Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008 | 2:03 a.m.
At a small salon dinner the other night in Washington, one of America’s most respected foreign policy practitioners confessed: “My great fear is that this is a wonderful country that is made up of ignorant people who are voters.”
In a new book titled “America and the World,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser under Jimmy Carter, laments, “the next president will have to be a national teacher on these issues and make a very concerned, intellectually sustained effort to get the American people to think hard about what is new about the 21st century, what is unique about the challenges we face.”
For any doubters, it’s important to address just how ill-informed the American public stands. A July 2007 survey by Newsweek found that four in 10 Americans still believed “Saddam Hussein’s regime was involved in financing, planning or carrying out the terrorist attacks on 9/11.” The same summer Pew researchers found that nearly a third of Americans couldn’t name the vice president. A new book by Rick Shenkman, titled “Just How Stupid Are We?” suggests two out of five voters can’t name the three branches of the federal government.
American ignorance has come to stand in the way of national progress. This week public opinion stalled the economic bailout bill that’s vital to keeping global commerce from descending into cardiac arrest. Sen. Diane Feinstein had to double staff in her five offices to deal with the outcry from constituents. A Hill staffer answering phones this week told me, “This is the biggest public opinion storm we’ve ever had to deal with, and it’s decidedly against passing this.” A Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times Poll over the weekend showed 55 percent of Americans opposed the bill.
Nobody likes this bailout, but there’s a reason nearly every major economist, on both sides of the political spectrum, has stepped forward to say we must pass this legislation.
Climate-change initiatives, too, have been held up for years, the public clinging desperately to the notion that the globe is coming out of an ice age, and that warming is beyond our control.
Amazingly, the surge of information brought on by the technological revolution hasn’t managed to offset the collective drive to become less involved. Knowing about politics — much less caring about politics — has been out of fashion for longer than we can afford.
Most Americans spend their days quite literally a few clicks and keystrokes away from a world of knowledge. If even a fraction of the time wasted at work and school were spent reading news or inquiring about the problems we face, this could be the most informed generation of Americans by strides.
According to Pew, in 1989 more people could name the vice president than in 2007; in ’89 more people knew that the United States was running a trade deficit, and more people could name their own governors. Barack Obama has made “Americans aren’t stupid” a catchphrase of his campaign, but nearly all the information I have found points squarely to the contrary.
We’ve already paid for being a negligent public, and will continue to do so for years to come. We’ll pay for not questioning a government that diverted our attention before a war was finished, for our unwillingness to redress loans that felt too good to be true. We’ll pay for not demanding that Congress inquire as to whether financing two wars on credit was safe practice.
We need to make politics a discussion, not a debate. Politics has become distasteful, nearly impossible to approach without descending into judgments and attacks on character and intelligence. As a public, we need to make ourselves vulnerable, to bring up issues we can’t wrap our minds around and preface them as such. We need to pass on opportunities to go for the kill, the times when we now assault one another with abandon.
America’s gone adrift, and few will contend that we can rely on politicians to right our course.
So ask your neighbor whether he thinks we should confront the Russians, or your co-worker whether she thinks we can get off of foreign oil. And ask your children what they learned in the news today.
Brian Till, one of the nation’s youngest syndicated columnists, writes for Creators Syndicate. He also is a research associate for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington.