Books: U.S. Political Stupidity
Friday, August 8, 2008; 12:00 PM
Authors Elvin Lim ("The Anti-Intellectual Presidency") and Rick Shenkman ("Just How Stupid Are We?") were online Friday, Aug. 8 at noon ET to debate which group in the U.S. has been more ignorant of late -- the government's politicians and bureaucrats, or the people who put them into office.
The transcript follows.
Lim is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University. He is a two-time winner of the Sara Norton thesis prize at the University of Oxford, and also has been honored by the Presidency Research Group of the American Political Science Association.
Shenkman, an associate professor of history at George Mason University, is the editor and founder of the school's History News Network, a Web site that features articles by historians on current events. He's a fellow of the Society of American Historians. "Just How Stupid Are We?" is his sixth book. Previously, Shenkman was an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and the former managing editor of KIRO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Seattle.
Rockville, Md.: This is amusing in a way. Most of what I see is the habit of people saying that anyone who does not agree with them either are stupid or have sold out. It also is possible that some other person really is smarter. Eisenhower used to tell his staff that if they gave him a few minutes with the press, he would confuse them enough. So who is really stupid? And why?
Elvin Lim: Yes, I am in absolute agreement that "stupid" is all too frequently thrown out when some people simply cannot or refuse to see the other side of an argument. Intelligent people can genuinely disagree, but what is problematic is when anti-intellectual people refuse to be open minded about other points of view and intellectual perspectives (at the very least to consider them so that they can reject them). A stupid person cannot consider different competing arguments. Most people aren't stupid. But some people refuse to consider competing arguments. Now that is anti-intellectual.
That is why I prefer "anti-intellectual" as a descriptor of a phenomenon that I think we can all agree is malign. We can typically see anti-intellectualism being deployed when someone consciously over-simplifies an argument, indeed derides the complexities within it, in order to quickly dismiss other points of view and to seduce a listener to his/her side.
Rick Shenkman: I don't actually argue that the American people are stupid. That would be as stupid as saying the American people are smart, which you hear all the time from politicians. I do argue that gross ignorance has reached such an alarming proportion that it is akin to a 10-alarm fire. And a 10-alarm fire needs red-hot words like stupid to get attention. Had I used a more academic word I suspect fewer people would have heard my message.
One statistic, if you will. On the eve of the Iraq War some 60 percent of Americans believed that Saddam was behind Sept. 11 despite an absence of evidence. And a year later the number remained 50 percent even though by then the 9/11 Commission had reported that Saddam had no connection to Sept. 11.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Hmm. And just who will read books written about how stupid we are? The French? In fairness to me, I started the book last night by the guy who read the Oxford English Dictionary in a year and made notes on it. This would be a good place to insert one of those words. One concerning some aspect of human cluelessness, perhaps. Or better yet, a word describing human activity devoted to pointlessness! Merci.
Elvin Lim: Actually, many people are interested in the ignorance and anti-intellectualism of many Americans and presidents.
Look at our founding fathers: philosophers, inventors, scientists. Look at the federalist papers, look at the declaration of independence. Those were serious documents written by men who seriously pondered on their meaning.
If we care about democracy, we must care about how we cast our vote. Our vote is meaningless if it is cast in ignorance or for reasons distantly related to the political issues and policies at hand.
Rick Shenkman: Who reads books about how stupid we are? I was asked this by an academic before the book came out. The answer of course is that mainly well-informed people are likely to read this book. The masses of incurious voters won't.
Does that mean the rest of us should ignore the gross ignorance of the majority?
We need to recognize we have a problem. Well-informed voters have to get over the delusion that the masses are making decisions on the same basis that they are.
Laurel, Md.: I know this is something most people don't want to put down to "stupidity," but is there evidence that support for the Iraq invasion (in 2003) was in some way correlated with attitudes toward things like Biblical prophesy and the Second Coming? In the religion section of my local used book store, you can find a half-century of titles claiming to predict the course of current events in the Middle East based on scripture.
Rick Shenkman: I haven't seen any convincing data correlating religious beliefs with attitudes toward the Iraq War.
What is clear is that voters who watched only Fox News were more likely to believe that there was a connection between Saddam and Sept. 11 even though there wasn't one. And we know that Fox viewers are more likely to attend church than Americans generally.
Draw your own conclusions. But this is treacherous territory. It is specious to believe that somebody who's religious is necessarily politically ignorant.
Ellicott City, Md.: I think in business, it's true that stupid people's money is just as good as smart people's money, and it's a lot easier to get. Isn't the same thing true with votes?
Rick Shenkman: Politicians assume American stupidity. So do the media. If voters were smart would we have the dumb political ads we see on TV? Would we be talking about Obama's fist bump, Hillary's knocking back a drink in a bar, or Obama's bowling score?
