From his office in Seattle's Pioneer Square, historian and journalist Rick Shenkman is leading a one-man campaign to fight a nationwide epidemic of voter ignorance. "I'm trying to be the Paul Revere of American civics," says Shenkman, who is lecturing around the country this fall on why it's important to use your brain as you fill out the ballot.
In his provocative new book Just How Stupid are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (Basic Books 2008), Shenkman charges that most Americans don't care about public affairs, and chronicles the waning wisdom of the American voter and the dumbing down of news and politics.
As the election approaches, Shenkman's observations are timely and, perhaps, urgent. His book contains disturbing anecdotes and statistics. For example, studies of contemporary Americans show that only one in five know we have 100 senators, only two out of five can name the three branches of government, and only one in seven can find Iraq on a map.
According to Shenkman, Americans today understand less about political issues than the voters of the 1940s, and are much more susceptible to comforting bumper sticker slogans and raw emotional appeals. He also offers suggestions to reawaken public thought and provide people with the knowledge to meaningfully participate in the political process.
Just How Stupid are We? has sparked a national conversation, and Shenkman has appeared on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show as well as NPR, KUOW, CNN, KING 5's "Up Front," and other broadcast programs.
Shenkman has a background as an Emmy-winning reporter, news editor with KIRO-TV in Seattle, best-selling writer, and historian. He is devoted to debunking historical myths, and his other books include Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History and Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things Done. He also is the editor and founder of the History News Network, a website that features articles by historians on current events and the portrayal of history in the news. He lives in Seattle.
Shenkman recently discussed his new book and campaign for voter education.
Your title is provocative, but the book actually presents a more nuanced view of voter ignorance or misinformation.
I'm not calling the American people stupid. That would be as stupid as when politicians say the American people are smart. You simply cannot meaningfully generalize about 300 million people.
You can argue that our politics are often stupid because politicians count on the people being grossly ignorant about basic facts of how our government works. That's why we talk about Barack Obama's bowling score or Hillary Clinton knocking back a drink, because those issues [are] susceptible to public debate by people who don't know anything, as opposed to tax policy or health care, where you're talking facts and need to know something.
You may resist the argument I make that Americans are fairly ignorant about politics, but I assure you that politicians fully have absorbed that message despite what they say about how smart the American people are. That's why they don't stand on the stump and go into concrete detail, because they know it will go over people's heads. People will be bored, or change the channel, or not understand it.
How does your daily work to demystify history fit with your new book?
The new book grows out of that work because I was always preoccupied with myth -- illusions that conceal the real world. Myths drive our politics because people who know little about politics are much more susceptible to myths than otherwise, and myths shape and warp their thinking.
It's very important when we're listening to politicians to distinguish what's real and what's mythologized, and to assess what the politicians are saying. Almost always behind whatever a politician says is some myth or several myths that they are exploiting to create a bond with the members of the audience.
You present some stunning statistics on voter ignorance. More citizens know the names of the cartoon Simpson family characters than know the number of members of the U.S. Senate.
They are astonishing. Only two out of five Americans know we have three branches of government and can name them. If you don't know we have three branches, how can you participate in the public debate about how our government functions?
Another astonishing statistic is that only half of Americans understand that the Congress declares war. Naturally, then, when presidents invade countries without a threshold declaration of war, people aren't up in arms because they're not cognizant of what the Constitution requires, which gives presidents a chance -- depending on public ignorance -- to engage in a very aggressive foreign policy that would have appalled our Founding Fathers.
The people don't pay attention in a consumer's republic. Everyone knows the price of gallon of milk or a gallon of gasoline, but they don't understand how our government functions. Most of us don't care about politics. Most of us don't vote.
What inspired Just How Stupid are We?
Every book has multiple sources of inspiration. [One trigger was] the survey that indicated Americans by overwhelming majorities believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. In other words, ignorant voters were misled by the Bush-Cheney administration, and nobody was really talking about it. To me, this was a ten-alarm fire, that so many people could get such an important point wrong about the most important event of our time, and nobody would comment on it. We didn't want to believe that the people could be so wrong about a question of fact.
