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Dawn Teo Headshot

Most Americans Know Very Little About Political Issues

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Amid the frustrations over the economic crisis, government-sanctioned torture, illegal domestic spying programs, illegal partisan firings of U.S. Attorneys, blatant lies by the McCain campaign, and other nonsense, articles and blogs are appearing daily with such dictums as "The American people have caught on to unscrupulous Republican tactics." and "The American people will not fall for Republican lies again." and "People have had enough of Bush policies and will vote accordingly." Well, excuse me while I say - baloney!

Political activists (particularly those who engage in issue-based activism) are the most informed citizens in America. Right now, many Democratic activists are taking for granted that most other Americans have learned what they've learned, know what they know, see what they see. However, a quick glance at a web traffic map indicates that the vast majority of Americans don't even visit political websites, which is the best way to find, research, and verify detailed political information.

Sure, Americans have had enough - most Americans believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Americans do want the candidates to tell the truth, be respectful, and solve America's biggest problems. And of course we all want to ensure that a tragedy like 9/11 never happens again. We all want the economy stabilized, and we all want good jobs in America. We cannot take for granted that a majority agrees on the right solutions for any of America's most pressing problems.

As a former Republican, I often come to the table with a different perspective. Few of my fellow Obama supporters understand what's happening outside of their own circle of friends and families. Most politically active people spend their political energy within a network of people who think like they do - a natural, normal behavior. We gravitate to those who are like us (a primary principle of social influence - we like those who are like us). We forward our most persuasive articles and emails to those who already agree with us. We hold house parties and meet-and-greets with those who are already convinced that the changes we seek are worthwhile changes to make. We share the flubs, gaffes, and flip-flops of our opponents with our allies.

We can't win an election by taking for granted that voters have the information that we have. We can't win an election by assuming that everyone has learned what we've learned. We can't win an election by working only with those who already think like we do - after all, anyone who thinks like we do is already committed to Obama.

To win, we must first understand that most Americans are not informed. Even informed Americans are not really informed. Every time McCain shows egregious ignorance or misunderstanding of a serious issue (like the economic crisis that unfolded last week), left-leaning analysts, writers, and bloggers all over America cheer and send out the message through their publications that Americans are catching on, Americans now "know better," and there is "no way" the American people will make the same mistake in 2008 that they made in 2004. But if everyone had truly "caught on" or "knew better" this time, then this race would not be close - and this race is definitely very, very close. On election day, the presidential race and many congressional races will be nail biters.

The average voter does not know that McCain's television advertisements are full of lies -- most voters don't have the time, resources, or inclination to find out the truth. Think for a second where you heard or read the information debunking McCain's advertisements. If you saw it on television, it was probably on cable news (not the headline channel). maybe you read it in a political blog or on Huffington Post or on YouTube. How many articles, blogs, and videos have you read and watched? How many hours have you spent in the last 7 days perusing these websites?

Remember, the average undecided voter does not spend hours and hours poring over detailed political information. In fact, according to one scientific study, the "two characteristics that distinguished decided from undecided voters: frequency of discussing the candidates and viewing national network-TV news." Undecided voters are less likely to discuss candidates often, and are more likely to watch network news (i.e., ABC, NBC, CBS), which are only able to accommodate shallow political news due to the time constraints of their 30 minute shows. These shows provide viewers only with the illusion that they are informed citizens.

Ask your friends and family, though, (that is, your nonpolitical friends and family) did they know that McCain confused the Prime Minister of Spain with a Latin American despot? Ask around, how many know that McCain had to be corrected by Lieberman because he did not know the difference between Shiite and Sunni? How many know that Bush learned just this last week that the financial system "has a lot of interlinks." You probably don't need to ask - it's probably already one of your greatest frustrations in life.

Most of my nonpolitical friends and family believe that Barack Obama will raise taxes on the middle class despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I've sent countless friends and family members the Washington Post comparison of the tax plans proposed by Obama and McCain. It clearly shows middle class taxpayers will pay less in taxes under an Obama administration than a McCain administration. These facts are easily available online (the first link in a Google search), yet the false perception persists across America that Obama would raise middle class taxes.

The economic crisis is surely the most important issue today. Yet most voters have forgotten (or never knew) that just a couple of years ago McCain said that he doesn't really understand the economy. Most voters are unaware that on the day the government bailed out Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Palin thought that they were government agencies (they are actually taxpayer-funded private companies) that were just being streamlined because they had become too bloated.

Computer literacy alone is not enough to conduct research online. In addition to knowing how to find a search website, knowing where to type and what to click, a person must have certain literacy skills in order to find and evaluate information online. Many people are technically competent but do not have adequate literacy skills. In order to use Google effectively, a person must be able to select (and often to change) words for a web search. Then, he or she must be able to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable sources. Most Americans do not know what an astroturf organization is, much less how to distinguish astroturf from grassroots.

To win in November, we must stop taking the political knowledge of the American citizenry for granted. This election will be close -- very close. Most people have too many daily struggles to keep a constant vigilance on government and politics. This is especially true during economic downturns when many in the middle class are struggling just for survival. We must work harder to inform our friends, our family, our neighbors, and others in our community. We must knock on more doors, make more calls, write more opinion pieces for the newspaper. We cannot afford to take this election for granted.

Dawn Teo - Outpost Politics