Are Americans Still Stupid?*

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Mr. Shenkman, the author of the new book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter (Basic Books, June 2008), is an associate professor of history at George Mason University and editor of the university's History News Network.

Exactly one year ago this week the hardback of Just How Stupid Are We: Facing the Truth About the American Voter was published by Basic Books. Now there's a paperback edition available. Is the book still relevant?

After Barack Obama's election friends emailed me wondering if I still believed the voters are uninformed. Didn't Obama's election mean they were pretty smart?

Alas, the answer is no, I believe. And I am baffled that anybody could reach a different conclusion after the campaign we lived through. The highlights of the 2008 election included controversies over Obama's bowling score, his middle name Hussein, and Hillary's crying. These were not exactly issues of much weight at a time when the financial collapse of the country was happening before our eyes. And yet they drew extended media commentary.

The media was to blame for the deplorable low quality of much of the campaign. But I am firmly convinced that you get the campaign you deserve. If that is so we should be asking ourselves why did we deserve the campaign of 2008? Was it not because the voters found it easier to debate issues like Obama's bowling score than the complicated questions involving high finance?

Take the question of Obama's religion. Millions of voters paid so little attention to the news that they were easily bamboozled into believing that Barack Hussein Obama was a Muslim. On the eve of the election, confusion reigned. Polls indicated that 7 percent of the voters in the key battleground states of Florida and Ohio and 23 percent in Texas believed that Obama was a Muslim. In addition, and worse, more than 40 percent in Florida and Ohio reported that they did not know what his religion was. The arithmetic is horrifying: 7 percent + 40 percent = a near majority guilty of gross ignorance.

Americans did not come by their confusion by accident. A deliberate campaign was launched by Republicans to convince people that Obama's faith was in question. But what are we to make of voters who could be so easily bamboozled? This was not after all a complicated issue. Obama was a Christian and he said so on numerous occasions. At the height of the controversy involving his pastor, Obama gave a speech in which he professed his deep faith in Christianity. Said speech was widely disseminated.

Distinctions are in order if we are to understand these categories of uninformed voters. One such group, mercifully small, consisted of voters who were so busy living their lives in isolation from politics that when they were asked what Obama's religion was and they answered that they did not know it was because they really did not know, having paid little attention to the 2008 campaign. A second group, a little larger, was composed of voters who were either so racist or so suspicious of outsiders that they were prepared to believe almost anything about him. When they heard that Obama -- a politician about whom they knew little, given his recent introduction as a national figure -- shared the faith of the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, they instantly believed it because it sounded negative, blocking out all contrary evidence. The third group, by far the largest, was made up of people who didn't know what to think, having heard conflicting information about Obama's religion. As one addled fellow told a Washington Post reporter,"It's like you're hearing about two different men with nothing in common. It makes it impossible to figure out what's true, or what you can believe."

One is grateful that the third group was the largest. It gives one hope that for the vast majority of Americans information remains a vital consideration in the formation of opinion. But we are back again to the blasted problem that misinformation is as apt to be swallowed by people as factual information. More troubling, voters don't seem to know where to turn for reliable information. Why, we should all be asking, didn't people who were confused about Obama's religious affiliation know enough to consult a good reliable newspaper like the Washington Post or the New York Times to find out what professional journalists had reported? Has suspiciousness of the media gone so far that voters think they cannot trust mainstream journalists to give them the basic facts about a presidential candidate's religion? If so, then we are in far more trouble than anyone has imagined. This isn't Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The media can be trusted to get basic facts right most of the time. If people think journalists cannot be trusted to do this, then they are out of touch with reality.

What the outcome of the election of 2008 proved is not that the voters suddenly got smart but that they will turn on a party that plunges the country into an unneeded war and brings on an avoidable economic collapse while at the same time mouthing platitudes about the virtues of small government. Our history is replete with similar responses. American voters have always been able to recognize batters who have struck out at the plate or made homeruns. What they are seemingly unable to do is participate in a sustained conversation about serious subjects.

I address these questions in a new epilogue of about 7,000 words. Some readers may wonder if you can do justice to the campaign of 2008 in so few words. I myself have had the same question. I actually wanted to do a whole second book. The publisher was ready to allow me to write another whole book when it appoeared that John McCain might win. But once Obama took the lead the publisher took the view that a new book wouldn't be commercially viable.

Assuming the publisher was right, what conclusion should we reach about our democracy--and the liberal critique of our society? Liberals were ready to believe the worst about American democracy when McCain's fortunes seemed to be rising. But once his campaign collapsed mid-September (along with the stock market and the banks, not coincidentally), they were inclined to take a far more sunny view. Was the liberal critique of American politics so limited that the election of a single human being eased all of our concerns -- or put us in such a frame of mind as to want to sidestep them? Had the audience for such a critique actually vanished, as my publisher seemed to believe? Are liberals open to criticism of the nation only when elections result in the triumph of conservative candidates (as conservatives often aver)?

These are some of the questions I try to answer in the epilogue. I'd like to have the chance to explore them at length in a new book. If any publishers are reading this and are intrigued please get in touch!

*This is an inflammatory headline. It's meant to mock the Manichean, slanted, simplistic way we debate politics. Despite the title of this article and the title of my book I don't believe in calling the American people stupid. That would be as stupid as calling them smart. You simply cannot generalize that way meaningfully about 300 million people. But are a majority ignorant about politics and government? You bet. I define what I mean by stupidity here.

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Maarja Krusten - 5/19/2009

Hi, Rick,

Thank you for the good response. Having read your thought provoking book, and having watched the 2008 campaign with great interest from my Indepedent (politically) and historian (professionally) vantage point, I totally understand why you believe the book warranted a follow up publication, not just an epilogue. Campaigning always involves a reductionist approach and it is fascinating to see what is addressed and what is not, and the level of detail that goes into addressing the topics that are mentioned.