And a year after the Iraq war began, when the 9/11 Commission [said] flat out that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, still, 50 percent of the American people insisted that Saddam was somehow connected with 9/11 if not directly behind it, and that's just "flabbergasting." How can you run a democracy if people don't get the basic
You write that the citizens of the 1940s, although less formally educated than voters today, knew more about politics. How do we know this?
First, here's a paradox we need to think hard about. In 1940, six in 10 Americans hadn't gone past the eighth grade. Today, most Americans have some college education, yet our politics have grown more simplistic and dumber over the last half-century.
People have measured the intellectual content of the speeches of presidents and found a steady decline. The speeches of Franklin Roosevelt and the presidents before him were pitched at five grade levels above the speeches today. This should worry us.
And you decry the pernicious influence of television since the 1950s.
We tend to think of John Kennedy as the first television president, but it started in the 1952 campaign when Eisenhower ran the first 30-second spot commercial. You even had a commercial developed by Walt Disney, a wonderful cartoon, "I like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike."
Ike's opponent, Adlai Stevenson, presented a more complex worldview, and that apparently limited his appeal to voters. In this year's campaign, Barack Obama also talks about complicated issues. Will that hurt Obama?
I haven't seen him actually do that too often. Most of the time, he's delivering a very simple message playing on myth that he's been peddling very effectively -- better than any Democrat ever -- the myth of himself as an iconic American. A person whose father was from Africa, whose mother was from Kansas. His father was black, his mother was white. He's playing on the old myth that any boy can be president of the United States.
That's a marvelous story that we, as Americans, instinctively respond to, so I don't expect that he will suddenly cease playing on that myth.
Have you seen any hopeful developments in the past few months?
It's always hopeful when a politician draws crowds because apathy is one of the poisons of democracy. If [Obama] can turn out [more] voters in 2008, that's a plus.
You stress the increasingly democratic nature of our government.
We've become a much more democratic country. From a historian's perspective, we've never been more democratic than now, with women and blacks voting. The views of ordinary people are taken into account with initiatives and referenda. It's not party bosses who pick nominees for the two parties; people do it in primaries. Public opinion polls take the pulse of the people weekly, daily and sometimes hourly, and politicians fear getting in front of an issue without the public behind them.
Here's the paradox: at the same time we're becoming more democratic, the people know less and less. The people in charge -- the American people -- are really driving the bus of American democracy down the highway with their foot on the accelerator, and they don't know very much. How scary is that?
Reagan told us that government isn't here to help us. Are we more indifferent to government because of a perception it won't help us anyway?
When you had the government establishing big programs, people understood that the government had an impact on them. In the 1960s in the Great Society we passed a bunch of programs perceived to help poor people; middle-class and working-class people lost interest in the Democratic Party.
One thing the Democrats could do to restore their viability in American politics, and I favor this, would be to establish a national health insurance program. If people could see that a program actually lifted the burden of health insurance anxiety from their shoulders, they would get very quickly, "Oh, politics matters, and government matters."
You're sparking a national discussion. What are you hearing?
The responses, I'd say, are 75 percent favorable. Once in a while a cranky reader says I'm condescending or expecting too much. On an interview on KUOW in Seattle, a caller complained that, at the end of a long day, the last thing he wants to do is read the news. I said that if you don't want to accept these responsibilities then move to Russia, because the leaders there take it as their responsibility to tell you how they will run the government. That was a rhetorical flourish; I don't expect anybody to move to Russia, but I'm trying to inspire people to think more deeply about politics, and shame people into it.
You've mentioned that your own graduate-level journalism students didn't read newspapers and didn't keep up with current events.
I was teaching journalism at a university near Washington, D.C., in a graduate-level seminar, the final pit stop before [the students] got their M.A.s. They weren't reading the paper, and it was obvious. I finally required weekly current events quizzes. I felt terrible about it, but it actually worked. I made it 25 percent of their grade and they read the newspapers so they could pass the class and get their degrees.
How do you deal with the reality of our consumer culture and the fascination of many people with technology and other diversions to the exclusion of civics?
I'm not a policy maker. I'm a historian. In the book, I'm trying to analyze how we got to this point where most people don't know much and why that's so dangerous in a world where we're the last remaining superpower, so that when we blunder, the consequences are worldwide.