We talk about these dumb things because everybody can have an opinion about them whether they know anything about politics or not.
The Bush administration obviously counted on people being grossly ignorant in the run up to the Iraq War. That's why they dropped hints that Saddam was somehow behind Sept. 11.
Baltimore: Okay, I am not going to say this is "stupid" behavior, but I have been totally baffled by those diehard Hillary Clinton supporters saying that they would vote for John McCain before Obama. Huh? They would vote for a guy who would undo Roe v. Wade and appoint more conservatives to the Supreme Court while pouring more money into Iraq? It's patently absurd, and says to me that these are folks who were voting for Mrs. Clinton solely because of her gender. Who cares about policy?
Rick Shenkman: Voters are not computers. They are emotional. That's part of politics. I agree that Hillary supporters who vote for McCain out of spite are being foolish. Obama's challenge is to win them over. If he's the charismatic politician his supporters claim, he should be able to do so.
Laurel, Md.: Is the election cycle (two, four or six years) really conducive to resolving long-term issues like developing energy sources or re-structuring Social Security? Or is the next election about as far as any politician or voter can see into the future?
Elvin Lim: Unfortunately, you are correct to note that the cost of democracy and elections is that it makes political actors short-sighted.
That is why the founders wanted some offices to have longer terms (senators), and even some (court justices) to have tenure in office. This electoral mechanism insulates some of our political actors from acting according to the winds and arrows of outrageous fortune (public opinion).
As things stand however, some in our culture denigrates the Court for this very reason. We need to remind Americans that we are a republic, not just a democracy. We should care about considered judgment as least as much as we care for popularity contests. A class or two in constitutional law and history might help restore the founding vision.
Rick Shenkman: At this point our democratic impulses have become so robust that it is impossible to consider going back to a time when this was, strictly speaking, a republic. The democratic forces unleashed by the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence cannot be squeezed back. We have to admit that this is very much a democracy now and deal with the consequences of an electorate that has much more control over things than ever before. Primaries, initiatives, polls -- all these democratic instruments are here to stay.
So what we have to do is develop smarter voters.
Lyme, Conn.: Have you researched the flow of information? I have found it fascinating observing the descriptions as to what information reaches what level. I fear a decision of one level not to pass along information -- or to "sugarcoat" it when passing it along to higher levels -- has been the root of many bad decisions at higher levels.
Rick Shenkman: The larger problem we face is that the masses of voters want sugarcoated answers. The politician who tells people what they should hear usually loses. We say we want the truth. We prefer myths.
Claverack, N.Y.: Isn't this just the great American meme that simple folk who use "common sense" are more in touch with the world than people with "their nose in a book"? This is ubiquitous -- for example, in the hysterical "debate" over vaccinations. There is not and never has been any scientific evidence they cause autism, yet millions are more willing to believe anecdotal evidence they cribbed from the Internet than the advice of their own doctors, because "what do doctors know"?
Rick Shenkman: The public is hardly aware of the scientific method. As Bergan Evans wrote in an expose of myths half a century ago, ideas of the stone age stand side by side with modern scientific advances.
My particular concern has been that voters are so unaware of basic civics that they are easily misled. Only two out of five know we have three branches of government and can name them. What kind of democracy can you have in such an environment of gross ignorance?
And as I argue in my book, ignorant voters are sitting ducks for wily politicians.
Bennett Point, Md.: Just by listening to C-SPAN phone-in callers it is easy to understand that a large percentage of Americans are ignorant, stupid and paranoid. Considering that the America of George Washington's time was a Republic with limited voting privileges, should America limit the franchise to people who show some ability to intelligently vote and maybe even know that there are three branches of government, or who can come up with the names of their two senators?
Elvin Lim: A provocative proposal that probably won't pass, as I'm sure you know.
Yet there is hope. I don't think we need to go back to a world of philosopher kings. People can be inspired to acquire political information. Perhaps YouTube and the blogs are reviving interest in politics. I think people can be convinced that they are part of a greater whole, that they have a duty to exercise their vote meaningfully and to participate in a great democracy. Once they care, they will read, think, and deliberate.
Rick Shenkman: I don't believe the problem is convincing people to take political responsibilities more seriously. In a consumer's republic they are far more likely to worry about the price of gas than to spend five minutes reading about the legislation Congress is considering to address the gas crisis. While I want civics to be taught in school and want Congress to pass a law insisting that all schools of higher learning mandate current events quizzes for incoming freshmen, I believe systemic reforms are needed. The primary one is to revitalize mass institutions to help distracted voters make better informed decisions. I don't want to bring back party bosses or party leaders, but I do think that both parties and unions should be strengthened to help guide voters' choices. People who don't read the newspaper daily -- and most people don't --need cues from people who do. Otherwise they'll base their decisions on the superficial: How a candidate sounds on TV or how pretty/handsome their spouse is.