Obama's Philadelphia speech on race during the primaries struck many observers as unusual in its tone, approach and focus. McCain's earlier speech on the past civil rights struggle at Selma got less attention because it occurred at a time when he was just one of a pack of contenders on the Republican side. Having read McCain's speech at Selma, I found myself wondering why none of the debates came close to capturing exchanges anything so thoughtful. See

In addition to the conventions that limit and even hobble political exchanges, I think our sound bite age works against reflection and thoughtfulness in discourse. (I saw an observer ask yesterday what portions of Obama's Notre Dame speech would be captured in sound bites, as the observer felt the speech was hard to break down that way.)

I generally find the Presidential debate format far too limiting and I suspect some of the candidates did, as well. Evan Thomas described in his book how Obama sometimes broke up with laughter at the conventions that underlay some of the response lines he rehearsed in debate prep.

Clearly, there are many layers to examine when it comes to how members of the voting public form the perceptions they do. As we've noted previously in some of our exchanges here, the fact that some people cherry pick news sites these days and uunilaterally reject reporting from certain sources (Fox if they are on the left, the New York Times or MSNBC if they are on the right) makes it more challenging to get them to focus on some of the facts. The days of millions of people sitting down to watch Huntley-Brinkley on NBC or the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite are long gone.

All in all, I agree that it would have been interesting for you to be able to do that in a follow up book!



HNN - 5/18/2009


Hi Maarja,

Thanks for your thoughtful post.

Having read my book you know that I go on at length about the causes of ignorance, so I won't explain them here.

I used the word "stupid" in the book's title to 1. draw attention to the problem of gross ignorance, and 2. to mock the dreary way in which we frame debates. (You are stupid or smart.) (Confession: Yes, I was having my cake and eating it too.)

I wouldn't have used the word stupid in a book about the 2008 election. Liberals, the main audience for the book, would shy away from a polemic calling into question the wisdom of a people who had just elected a liberal.

The implication of a book with such a title following the victory of a Democrat would be that the people are stupid for having elected a Democrat (just as the implication of the hardback title was that the people were stupid for electing Bush).

But surely liberals should be interested in pursuing the question of the shallowness of our politics. Surely, they shouldn't give in to the easy assumption that it's all the fault of the conservatives. Liberals, like conservatives, are susceptible to simplistic slogans. Michael Moore's books and films are evidence of this. Obama himself is guilty of playing to liberals' desire for quick and easy solutions. Hope and change, hope and change, hope and change! Remember?

That's politics in a society where the masses have the vote.

My publisher may have been correct that the audience for a book like mine had dried up after the 2008 election. But the question ought to be why.

Maarja Krusten - 5/18/2009

Hi, Rick,

You refer to the deliberately Manichean flavor in the title of your book. I don't know how many people picked it up from bookstore displays and how many decided to buy it, as I did, after reading about it on HNN and elsewhere. Some choices in purchasing are more impulsive than others.

I don't know the reasoning which lay behind your publisher's decision. But I have to wonder how many people buy books with titles such as yours in order to inform themselves and how many buy them in order to validate their pre-existing views or provide a safety valve for their emotional reactions to current events. Isn't it possible that your publisher decided that with the Democrats having won the election in November 2008, the number of potential buyers who were motivated by the latter two motives was likely to drop?

I wouldn't discount the emotional aspect of buying books with provocative titles. Doesn't that work a little differently for the right, the left, and the center? Obama drew heavily on Democratic and Independent voters in winning. He even picked up some support from some moderate Republicans.

I could be wrong but I have a sense that people in the center are less motivated by a sense of aggrievement and victimology than people on the two fringes. (Keep in mind that I considered myself a conservative Republican myself throughout the 1980s but then moved away to self-identify as an Independent. I'm largely indifferent to appeals to victimology or the use of so-called Manichean approaches to issues, even finding them a turn off sometimes.)

I'm not comparing you to her at all but look at how well Ann Coulter's books, with their provocative titles and good versus evil approach to issues, sold even while Republicans controlled two branches of government during George W. Bush's term. Clearly there were readers to whom that sense of us versus them appealed, regardless of who was on top politically. Do you think books from the progressive side would sell as well while Democrats control two branches of government? I'm not so sure. I suspect that button-pushing works somewhat differently for the right, left, and center.

As to the perceptions last year that Obama was a Muslim, I'm actually more interested in a different question. Evan Thomas's book about the 2008 campaign suggests that McCain occasionally rebelled against what political tacticians advised him to do. He also reportedly set limits on what could be addressed in campaign commercials and what should not. Why was it not feasible for John McCain -- a courageous and principled man in many areas of his life -- to give a speech in which he addressed and put down the rumors about Obama being a Muslim? He touched on them in the q&a with a woman in a forum late in the campaign season ("No, ma'am, he's not.") But that was it. The rumors were out there, hinted at occasionally by surrogates, but largely left alone by the principal candidate.

Isn't part of the problem not whether voters are "stupid" but why false or simplistic framings flourish? Isn't it because they push buttons and trigger emotional reactions> You see it on both sides. Look at the simplistic "Bush lied people died" theme that many critics of W's policies left untouched. Even historians largely skirted around the question. (Look back at the "worst President" poll here on HNN.) Yet historians, of all people, should know that unless and until you unravel the information flow and decision making processes, you don't know whether someone "lied" as opposed to making decisions based on other factors.

There's a lot that goes into misperceptions among voters. I'm glad you're interested in looking at some of it.