How Americans fail themselves due to a lack of civic knowledge, fear of the government, and overconfidence
The State of Affairs
Jay Leno approaches a young woman, his head bobbing on a spring, and he sticks a microphone in her face. “What country did we fight in the Revolutionary War?” he asks, a smile spreading across his face. She hesitates and her eyes go blank, as if two wires in her brain crossed erroneously and her thought processor shut down. Jaywalking was never so good. She bites her nails, wipes away sweat, and dabs the back of her neck nervously. Then, finally, a light in her eyes explodes and she screams, “France!” Yet, by the time she blurted out her answer we already knew she was going to be wrong, because 100 years ago H. L. Mencken, a prescient observer of American politics, said so. According to Mencken, she is representative of the voting majority—those people who are so incompetent that they believe they are competent, and are so uninformed that they cannot be helped.
But who is Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken? He was a German-American journalist and satirist known for his scathing rebuke of representative democracy, among many other notable dislikes and displeasures. He was a man who covered the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, the antics of Clarence Darrow, and what he thought of as the simian imbecility of the Southern States. Mencken attacked common American beliefs often, relentless in his pursuit of exposing the American political system, which, according to him, was corrupt, convoluted, and merely an artifice for swindlers and conmen in business suits handing down edicts from Capitol Hill. Still, he was an ardent supporter of free speech and rallied against censorship, even going so far as being jailed after selling banned magazines against the wishes of Boston’s moral censors. This, in lieu of being a noted curmudgeon, creates an image that is antithetical of a cynical vampire drawing derision from the necks of his victims, but of a patriot (of sorts) who stood for the ideals of a free and open society. In this way, his arguments aren’t just compelling, but utterly captivating, even if ideological paradoxes exist within his texts. But, back to that uninformed citizen captured on Jaywalking. I fear that a growing body of evidence suggests that Mencken’s claims regarding the incompetent and uninformed voting majority might be more fact than fiction.
An Argument to be Made
In chapter one of his classic Notes on Democracy, Mencken writes, “… there is a mystical merit, an esoteric and ineradicable rectitude, in the man at the bottom of the scale – that inferiority, by some strange magic, becomes a sort of superiority.” Mencken believes that a majority of voters ignore their intelligible urges in favor of make-believe superior thoughts. His claim may be true if one considers the Dunning-Kruger effect, where the incompetent seemingly fails to understand the heights of their ineptness. As reported by The Huffington Post: “Broadly speaking, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is defined as ‘a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a meta-cognitive inability to recognize their [own] ineptitude’.” Mencken states that the voting majority resemble a boss who makes bad decisions and reprimands his workers, the workers who perform poorly and blame their employer, or the citizen who votes for bad policies and claims the political machine is rigged.
Also, one must consider that these cognitive tests weren’t collected from blue-collared workers—they were collected from college students. Writer Tori DeAngelis states in Why We Overestimate Our Competence, “Cornell students received short tests in humor, grammar and logic, then assessed how well they thought they did both individually and in relation to other Cornell students. In all three areas, students who performed the worst greatly overestimated their performance compared to those who did well.” This realization can only be construed as disturbing because college students should embody the informed factions of society whom deny false thoughts of superiority. Not to mention, the representation of their critical thinking is essential to how we legitimize higher learning across the country. However, these tests seem to speak otherwise. And, as such, those not pursuing higher learning should fare even worse—which is disheartening, as, invariably, a society of incompetent people leads to incompetent laws. So, scientifically, Mencken’s claim has some validity, and it pains one to see his assertions revealed with such acuity.
But let’s look at another factor in Mencken’s argument; one that far tidier in interpretation as there are more concrete facts available for analysis. That is, how informed is the voting majority on a relative scale? Since if they are incompetent but informed perhaps there is hope for the future of American politics.
Alas, in Mencken’s eyes, it is not so.