Reston, Va.: Of the two (elected officials or a disquietingly large slice of the electorate) the "prize" for the greatest stupidity clearly belongs to the electorate. The latter not only vote for the former, but keep them in office. For example Bush won re-election in 2004 even after four horrific years. The former play off the ignorance, bigotry and religiosity of the latter through the use of "wedge issues" that have little (or even negative) bearing on the economy, national security, crime rates, national health care, etc. Although moral corruption and stupidity are not mutually exclusive, the former dominates many of the elected officials (and perhaps their appointees) while stupidity and ignorance "inform" the electorate.
Elvin Lim: I think this position exonerates our leaders. Leaders should know better, really. Blaming the people is like blaming the victims in this case.
Remember, people are being quite rational when they choose not to follow politics or read American history -- they have their lives to lead. In voting, they delegate the power of self-government to our leaders.
Yet our leaders happy accept the power, but deny the responsibility to then go ahead to do what we have chosen not to do in delegating our power. They exploit our political ignorance, and use it to pander to us and seduce us to get what they want passed in legislation. As I say in my book on page 107, this is "a cheap ride on a free ride" (resulting from the paradox of voting).
St. Simons Island, Ga.: While in law school, I worked as a part-time staffer for a committee in the state legislature. On my first day, the staff director made the point that the members are a cross-section of the population -- some smart, some dumb and most in the middle -- and that I shouldn't to expect more from them than I would expect of the population generally. It was good advice then (in 1976) and still is today.
Elvin Lim: Yes, intelligence is distributed along a normal curve.
But ignorance does not have to be so. Ignorance is caused by indifference, unintelligence is (to some extent) an act of God.
This distinction is key. We can change indifference by motivating people (and their leaders). We don't have to accept the current condition of political ignorance and anti-intellectualism as intractable, because this is no act of God.
Seattle: I'd add that your dichotomy isn't that useful because there is another dimension: The media, collectively. Through the years, they developed and/or encouraged the belief that "lowest common denominator" was king and applied it to everything, including news coverage. I don't think that Americans are more stupid than previously, it's just that the stupid Americans are more prominent and important than before, and politics is being covered with them in mind.
Elvin Lim: Indeed, the media's job is to make money. And to the largest market segment out there it must sell.
That is why I insist in my book that we need to expect better of presidents, who are fueling and exploiting our ignorance and refusal to contemplate competing visions of government. Presidents are supposed to be leaders, but it is tragic and dangerous that they too, are now pandering to the lowest common denominator. Only the president can (attempt to) break the power of the media to numb us sound bites and entertainment. But in recent decades, presidents have assiduously shunned this responsibility.
Anchorage, Alaska: Remember the old aphorism: Never teach a pig to sing -- it just wastes your time and it annoys the pigs. (Don't bother trying to enlighten or inform those completely unwilling to be educated.) Thanks.
Rick Shenkman: Give up?
If we could educate voters back in the 1940s when most voters hadn't gone past the eighth grade, we can educate voters today, most of whom have had some college. But we have to get past the idea that civics is absorbed from the atmosphere through osmosis. It has to be taught. And furthermore, voters need to be taught which candidates are better for them. This is something only mass organizations are likely to be able to accomplish. What we need then, to boil down my argument, is for more people to be involved in mass groups like labor unions and parties. Unfortunately, the trend over the last half century has been in the opposite direction.
Baltimore: Many instances of governmental incompetence by the Republican administration also have been interpreted as malice. If you believe that government ought not have a role in people's lives, the best way to prove that belief is to have government screw things up. Generous-hearted observers prefer to think that nobody is that heartless, but when you look at things like Katrina, can you honestly say they're that stupid?
Rick Shenkman: Republicans clearly have tried to discredit government. This creates a paradox. Putting them in charge requires them to do that which they believe is counterproductive. They don't want an efficient government, they want less government.
But do I think that the Bush administration deliberately messed up its response to Katrina? No. But putting hacks in positions of authority left the administration unprepared when a real calamity occurred.
San Jose, Calif.: Do stupid people watch "The Daily Show"? Do smart, critical-analysis-using news hawks watch "The O'Reilly Factor"? Can the demographics of what I watch, read and purchase tell you whether I'm stupid and ignorant or indolent and indifferent? Folks with these attributes are probably well represented in Congress. What does that say about public service characters - supposedly The Best and The Brightest? Thanks.
Rick Shenkman: I cite research in my book indicating that the Stewart show's audience is more well-informed than the ordinary voter. But so is Rush's audience! And so is O'Reilly's!
