignorant about the issues -- and there's a difference between those two.  Stupidity is inherently more difficult to fix than ignorance.  Even so, who really wants to admit being ignorant?

What can we do? 
  • Admit when you don't know something and find out the truth. 
  • Consider the possibility that you might be wrong about a policy or candidate for office.
  • Educate your children about the process.
  • Be involved -- if nothing else, make sure you exercise your right to vote in every election.  All votes are important and they matter.


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