Commentary

Gaming The Voters

Like millions of my countrymen, I have been following the “debate” in Washington over whether it’s better to walk to work or carry your lunch, which is how the “conversation” appears to me. The Three Stooges would have been proud of the script.

Cable news has been dishing up a toxic smorgasbord of lies, half-truths and non-sequiturs. And our “average American voter, who will always make the right decision if he/she has the facts” has been licking it all up with a gourmand’s gusto.

Of course ordinary Americans don’t want their taxes raised. But how would they feel if they understood that that tax-raising is likely to come by cutting out the money we currently spend to finance tax loopholes for the wealthiest of the special interests.

Voters appear to agree that we need to curtail spending. But do they know that virtually every legitimate economist believes that cutting public expenditure before the economy recovers is like believing that the more jobs we destroy the faster will be our recovery. Right. So out with those cops, teachers, nurses, firefighters – they’re only a drag on the economy, right? And they have those pesky collective bargaining rights, or they did until recently.

What’s going on in our country? Why is it that our voters know so little about so many public issues? And why do they insist on voting against themselves and their economic interests time and after time after time?

Bill Clinton gave a talk on this subject the other day to a large auditorium filled with enthusiastic college-age men and women.

His thesis: “You Can’t Turn Truth to Power Unless You Know.” If you don’t know the facts, you’re part of the problem. If you know the facts and don’t tell anyone, you’re also part of the problem.

Our former president – who becomes eligible for Medicare this month – served up a banquet of examples, as only he can do. Voters in 2010 thought the auto bailout was a terrible idea; they didn’t understand that a million people would be out of work if the car companies failed. Their views were, of course, informed by those who believe the government is the source of all evil.

Ditto the economic stimulus. Voters in 2010 were convinced that the stimulus was a failure, “except that it wasn’t,” said our former president. Would the election have had a different outcome if people only realized that they were receiving a hefty tax cut through a reduced payroll tax?

Ditto the student loan program. What if people actually realized that this new law got the banks out from between the colleges and their students, lowered interest rates on loans, and adopted a completely new approach to repayment which means no student would ever have to drop out of college again because they couldn’t pony up the arrears.

And would they have demanded a much larger stimulus if they’d known you can’t fill a trillion dollar hole with an $800 billion band-aid? And with only 30 per cent of it earmarked to help states avoid laying off the teachers, firefights, medics and other public sector employees now being fired.

So the point is that the unknown fact is the tree that falls in the deserted forest. American voters are simply uninformed. And, as Clinton says, you can’t speak truth to power if you don’t know.

Whose responsibility is it, anyway, to keep us informed? In a perfect world, it’s ours – each of us. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Our world is filled with the minutiae of life. We used to turn to newspapers for information we thought we could trust. But the news business has morphed into a digital jungle. And so now we live our lives trying to escape from the dreadful drone of cable’s talking heads.

We’ve got lots of scholars and really smart political scientists and heads of NGOs who could help us, but unless they’re the shouting variety, they never appear on TV.

Then there’s The Government. But given how a lot of us seem to feel about the credibility of government, it might not be not be anyone’s first choice for fact-based information. Government – regardless of Party – is an incredibly poor communicator.

Which leaves the busy citizen trying to make sense out of the cacophony of conflicting claims and counter-claims with a small but vital group of websites with names like Snopes.org, Factcheck.org, and Politifact. A few minutes a day on these sites may well keep you from voting against your own interests, yet again.

Back in 2008, Rick Shenkman wrote a book entitled “Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter.” Sorry to sound partisan, but I wonder if Shenkman had in mind the likes of Michele Bachmann to teach us American history or Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee to teach us about creation and faith.

According to Wikipedia, Shenkman argues that although the American government has gained global political power since the late 20th century, American voters have become increasingly ignorant of politics and world affairs, and are dangerously susceptible to political manipulation.

The book claims that Americans are largely incapable of critically assessing domestic and international issues, and therefore lack the knowledge and ability to participate effectively in the political process or to select political leaders in line with the national or even their own best interests.

Shenkman argues that voters are repeatedly and systematically misled and manipulated by politicians, and he analyzes the “dumbing down” of American politics arising from the saturation of marketing, spin machines and misinformation in American political culture. How is it, you might ask, that 69 per cent of American voters think we should not increase the debt ceiling!

Let’s face it, there’s a hefty amount of disgust with politicians’ prevarications. There once was a time when most politicians could be trusted to tell something close to the truth. That now applies only to a few, and they are a vanishing breed.

Our gullibility, our unquestioning acceptance, our upside-down logic – these are more than personal peccadilloes. Yes, they make us individually look stupid and uninformed. But, collectively, we are looking at a serious national security problem. We, American voters, have the power, literally, to ballot away the essence of our country.

William Fisher, a regular contributor to The Public Record, has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He reports on a wide-range of issues for numerous domestic and international newspapers and online journals. He blogs at The World According to Bill Fisher.

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