What that suggests is that the ordinary voter's ignorance is so great as to be almost unfathomable. (See chapter two in my book for the stats.)
Washington: So, if the political elites are anti-intellectual and the masses seem to feed into this, are we assuming then that this is a top-down problem, or do politicians feed off of our ignorance in a bottom-up dilemma?
Elvin Lim: The causal connection must run both ways, of course.
So the question is, who should shoulder more of the blame.
Posed as such, I think it should be clearer why I think presidents are to be blamed. Okay, let's assume that the American people don't know better on many issues of public policy. Presidents (or presidential candidates) don't try to educate them these days. Instead, they exploit this ignorance -- this tabula rasa (blank slate) -- and write their own agendas and preferences onto it. Deliberation is chucked, debate is elided. Yes it's probably ruthlessly efficient, but that is now how a republic should consider and deliver on the great issues that confront us today.
Rick Shenkman: I am convinced that we need to address the question of the public's responsibility for our dumb politics. It's too easy to blame Bush and Cheney et al. That leaves the rest of us off the hook.
Enough with complaining about Bush. It's time to take a cold long hard look in the mirror.
Once we admit the masses do not measure up to the responsibilities they have assumed in our democratic system we will begin to solve the problem. Like alcoholics though we first have to admit we have a problem. Natural solutions will emerge once we accept reality.
Boston: My pet theory is that the 24-hour news cycle has killed public discourse, especially intellectual public discourse. All that emphasis on "New! Breaking!" has made it very difficult to find out what happened next. (And reduced accepted public appetite for follow-up?) Am I wrong? Why or why not?
Elvin Lim: Yes, the media as gateway to information has contributed to the malaise of the public mind.
The media causes us to be obsessed with the new, and not with enduring long term questions. The media decides what is news too, by selecting for drama, sensation, and scandal. The media has also killed discourse because of the need to keep things short and sweet -- hence the six-second sound bites.
Some will say that the media is merely responding to the market of listeners out there. Probably. But let it be said that there are several genres of media. There is C-SPAN, there is the History Channel, there is (perhaps more controversially) NPR. And there is even talk radio, which is a fiery genre, but quite a lot of substance transpires there these days.
Blaming the media as a monolithic drain on the American brain is counterproductive. The key is for leaders and interested citizens to find ways to use the media in new and innovative ways to educate the public to inspire genuine and productive debate.
Rick Shenkman: I agree that blaming the media is too easy.
What we have to do is ask why we focus so heavily on the media? Isn't it because we are all populists now and don't want to shift our focus to the masses?
As long as we celebrate the smarts of the masses we will not confront the reality of their gross ignorance. Harsh truth -- but an important one to face.
Washington: What is your perspective then on the irony of how the gross ignorance that plagues the American public couples with their infatuation for governmental transparency?
Elvin Lim: The cynical answer is that people want to know that government is doing its job honestly, so that they can then be convinced in their desire to be left alone to go about their own business knowing that someone else is doing their job.
Perhaps, on to a less cynical suggestion for change, civic leaders can exploit the fact that people care about transparency to remind them that really, only the people can hold our leaders (and indeed the media) accountable. We should take government of and by the people as a doctrine more seriously.
Washington: I love the general premise of this discussion. The first lesson I always tell interns, who usually are required by their colleges to keep a journal of what they learn, is "don't be stupid." After receiving the usual blank stare, I respond "much of what you see during your internship where something goes wrong happens because someone did something stupid." You would think after a long history of leaders getting drunk and running into pools with their secretaries and taking money from FBI agents dressed as Arabs that people would learn not to be stupid, but I continue to be amazed at how stupid people can get.
Elvin Lim: I think politicians who get caught committing a crime are more hubristic than stupid. They are drunk on power and think they can get away with anything. So I this is a problem of power, not ignorance.
News Flash: Wow, a couple of professors suggesting that voters would be better informed if they belonged to unions! Shocking!
Rick Shenkman: Well, I'm happy to hear your suggestions for creating a more informed public? At least union members usually know which politicians favor measures that protect their interests -- though not always of course! Union hostility to NAFTA, for instance, is undoubtedly misguided. It's an example of union leaders misleading their members. Like pols labor leaders prefer simple answers. Labor leaders who blame NAFTA for the woes of the working man are giving in to this simplistic approach.
But I'd rather have working people taking heir cues from labor leaders than from dumb 30 second commercials -- as is currently the case.
Rolla, Mo.: Is this the normal course in any hegemony? We don't care to inform ourselves because we think we don't have to. Were average Romans informed as to what was going on in far flung parts of the Empire? Were the British that well-informed 100 years ago?
Rick Shenkman: Because American voters today have far more power than voters in past eras the parallels are meaningless. Just consider the importance of polls today. Politicians live in fear of the polls. So what voters think means a lot more today than it did a century ago.
