What explains the ongoing absence of outrage among the general U.S. populace, who watched like lemmings as the truth about the Iraq War came to light, the various absurdities related to the Great Recession unfolded, and continues as the USS America slowly sails toward the edge of an economic abyss? The answer appears to be a combination of political apathy, sheer ignorance, a lack of sophistication, and a high degree of comfort on the part of the average American that shields them from reality.
According to the Federal Election Commission, between 1960 and 2008, national voter turnout has declined from 63 percent to 57 percent for presidential elections, and from 47 percent to 38 percent for midterm elections. Fewer eligible voters are taking an interest in the political process in the United States, which is mystifying given the free flow of information, the transparency of the process, and the stakes involved. Why is that?
Anyone who has watched "Jay Walking" on the The Tonight Show (and knows the difference) must be shocked to see the degree of ignorance among the average person on the street in this country. Rather than being humored by watching how genuinely uninformed people are, I find the exercise pathetic. From the significance of the fourth of July to the identity of Joe Biden, the sad fact is that the average person in this country really has no clue about basic history or who is leading our country. Can it therefore be any surprise that the average person has no idea what is happening in the corridors of power in Washington? Perhaps that is what the politicians are banking on.
A 2009 Harris poll indicated that only 43% of Americans read a newspaper every day. Of the top eight newspapers by circulation in the U.S., number two is USA Today, number five is the San Jose Mercury News, and numbers seven and eight are the Daily News and New York Post -- none being the bastion of sophistication. Nielsen Media Research conducted a ranking of the most watched television programs in the United States between January 1964 and February 2010. Six of the top twelve were sporting events (five of the six being the Super Bowl) and the top two were the finale of M*A*S*H and an episode of Dallas (in 1983 and 1980, respectively). According to Arbitron, the number one radio show in the country based on number of listeners is America's Top 40. According to movieweb.com, all of the top 40 highest grossing films in history in the U.S. have been either science fiction or animation (with the exception of Forrest Gump, at number 23).
How reasonable is it to assume, then, that a person who doesn't read a newspaper on a regular basis, doesn't know the face or name of the Vice President, and prefers science fiction to non-fiction may be expected to know much or care about the political process in this country? The truth is, the average American likes to be entertained; he/she doesn't like or want to know much about 'serious' things, and knows very little about international affairs. According to WikiAnswers, just 27 percent of Americans possess a passport, and the majority of these people use their passports to travel to just three countries: Canada, Mexico, and the UK. So, not only is the general American public not focused on its own politics, it knows virtually nothing about the world, which is quite convenient for those who craft U.S. foreign policy. A public who doesn't know the difference between Austria and Australia isn't very likely to object to dollars spent or actions taken in places they've never heard of nor been to.
The politicians who go on the stump proclaiming to speak on behalf of the American people saying "the American people in their great wisdom want..." don't know what they are talking about, or are deliberately spinning the political process. The truth is, the average American doesn't have much knowledge or wisdom, and simply wants to be left alone and entertained. They have adjusted to the 'new normal' and seem satisfied so long as their daily pleasures remain uninterrupted. So, where is the 'outrage' among the American public? It doesn't exist. If the truth about the Iraq War, being trampled upon by the Great Recession, and heading for economic Armageddon doesn't bring them into the streets, nothing will.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut, and author of the forthcoming book Managing Country Risk.