Ignorant America: Just How Stupid Are We?
By Rick Shenkman, Tomdispatch.com
Posted on July 2, 2008, Printed on November 5, 2009
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was
and never will be." -- Thomas Jefferson
Just how stupid are we? Pretty stupid, it would seem, when we come across headlines like this:
"Homer Simpson, Yes -- 1st Amendment 'Doh,' Survey Finds" (Associated Press 3/1/06).
"About 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First
Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.)
But more than half of Americans can name at least two members of the fictional cartoon family,
according to a survey.
"The study by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of
Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just 1 in 1,000 people
who could name all five First Amendment freedoms."
But what does it mean exactly to say that American voters are stupid? Five defining
characteristics of stupidity, it seems to me, are readily apparent. First, is sheer ignorance:
Ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our
government functions and who's in charge. Second, is negligence: The disinclination to seek
reliable sources of information about important news events. Third, is wooden-headedness, as
the historian Barbara Tuchman defined it: The inclination to believe what we want to believe
regardless of the facts. Fourth, is shortsightedness: The support of public policies that are
mutually contradictory, or contrary to the country's long-term interests. Fifth, and finally, is a
broad category I call bone-headedness, for want of a better name: The susceptibility to
meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simplistic diagnoses and solutions that
play on our hopes and fears.
…The most comprehensive surveys, the National Election Studies (NES), were carried out by
the University of Michigan beginning in the late 1940s. What these studies showed was that
Americans fall into three categories with regard to their political knowledge. A tiny percentage
know a lot about politics, up to 50%-60% know enough to answer very simple questions, and the
rest know next to nothing.
In 1986, only 30% knew that
Roe v. Wade
was the Supreme Court decision that ruled abortion
legal more than a decade earlier. In 1991, Americans were asked how long the term of a United
States senator is. Just 25% correctly answered six years. How many senators are there? A poll a
few years ago found that only 20% know that there are 100 senators, though the number has