The Billings Outpost

Editors Note Book - David Crisp

What? American voters stupid? How dare you

Jonathan Gruber got himself – and the Obama administration – into trouble last week when a tape surfaced in which he referred to the “stupidity of the American voter.”

The context made it worse. Mr. Gruber, an economist at MIT who had a hand in writing the Affordable Care Act, praised lack of transparency about the bill and said that it was written in a “tortured way” so the Congressional Budget Office would not score the individual mandate as a tax.

Let’s stipulate two things: If American voters are stupid, then Jonathan Gruber is one of the stupidest. You don’t trash the wisdom of the electorate in public without taking a beating for it.

Second, let’s stipulate that you and I are not among the stupid voters, if stupid voters exist. The fact that you are reading this – actual words on paper – separates us from the crowd who can’t handle anything more complex than a text message.

So we’re OK, but don’t you wonder sometimes about everybody else?

As for Mr. Gruber’s actual remarks, I’m having trouble understanding where the news is. The debate over the individual mandate was all over the news when the act was being drafted. It’s hard to believe that anybody paying attention, especially the CBO, didn’t know what was at stake.

And as for lack of transparency, there was plenty to go around. Sarah Palin, once a Republican candidate for vice president, famously, and falsely, claimed that the bill included death panels. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., even more famously shouted “You lie!” when President Obama said, accurately, in a State of the Union message that the bill did not provide coverage for illegal immigrants.

But the stupidity of politicians is not at stake here. That was settled long ago. The question is this: How stupid are the voters who elect those stupid politicians?

Evidence that many voters are clueless about government abounds.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center reports two two-thirds of Americans cannot name all three branches of government.

A Gallup poll released in September found that fewer than 40 percent of Americans could name which party controlled each house of Congress.

It’s hard to characterize this month’s election as a throw-the-bums-out mandate if most Americans don’t know which bums are in.

As late as April 2013, the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found that 42 percent of Americans didn’t know that Obamacare was the law of the land. About 65 percent of Americans can’t name a single Supreme Court justice. More than a third don’t know what century the American Revolution took place in.

On the same day that Sean Hannity was on talk radio – where stupid people go to get their news – blasting Mr. Gruber for denigrating the intelligence of the American voter, Glenn Beck was on talk radio playing tapes of college students failing miserably to answer such questions as, “Who won the Civil War?” and “Who is vice president?”

Hannity himself used to regularly feature person-on-the-street interviews in which Americans routinely flunked answers to similar questions. Of course, he had a simple explanation: Those people were liberals.

In the world of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, calling liberal voters stupid is quite a different thing than calling conservative voters stupid. Since Mr. Gruber’s remarks surfaced on Nov. 10, they have been mentioned on FOX News 779 times, according to the Tampa Bay Times’ PunditFact. CNN has mentioned Mr. Gruber only 27 times.

Public ignorance spreads well beyond political hot buttons. A recent survey showed that most Americans think chief executive officers earn about $30 for every dollar average workers make. In reality, CEOs make $354 for every dollar the average worker makes – by far the highest disparity in the world.

A broader survey compared public knowledge to actual statistics on matters such as the murder rate, number of Muslims, voting and so on. The United States ranked second from the bottom among developed countries, beating out only Italy in terms of national ignorance.

This month’s election results also showed a gap between what Americans say they want and what they vote for. In Montana, 57 percent of voters rejected a Republican-backed initiative to end voter registration on Election Day, even while electing Republican majorities. While Republicans were sweeping into control of both houses of Congress, voters in four states supported increases in the minimum wage, a position that Republicans generally oppose.

Certainly, candidates for public office act like they think voters are stupid. All those negative, nearly content-free ads that ran on TV before the election? They weren’t aimed at you and me; they were aimed at stupid people.

At the very least, American voters have, let’s say, complicated attitudes toward the facts. We can take hope from the theory of the wisdom of crowds, the idea that even though individuals may not know much, they tend in the aggregate to stumble toward wise decisions.

Failing that, there is consolation in speculating that most Americans who haven’t heard of Obamacare or Antonin Scalia probably were among the two-thirds of U.S. voters who stayed home this Election Day.

As for the rest of us, how dumb can we be? Just look whom we elected.

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 November 2014 13:30

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