Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Review - Just How Stupid Are We?

[It seems fitting that I am writing this review on Election Day. I actually have little more to say about voting today, though I feel I should. There are so many words, so many opinions, but it's hard for me to find anything to say about the process, which isn't stopping Andrew Sullivan, naturally.]

Reporter and author Rick Shenkman has written a book, Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter (2008), promises to expose the great unspoken truth of our time, that the American people bear a great share of the responsibility for our broken political system. (Shenkman was the driving force behind the History News Network site, which I wrote about in May, which features historians writing about current events, and he has his own sub-blog called, unsurprisingly, Just How Stupid Are We?.)

I'm not going to remake the book publishing industry, but I would love to see books that take several shorter essays and knit them together. I know that there are occasional anthologies along those lines, but they are few and far between, and don't really fit into the publish/book tour mentality of the business today.

I say this because JHSAW, a short book, would be stronger if it were even shorter. Shenkman, who has good things to say, takes far too much room to get his points across. Now, I'm writing this from the perspective of a fairly well-informed person, so I admit that I may not be the target audience here. But I don't really see who, among people who would read this, would not already know of the woeful ignorance of the American people. There are endless numbers of stories lamenting the lack of knowledge of the citizenry, and, of course, there's the uneasy laughter generated by Jay Leno's Jaywalking segments, in which he finds respectable people (college graduates, teachers, etc.) who have almost no facts at their command.

And, while we can all act appalled at the inability to find Iraq on the map, Shenkman makes some points that are more arguable. He posits that voters are irrational by citing their bias in "four different ways against good public policies broadly supported by economists":
First, the public, fearful of the greed of the selfish, generally is suspicious of markets. Second, the public has an anti-foreign bias. That is, people generally underestimate the benefit of foreign trade. Third, the public is fixated on employment as a measure of economic success; economists, in contrast, focus on productivity. Fourth, the public tends to believe things are getting worse, not better; unlike economists who seek to see the big picture, voters tend toward pessimism, seizing on bits of bad economic news. [p. 45-6]
Clearly, I could write (and have) about each of these, but, in each case, the "irrationality" of the electorate is looking pretty good right now, and the economists are the ones who have been stricken with myopia. Take just the third, is it really surprising or irrational that workers would focus on their own prospects rather than some abstract measure of "national economic health"?

Some of Shenkman's points are not as well-developed, thus not as well-defined, as they might be. He talks about the myths that The People hold, including the very concept of The People itself. One could write a lot about our national myths and how they've conditioned our sense of self and national identity. But Shenkman doesn't work this through very far, and I was disappointed.

He does hit a stride around the halfway point in the book. His explication of how polling and referenda have empowered ill-equipped voters is cogent and to the point. It is only recently that politicians have had to confront what I consider their most important dilemma: Do they vote their conscience based on judgment and information, or do they represent their constituents? In my opinion, there has been far too little consideration of this question - we certainly never hear a question about this directed to candidates. Shenkman doesn't take this up directly, but a reader will certainly have a better understanding of how this came about.

His discussion of television's effect on the political scene, while nothing we haven't read before, is a very nice summary of how image came to dominate substance; you may actually find some sympathy for the beleaguered Herbert Hoover, who lived long enough to see his style become unacceptable. If you believe that issues should still dominate substance, not only are you in the minority, but you're fighting a losing battle.

(This seems like a good place to mention that today's turnout numbers will be seen by some as a refutation of arguments like Shenkman's. I have no doubt that more people have become convinced that this election is important, but I do doubt that they are voting any more rationally than they have before. I hope I'm wrong.)

Shenkman presents a short chapter on how our credulity has contributed to the disasters that have followed from 9/11. Again, if you've read at all widely, there's nothing much novel here, but, if you're looking for a ten-pager that summarizes the ways in which Americans have bought into a pack of nonsense out of fear, this section is a very strong piece of work.

The final main chapter discusses, at greater length than before, how the myth of The People has been used (or ignored) by both sides of the political spectrum. It would appear that the belief in the primacy of The People depends far more on who's in power and who is not, and I wasn't sure that the argument was developed enough to convince me of its centrality. But the aspect of the narrative in which leaders are reluctant to blame The People (not surprising since that's where the votes are) was interesting. In light of the current financial crisis, in which our "leaders" have done everything possible not to impugn the character of the common man by suggesting that he/she had anything to do with reckless lending, even to the point of suggesting that the prudent make the imprudent whole, will convince you of that thesis.

Solutions are always problematic in books like these. Too rarely is a realistic path provided, and JHSAW is, unfortunately, no exception. That the Internet may prove useful in informing and discussing, or television may yet realize its potential as an information medium, seems pretty far-fetched. Forcing The People to face their ignorance won't happen as long as there's money in that ignorance. Creating "democracy parties" for adults in which they can discuss issues is something that won't happen unless they're accompanied by sports on the tube and copious amounts of beer, at which point the discussion won't be worth having.

The centerpiece to Shenkman's proposals is the reinstitution of civics classes in our schools, and not just in elementary schools, but right through high school and college. Freshmen in college will be given weekly current events tests (which, of course, wouldn't scratch the surface of what needs to be known to be an informed citizen, but doing that would be "boring or tedious"), and top scorers would be given federal tuition subsidies. (And if everyone aces their tests, free college for all?) Even if I were 100% sold on this as the solution, I see no way this could happen - the tests themselves could never pass muster in our plural society in which everything is examined for evidence of bias.

This is not a bad little book, especially if you haven't spent much time on these matters before. I thought parts of it were over-developed, other parts under-, and the proffered solutions seemed unworkable. Had it been publishable at 60 pages, I think it could have been quite persuasive. As it is, it was a bit meandering for me to regard it as a must-read.

(By the way, in a book that talks about the ignorance of the common man, it would have been nice to see a correct reference to Virginia Woolf on p. 174; it is not "Virginia Wolfe.")

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