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Are Americans Still Stupid?*

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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 Barrack Hussein Obama was a Muslim. On the eve of the election, confusion reigned. Polls indicated that seven 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: seven 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 appeared 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 just a headline, nothing more. Despite the title of this blog post and the title of my book I don't believe in calling the American people stupid. That's 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.

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