We can't roll back the democratic reforms of the last 100 years, so what we have to do is reform the system so we get smarter voters.
How many Iraq's can a nation stand? Even a rich and powerful nation that adopts foolish policies over and over again will eventually pay a hefty price--as will those in the rest of the world. A giant that stumbles around the world invading countries that didn't attack us will kill a lot of innocent people.
The answer of course is that mainly well-informed people are likely to read this book. The masses of incurious voters won't.: Wow. So only the intelligent people or those who are curious will read your book and anyone who doesn't is just plain stupid? The book sounds fairly interesting, but if you are this obnoxious I'll pass. Oh, and I have a Ph.D. from Georgetown, so excuse me for rejecting your accusing me of being "stupid" for passing on your rubbish.
Rick Shenkman: I didn't argue that people who don't read my book are stupid. I did argue that people who are likely to already are fairly well-informed. What I try to do in the book is provide a history of the changes that have taken place in society over the last half century that led to our present condition.
No one who has read the book has come away saying it's obnoxious, even when they have disagreed with my approach. (At least, I haven't seen anyone say that in print or on the blogs.)
Boston: In the past two weeks two books have been published that each contained revelations that should have occupied the national discourse for days. Jane Mayer wrote about a country that basically has turned its back on everything it previously had believed. Ron Suskind wrote about an administration that committed crimes unlike any this nation had faced before. Neither of these reports has received much (or sustained) coverage. Instead we worry about guessing the vice presidential selections, or discuss Paris Hilton's video. Is it because we as a country are to embarrassed to look at ourselves and what we have become?
Elvin Lim: I agree with you that we are in something of a national crisis but many of us do not see it.
Let me address Ron Suskind's book. I think the critical question is, why, when it was happening, didn't we see it? I think because the president was spouting platitudes, chest thumping sound bite that always get the hairs on our backs standing. It was not reason, evidence, or argument that seduced us back then, it was the eloquence of vacuous speech designed to inspire, not to educate.
If we had demanded more evidence, more reasons, more justification back then, we (and indeed the media) would have been less susceptible to presidential seduction.
Wokingham, U.K.: "Christ or the Red Fog?" was the title, as I remember, of Father Coughlin's first broadcast sermon around 1920 -- and it seems to me as if the American people have been answering that question ever since, very emphatically. The Red Fog of Marxism is rejected and religion is embraced, to a degree and in a form that brooks no argument.
To some extent I feel that we in Europe owe the American masses a debt of thanks for refusing to listen to a dangerous and mistaken revolutionary creed that seduced so many of us. But I also see a great danger in the way the intellectual classes in America are being punished and despised because they, like their counterparts in Europe, flirted with Marxism. We now have to deal with a superpower where many voters believe in angelic intervention, react to evolutionary science with horror and embrace exponents of Biblical prophecy, like the Rev. Hagee.
Elvin Lim: I am in agreement that many intellectuals were associated with the left through the '60s in America.
But let it be said that there are intellectuals on the Right as well, and they are the neo-conservatives, the architects of the Iraq war with their neo-Wilsonian vision of global democratization.
More important, intellectualism should not be dealt with by anti-intellectualism, but by more intellectualism. Let the marketplace of ideas weed out the most ridiculous, or at least the most indefensible ideas. Let arguments be adduced and publicly asserted so that via a process of rational disputation, public reason will win out.
The American republic was constituted literally by a set of ideas. It is ironic then, that some of those who aim to preserve this republic presume that the only way to do so is to exterminate other ideas (such as during the period of McCarthyism), rather than to argue for the plausibility of those on which this country was founded.
Boston: Would you say that the root of this issue lies in "the media's" assumptions about what people want to see/hear/read? Or is it more about the way we want to see ourselves, and shifting ideas of what it means to be an average American, and what an average American should aspire to? Or something else altogether?
Elvin Lim: Because the media is a business, I have lower expectations of it than I do of presidents.
Because the people expect, and indeed cast their vote in order to be led, I have lower expectations of them than I do of presidents.
Presidents, I do not exonerate. They have the loudest bullhorn in American politics. If they choose to speak and educate, as Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt (at least occasionally) did, the media is forced to give them at least some coverage.
But no, they choose the past of least resistance. Feeding the media and the people with platitudes and pap. This is a shameful abdication of leadership. Incidentally, presidents too want us to see the media as the black sheep so we miss their complicity in the creation of an ignorant republic. Blame the media has become the tune of the day. I think we need to take presidents to task.
