Saturday, March 31, 2012

Are we a gaggle of Gumps?

H. L. Mencken set the table back in the '30s when he quipped, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the [intelligence] of the American public.” Fast-forwarding to 2012, POLITICO's Alexander Burns quoted Democratic pollster Tom Jensen as saying, “The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid.” Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Still, with another critical election looming, that's not very comforting. But American Prospect writer Matt Corley says, relax. He writes: Stupidity, which “implies a lack of aptitude or intelligence,” is not the primary problem, according to George Washington University political scientist John Sides. Instead, ignorance “is more the problem, since a lot of non-stupid people don't necessarily follow politics very closely.” Moreover, academics say we can rely on the electorate to make rational collective decisions because the "miracle of aggregation" cancels out "the uninformed errors of individual voters." But was reelecting President Bush in 2004 rational? I'll stipulate to the likelihood that most voters are not imbeciles in the clinical sense. But the Gumpian levels of political ignorance (and naivety) that everyone agrees they exhibit scares the bejesus out of me. Per Corley, Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels found that “political ignorance matters—not only for individual votes, but also for election outcomes.” Which explains Election 2004, a result produced not by idiocy but empty-headedness. I say that as a partisan, of course. Still, God help us in November. The country can ill afford to make another dumb decision regardless of how it gets made.

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