“Such is man on the nether levels,” he writes, that “human progress passes him by. Its aims are unintelligible to him and its finest fruits are beyond his reach: what reaches him is what falls from the tree, and is shared with his four-footed brothers.” In other words, the average voter is a lowly beast, not fit for the scorn of Dr. Moreau let alone dinner at a table with a proper intelligible creature, and information seemingly slides through their fingers at every attempt to gather new ideas. Mencken states that they will never catch the knowledge they seek because their hands are too slow, too stupid, and too clumsy to catch even a palmful of brilliance; and they will remain as such, not because they are forced into this prison of ignorance, but because they are so dim-witted they have no choice but to follow the layman’s path.
Mencken writes, “He has changed but little since the earliest recorded time, and that change is for the worse quite as often as it is for the better.”
Rick Shenkman offers factual support for Mencken’s claim. He cites an article by the Associated Press titled “Homer Simpson: Yes – First Amendment: D’oh!” in which the author(s) state that, “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 (The Simpsons), according to a survey.” What is more, “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.”
Why is this a problem? Because there exists a denial of the basic framework for understanding the American political system—or any system for that matter—in favor of visual comforts, something Mencken observed long ago. Similarly, Shenkman continues, the problem is that an uninformed populace creates an “ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions and who’s in charge.” A latent effect, he points out, is that the voting majority then feels less of a need to seek reliable sources regarding important events.
When voters do not have an interest in seeking reliable news sources or gathering additional information, their understanding of the basic principles of our society can only take a backseat ride to television romps with cartoon characters. Shenkman states: “Ask the political scientists and you will be told that there is damning, hard evidence pointing incontrovertibly to the conclusion that millions are embarrassingly ill-informed and that they do not care that they are. There is enough evidence that one could almost conclude—though admittedly this is a stretch—that we are living in an Age of Ignorance.”
An “Age of Ignorance” could explain recent political upheavals in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
It doesn’t stop at understanding politics either. Shenkman describes a lack of historical understanding among the populace as well. For instance, under half of all Americans (49%) correctly identified the United States as the country that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. And, just over half of fourteen-thousand middle class students understand basic civics. I think Shenkman, like Mencken, sees the folly in man’s ignorance. “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana wrote, which is a great quote, but it’s not applicable in any situation because half of the voting majority are missing gaps in their understanding of American history! If an atomic bomb fell tomorrow, one might witness 49% of Americans claim, “that’s never happened before,” because naming a similar historical event would be too trying on their sensory-stuffed brains.
Even in their Own Best Interest
It’s not insane to believe Mencken when he thinks the majority of voters cannot even vote in their own best interests, because there is proof to bolster his argument. Authors Palfrey and Poole write in The Relationship Between Information Ideology and Voting Behavior, “In the extreme, if a voter is completely uninformed about the candidates’ positions on issues and other potentially important characteristics of the candidates, then, even if the voter has a relatively strongly held preferences on the issues, the voter has little basis for expressing a strong preference for one candidate over the other.” That is, if one is protesting the potential loss of his second amendment rights, and believes candidate so-and-so has the power to save his guns and ammo, regardless of what the candidate’s actual position is on gun rights, the voter will still assert his vote. Mencken put it this way: “They cannot take in new ideas and they cannot get rid of old fears . . . But they also lack something more fundamental: they are incompetent to take in the bald facts themselves.” The bald facts are the key to becoming an informed population. This is impossible for the voter, Mencken states, because the voter is so dense that the bald facts drown in a sea of television cartoons and junk-food lodged somewhere between their ears. That’s why they would be surprised to see a nuclear bomb, and that’s why they don’t understand even the basic policies their candidate supports.