Washington:"Leaders should know better, really. Blaming the people is like blaming the victims in this case." This seems entirely backwards to me. We regularly elect the worst Americans to elected office, for the most wrongheaded of reasons, and we should blame ... the elected leaders? As you said earlier: The leaders are there to represent the folks who elected them. If the voters are ignorant and venal, how can we expect their representatives to be any better. As a D.C. resident, I always find the complaints about "politicians in Warshington" to be particularly galling. I always want to say "well, you're the ones who keep sending these cretins to my city!"
Rick Shenkman: The old saying is that you get the government you deserve. We have to ask ourselves why we deserved Bush.
I would not have framed the question in this way when his father was president. He was a capable leader. Even though I didn't share his agenda, I respected him and his experience.
So this isn't a question of politics. Bush II is cut from a far different cloth than Bush I.
Re: Developing smarter voters: I think that the better approach than developing smarter voters would be increasing the number of representatives. When the ratio of people to representatives is relatively small, both sides pay closer attention because of the increase in the relative power of the voters to decide elections. Smaller, more numerous districts and more competitive (and less partisan) district-lines will encourage the electorate to get smarter.
Rick Shenkman: A more radical approach would be dumping the winner-take-all system. Scholars like Henry Milner argue that one reason why we have such harsh and simplistic politics is that the loser figures he has to demonize the winner. In a proportional system winners would know they had to work with the "losers" (those who received less than a majority but were still represented). I strongly recommend looking at Milner's book, "Civic Literacy."
Athens, Ohio: "Union hostility to NAFTA, for instance, is undoubtedly misguided." Are you kidding? Hasn't it already been shown that NAFTA has harmed U.S. workers?
Rick Shenkman: I don't want to get into an argument over NAFTA. All I'll say is that it has been an easy scapegoat for deeper problems within our economy. Jobs move to low-wage countries and will continue to do so with or without NAFTA. What we have to figure out is how to compete in a global world not how to pull up the draw bridges to that world in an attempt to hang onto the world of the past.
That said, I'd happily concede that NAFTA probably didn't emphasize fair trade enough. Labor standards should be the same in Mexico as here otherwise companies will exploit labor in Mexico and cost Americans their jobs.
Real America: You two are typical liberal elites. Get out of your ivory towers for once. You are the problem.
Rick Shenkman: Throwing around names is part of the problem.
It's easy to attack someone as an elitist. But what does that really mean? Are the millionaires who vote Republican not elitist?
Who exactly is an elitist? It's a silly label that is used to divide the country and distract people from real problems.
Austin, Texas: A 300 million population and growing, getting darker and more uneducated, with less ability to command English and access to power. And you believe the prescription for our democracy is more ... democracy? We always have lived in a nation where the powerful enjoy the fruits of power and everyone else gets to suck it up and take it. If possible, join it. Why will removal of sloth, ignorance and stupidity have the slightest impact on how our nation is run? Who runs it, and for whom? "If you want to conquer and make insipid and servile, first create FOX News." Good session today.
Rick Shenkman: I don't believe all the ills of democracy can be cured with more democracy. That's the naive liberal assumption disproved by events.
But democracy is here to stay. So the question we face is, how do we get smarter voters?
Buffalo, N.Y.: Hi -- thanks for the chat and the books! It seems to me, as a young academic, that my students increasingly are fixed in their ideological ways when I get them as freshmen. However, classroom interaction has a way of loosening them up and forcing them to articulate analytically their arguments and those of their peers. The one group of students who will not budge are those who are quite religious, so I have to wonder: Don't you think the dumbing-down of America is really linked to the increasing fundamentalism of America?
Rick Shenkman: I don't believe that fundamentalism is related to the dumbing down of politics. TV is the primary force responsible for our dumb politics and religion has nothing to do with it. I devote the longest chapter in the book to TV.
Washington: Elvin, could you explain your NPR comment a bit more? Why was it "controversial"? Seems to me that the targeting of NPR (as "liberal") in recent years dovetails rather nicely with the whole "dumbification" of the public discourse.
Elvin Lim: I was trying to make clear that the "anti-intellectualism" charge is not a partisan charge.
The charge that NPR is liberal is, in part, intended to say that comparatively reasoned, informed debate that one does not agree with is a bad thing. Now, I happen to disagree.
Because that this claim entails is that however badly (fallaciously, circularly, etc) an argument is made, if one agrees with the conclusion, then the argument is correct. No one can agree with that!
If someone disagrees with NPR and what is said on it, let him or her come on and tell us why. It is too easy to dismiss NPR (or Bill O'Reilly) as out-of-touch over-intellectual or plain stupid: conservatives and liberals should step up to the task of talking to each other and confronting their disagreements. My aim then, is to promote more debate, not less.
