Just How Stupid Are We?

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"I never tried to cut her throat," Scott Lee Cohen protested, defending himself against one of several allegations of abuse during his 15 minutes as Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Illinois.  Apparently, not trying to slaughter your girlfriend is insufficient qualification for public office, even in Illinois, and even at a time when Sarah Palin is considered a serious presidential contender.  Under fire from desperate Democrats, Cohen stepped down, having been mistaken in his belief that he was "not an embarrassment to the party."  But the mistake was understandable; he may have been no less qualified to serve than many Americans are to vote. 
   

Complaints about voter ignorance are hardly new, but these days ignorance is increasingly influential, and, combined with anger and irrationality, it's giving us the government that the worst of us deserve.  We can blame Senate rules for legislative stasis, but Republicans might not be exploiting the rules so successfully, choosing implacable obstructionism over any good faith negotiations with Democrats, if the public knew what they were doing.  "Relatively few Americans can answer two key questions " regarding Senate negotiations on health care, the Pew Research Center recently reported: "(J)ust 32% know that the Senate passed its version of the legislation without a single Republican vote.  And ... only a quarter (26%) knows that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster."  

Public ignorance of Senate obstructionism is partly the fault of Democrats (in and outside the White House) who allowed Republicans to frame the health care debate and surrendered to threats of filibusters without ever making Republicans actually, visibly engage in one; but voters have a primary responsibility to inform themselves.  Voters who wait to be educated by politicians are asking merely to be manipulated by them.  Political advertising would have little effect (and campaign financing would matter less) if voters were attentive and informed. Politicians like to praise the alleged "decency" and "common sense" of the American people, (as if all 300 million of us were equal in character and cognition); but these days, Republicans are benefiting from indecent appeals to utter senselessness.  (Democrats are not above such demagoguery; they just don't seem to be as good at it.)

Consider the incoherent platform of the tea party's new "Ensuring Liberty" PAC. It will "choose candidates based on their fidelity to  ... the 'first principles': less government, fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, states rights and national security," Ensuring Liberty spokesman Mark Skoda told The New York Times.  Really?  How do you reconcile the demand for less government with a right wing vision of national security that includes a federal bureaucracy empowered to monitor our travel, our reading habits (on and offline), and our communications (enlisting the aid of telecoms in doing so)?  How do you reconcile less government, fiscal responsibility, and lower taxes with support for continued war, not to mention a government that "keeps its hand off" Medicare and Social Security?

And what do party activists (and poster girl Sarah Palin) mean by freedom anyway?  Given their contempt for extending any basic human rights to people rightly or wrongly suspected of terrorism, they don't mean freedom from being tortured and detained indefinitely without trial or proof of guilt.  They don't mean freedom from warrant-less searches for any of us (or if they do, it's past time for them to support Russ Feingold's FISA amendments).  They don't mean freedom of religion, given the "explicitly Christian social conservatism" on display at their convention, where the aggressively sectarian culture warrior Judge Roy Moore reportedly "brought down the house."  In other words, when Palin and her tea party acolytes talk about liberty, they're not talking about the liberty envisioned by the Founders whom tea party activists profess to emulate.  If the Bill of Rights came before a tea party convention, delegates would ratify the Second and Tenth Amendment (and maybe the Third, so long as there were no gays in the military) and reject or eviscerate the rest.

But at least tea partiers have or aspire to have an ideology.  Senate Republicans appear to have none; they combine extreme partisanship with no ideological compass. Given the fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush years, they can't even lay claim to fiscal conservativism; they are simply against whatever Democrats are for.  But if Republicans are united by no ideology, Democrats are splintered by several--crippled by their own conflicting ideologies, as well as ineffective leadership from the White House.   

Now, having lost their shaky, occasional 60 vote majority, some Democrats are talking tough about forcing votes--and perhaps actual filibusters--on popular measures that Republicans have previously supported; but talking tough, Democrats have only a little more credibility than tea party activists talking liberty.  Meanwhile, a significant segment of the public (and the Republican Party) guzzles extremist propaganda gone mainstream.  Glenn Beck declares that Obama issued an "enemies list" during the State of the Union, Rudy Giuliani falsely claims that he never used the word "war" during his speech, and liberals have to bother correcting them (at the expense of maintaining operations like Media Matters).

A few years ago, with a Republican in the White House, we were warned not to criticize the president during wartime.  Today, majorities of self-identified Republicans (surveyed by Daily Kos) believe or are open to believing that the President is an illegal immigrant socialist who hates white people and wants the terrorists to win.  Well, we can't impose literacy tests on voters (though we should perhaps consider requiring them of candidates), but we can respect the rights of ignoramuses to speak without pretending that they have anything of value to say.

Photo credit: Logan Mock Bunting/Getty Images



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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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