But, American voters wouldn’t claim to understand policies they really know nothing about … would they? Well, as far as a poll on misinformation conducted during the 2010 elections is concerned—yes, they would. In Misinformation and the 2010 Election authors Clay Ramsay, Steven Kull, Evan Lewis, and Stefan Subias write, “The poll found strong evidence that voters were substantially uninformed on many of the issues prominent in the election campaign, including the stimulus legislation, the health-care reform law, TARP, the state of the economy, climate change, campaign contributions by the US Chamber of Commerce, and President Obama’s birthplace. In particular, voters had perceptions about the expert opinion of economists and other scientists that were quite different from actual expert opinion.” Clearly, this is troublesome. The point of voting is to create reform and change unfavorable laws, but if the voting majority doesn’t understand what all of those politicians on Capitol Hill are talking about … then why are they voting? It is perhaps a question for the ages.
A Conclusion of Sorts
All of this leads to somewhere, I think, and in forming a finale I have little to offer but what I believe to be the problem with the voting majority today. Anecdotal evidence tells me that the voter is not really this uninformed; rather, it tells me there is a bad connection between the voter and their representative. Which, I think, is a matter of trust (this goes a little deeper so bear with me).
Timothy Cook, author of The Skeptical American states, “When asked ‘do you trust government to do what is right,’ most of those (54%) responding said either ‘only some of the time’ or ‘almost never.’ When asked whether ‘government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or if it is run for the benefit of the people,’ 63% of those responding said ‘run by a few big interests.’ In short, in the spring of 2002, public opinion regarding trust in government was back to the relatively low levels where it had been prior to the (9/11) attacks.” These are interesting figures. In both instances, over half of all people distrust the government on basic principles, such as natural virtue and egalitarian justice. So, politics no longer take precedent as they once did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the same intellectual dedication. Where once politics and politicians were important and trustworthy in dispensing justice and law, the voter must now cast a skeptical eye toward Capitol Hill while enduring ceaseless incompetence and ignorance under the shadow of the contemporary Zeitgeist.
Thus, I believe voters have little reason to stay informed, or follow the news anyway, or pretend to care for that matter, because they don’t trust the government enough to grant it any merit. This is something Mencken overlooks, focusing instead on those enlightened individuals who have, as he states, “unquestionable integrity and ability.” To Mencken, there are those with refined capabilities who could do the leading, as they have all of the knowledge and the information to rule. But, to the unenlightened ones, they are no more than untrustworthy scoundrels out for a few big interests. Too, Mencken neglects to give the masses credit for their disdain of government, just as his own contempt shines so brightly for democracy. The commonality between the two is startling, but it seems often that a shared interest is ignored between two parties in favor of scorn; but maybe that is the sign of an incompetent and uninformed individual.
Likewise, voters who, by my own assertion, remain uninformed in light of the lack of trust for their government, have something else to share with Mencken, which is discovered at the end of Notes on Democracy. The voter, much like the titular cynic, takes a generally apathetic approach in dealing with the government. Or, as Mencken’s own feelings toward the United States’ political system convey: “I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing … Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government … in the long run it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself.”
Government is a necessary evil, he states, and one’s overall understanding and competency regarding it matters little to those outside of its working parts, because their interest is not as protected as those inside. After all, the politicians’ and the representatives’ interests are the ones that continue pushing the country forward regardless of the majority. Because of this, if the voter is criticized as having the mental capacity of a twelve-year-old, then one condemns the entirety of the masses too harshly and too quickly.
In closing, it is true that vociferous political banter is both prevalent and popular in American society, and yet Americans learn little from these circus-like exchanges. That is, they continue voting for the same kind of representative, endure similar economic crashes, and listen to similar violent discourse every decade, and remain just as incompetent and unintelligent as always. For the fact remains: the voting class are simply out of their element in the political sphere. Therefore, as a nation, Americans must seek more reliable and varied news sources (as Shenkmen, Cook, Palfrey, and Pool suggest) and it must accept that there are some things that they simply can’t accomplish on their own. They must fight the idea that they excel in areas in which they do not, and they must try to keep Mencken’s hypothesis from becoming a reality, as per the evidence presented. The goal, then, is to convince the voting majority to lay off another television rerun and strive to become more educated and informed members of their country.