Hanover, N.H.: You would argue that the media and Internet have been significantly counterproductive. Ten-minute video clips and five-minute news bites have reduced the collective attention span. The more innocuous problem is that the Internet has made it easy for people to get their news with the political slant that suits them, resulting in more extreme opinions rather than neutral sources, like the newspaper, where there is some semblance of objectivity. As long as the Internet exists with blogs and opinionistas, can we actually solve this issue?
Elvin Lim: I agree with your premise that partisanship is an enemy to productive deliberation. Partisans refuse to see their other side, they refuse to debate. They charge the other side as being disingenuous, unpatriotic, uncaring, stupid, etc. I think it is better when we assume some good faith on the other side, and then work to find out why we disagree so fervently.
Multiple sources of partisan news on the Internet however, may potentially get us to the same place, as long as we read a diverse sample of them. Tocqueville believed that even eccentric ideas should have their air time, precisely because when we saw how indefensible some positions were, we are guided towards the more plausible ones.
The danger, as you rightly note, is when we self-select what we want to read to endorse what we already believe. No new information gets through, just a pat on the back. We need to find ways to resist this admittedly very human tendency, but one way, ironically, is to have more not less outlets of news and information.
Rick Shenkman: For what it's worth, when I lecture at colleges students ask me how they can become smart voters. I always tell them: Read a good newspaper like the New York Times or the Post; read the Weekly Standard to learn what the conservative arguments are; read the Nation to learn about the liberal arguments. Do that and you will have diversified your sources of information enough to have a good grasp of politics. The goal of course is to have the picture in our heads of reality correspond to reality, as Walter Lippmann said nearly a century ago in public opinion.
Rick Shenkman: This has been a fascinating experience. Thanks to all for participating. Rick Shenkman (http:/
Goodland, Kan.: You dainty Elites with your terms like "anti-intellectual"! Just because normal Americans don't read the newspaper or pay any attention to what's happening in the world at large doesn't mean they can't tell which way the wind blows. You must be working for the Obama campaign?
Elvin Lim: Interesting that intellectuals are "dainty." A standard way to denigrate those who prize the life of the mind.
What about Sam Huntington, Harvey Mansfield, Paul Wolfowitz and Francis Fukuyama? I think we all agree they are all intellectuals -- but perhaps to some, less dainty.
It is not helpful making fun of people who disagree with you, and certainly not helpful dismissing their method of inquiry. When you deride an intellectual, you imply that doesn't matter how one gets to the answer (some say the god-ordained truth). Intuition, gut feeling, revelation are not just equal sources of information, but better.
Without deliberation and rational disputation at the very least as constraining mechanism for the most implausible assertions of intuition, this is a formula for disaster. I invite you to consider when someone you disagree with told you point blank that he felt his belief in his gut. How are you going to get past this deliberative impasse. Spill him your guts to try to persuade him?
Reason, deliberation. That is what separates us from the beasts, it is what self-government of and by the people is ineluctably premised on.
Rockville, Md.: In 2004, Bush won every one of the 16 states with the lowest percentage of college graduates. Kerry won 11 of the 16 with the highest. This despite the reputation of the two parties as supporting poor vs. wealthy economics. Are there people too dumb to know Bush isn't "for" them?
Elvin Lim: There is a literature for the British working-class voting Tory, apparently against their economic interests, that parallels this phenomenon.
But the story is a little different in America. Very briefly, there are (among others) social and economic conservatism. Social conservatism reigns in the South, as you know, and it explains in part the voting patterns of the red states.
Washington: "We need to recognize we have a problem. Well-informed voters have to get over the delusion that the masses are making decisions on the same basis that they are." A nice place to start would be for the mass media to end the quadrennial paean to that gormless, useless, lumbering nimrod -- the post-primary "undecided voter." Such creatures should be held up to the fire-hose of ridicule to which they are so richly entitled.
Elvin Lim: I agree that there is something problematic about leaving everything up to undecided voters, many of whom just haven't bothered to keep up with politics to know where they stand.
But, many undecided are not uninformed, just unaligned. In fact they may hold the key to breaking the impasse of our anti-intellectual politics. Such people - informed but unaligned - are not ideologues, they think rather than plunge in like automatons according to party lines.
Chicago: This is a fascinating topic and one that, I agree, is akin to a 10-alarm fire. It is all the more apparent during an election year. But my fear is that a book like this only will be fuel for the anti-intellectualism fire. (Look at those liberal academics and how elitist they are -- they don't have respect for the common American, etc.) Did such an outcome cross your mind when you were writing -- that this book might actually make anti-intellectualism worse?
Elvin Lim: I see my job as writing truthfully about a problem as I see it. Indeed I anticipated that its conclusion would be pegged as elitist, but I prefer to believe that people who disagree with me can be moved by reasons.
Let me try to offer one to them.
