New Book Takes Aim at The Ignorance of Voters

Posted June 2, 2008 at 3:52pm

Don’t take it too personally if Rick Shenkman thinks you’re stupid. You’re not the only one.

Shenkman, a journalist, historian and self-proclaimed myth buster, recently penned “Just How Stupid Are We?” The new book looks at how and why what Shenkman characterizes as voters’ gross negligence and ignorance has contributed to the downfall of American democracy.

This is Shenkman’s fourth book on myths and how they have influenced history. After graduating at the top of his high school class, Shenkman was shocked to arrive at college and learn that “practically everything I knew was false in some way.”

“That was something I never got over, so I spent the last 30 years being preoccupied with myths,” he said in an interview, adding that an over-simplification of history has created a widespread misunderstanding of the United States’ roots.

Shenkman said he decided to write the book, which will be released Monday, after observing the role misinformation played in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion.

“The driving force behind the book was really 9/11 and Iraq, and I was really appalled at the lack of public debate,” he said. “The problem is the American people know so little and pay so little attention that they were duped and manipulated into believing that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.”

Shenkman’s prose is peppered with polls and statistics highlighting how little Americans know — or, in many cases, how much of what they think they know is wrong. For example, according to the number-crunching cited by Shenkman, more than 50 percent of Americans can name at least two main characters from the cartoon “The Simpsons,” but only 25 percent can identify more than one right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Shenkman uses this evidence as a launch pad to describe an epidemic of ignorance, negligence and outright disinterest in politics that he calls a “stinging indictment” of American democracy.

“If you can get the Iraq War wrong and you can get 9/11 wrong, it’s very hard for me to understand how you can believe in the voice of the people,” Shenkman said.

When reading the book, one might wonder whom exactly Shenkman is looking to reach — as it is hard to believe that many of the “stupid” voters would be inclined to read about the faults he claims they are too ignorant to recognize.

But education of the voters alone isn’t the solution Shenkman envisions. His primary goal, he said, is to influence opinion leaders to address the nation’s lack of public discourse.

“In the past, we have always discussed failures in public opinion, but there’s a virtual wall of silence around the issue,” he said. “I want to put this issue … on the national agenda. We have got to come to terms as a society with the failures of public opinion.”

Though he does blame the voters for skirting their civic responsibility to become informed members of the electorate, Shenkman recognizes that many factors have led the public to tune out of the political debate.

“They can’t figure out politics because it’s just too complicated and maddening and they’re too busy leading their own life in a capitalistic society where it’s a rat race to stay ahead of the bill collectors,” he said. “The last thing you’re doing is working out your position on political issues.”

He hopes that a revival of “vigorous public debate about the role of the public” in American politics, coupled with targeted civics education and support from church, union and party leaders will cause the public to wise up on issues of national importance.

“The book is for anybody who thinks our politics are all too often stupid and wants to know how it got that way,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I use history to answer the question.”