What is more elitist? Assuming that people are stupid and therefore dumbing down to this presumed level; or, believing that people are smart and are capable of evaluating serious arguments and real evidence?
Actually the truth is closer to the opposite of what the anti-anti-intellectual spouts! I don't think people are stupid and they crave and deserve more from the panders that have occupied the White House. It is the politicians who have cynically taken the path of least resistance. I find it almost an act of betrayal to the people that some amongst us will now stand with the panderers and others who have seduced us with false and misleading sound bites to embolden and justify such tactics.
I do find that I get some people back on my side once I remind them that I don't think people are stupid. They just haven't been fed the information, because our presidents have conveniently decided that it is easier not to do so.
Fairfax, Va.: Watching the TV news and reading mainstream media outlets such as The Post, I often am sickened at how vacuous, uninformative and sometimes intentionally misleading our "Fourth Estate" is. I believe that corporate influence dictate this national media effort to frame what will be reported and what will be ignored or minimized so people remain ignorant, not necessarily stupid, about politics in America. What can be done about this national disaster, which leads to inexplicable findings that people think the "surge is winning" while we have no definition of what winning is, for example?
Elvin Lim: Well, the market does correct for itself somewhat. They are liberal-leaning market niches (MSNBC) and there are conservative-leaning ones (FOX). Where this market correction is insufficient, we hope that public television and radio can fill in the gaps. Some say that even these have been politicized, but that is not to say that they cannot be reformed accordingly. All the more important that we do so, I argue, because of new and proliferating methods of opinion dispersal in the Internet (via blogs and such).
Washington: I am so glad to see this topic brought up. The cliched refrain from politicians that "the American people aren't stupid" has gotten stale in its utter meaninglessness. Too many people do not know why they vote the way they do -- they just do what their peer group does, or what their family does, and they literally have know reason why they vote.
Having said that, I once heard an interview with a guy who had just written a book about how civic engagement is overly focused in the media on voting, especially voting for members of Congress -- and how that is not really the way to institute change, because there are few institutions more resistant to change than the U.S. Congress.
Elvin Lim: Congress changed some of its rules (such as seniority rules, number of leadership positions) in the '60s as a result of changes in the electoral system (voting rights, primaries). So yes, only deep structural changes in the electorate and political system initiate congressional reform.
Congress moves slowly because there is a collective action problem. Much harder for 535 people to agree than one in the White House. That is why congressional approval ratings are always so low even though the numbers for each individual member of congress is almost always higher.
But that also means that if we want to solve the problem of political ignorance, it may be faster if we turned to the communicator in chief. The president speaks with a louder voice more often and with more coverage than any other person in America. For better (or as is now the case, for worse.) If he or she has much power to eviscerate substance in our public discourse, then he or she has a unique power to restore the health of our public deliberative sphere.
San Diego: One aspect of the media's role in this that I think gets lost is the media's (for lack of a better word) "stupidity." Less than any bad intent, I just think the media for the most part is incapable of transmitting complicated information to the public. Most forms of media now have the goal of getting info out to people as quickly as possible, which has to sacrifice a certain amount of investigation, background reporting, etc. Sometimes this means people are only getting part of the story, or only the story as told to the reporter by the politician/bureaucrat. Other times it means the reporters get things flat-out wrong (this happens in legal reporting all the time).
Elvin Lim: Yes, when we allow the market to drive what gets processed and delivered as information, we have an imperfect method of delivering information.
That is why we must have publicly funded radio and television. If we disagree with what is being said on there -- too liberal -- then fine, let's talk about making it more balanced. Rather than abolish an important if flawed institution that serves an important public interest, we should try to improve it.
Laurel, Md.: As a historian, I think that anti-intellectualism in the U.S. goes back to the 1830s and the Second Great Awakening. With Andrew Jackson, politicians started campaigning to the mass and against elites. Just look at the 1840 Whig Campaign. This carries over in the 1960s with Agnew, Wallace, et al. Americans are uncomfortable with intellectuals/elites, so those who attack elites do better (see Bush against Gore/Kerry). Ah well. To paraphrase Marx, history repeats itself -- the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Elvin Lim: Absolutely, anti-intellectualism has deep historical roots, going to back to England too.
And that's why its dangerous, because it feeds on itself. When on president dumbs down, the next one must dumb down even more to make his effort demonstrable. So we have a vicious circle and a plummeting dynamic of dumbing down that has brought us to where we are. George Washington spoke at the college level, Bush at the seventh- or eighth-grade level. One hundred more years, and we are projected to have presidents talk to us at the fifth-grade level. I wonder when we will finally say, "enough is enough?"
Elvin Lim: Thanks to all for your thought-provoking questions. If you would like to follow up with more on my book and thoughts on the upcoming elections, please visit my Web site.
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