Jonah Goldberg makes a valuable point in this essay about why ignorance in the populace eliminates any reason to take polls seriously. He starts by going over some recent surveys on what Americans don’t know:
HUGE NUMBERS of Americans don’t know jack about their government or politics. According to a Pew Research Center survey released last week, 31 percent of Americans don’t know who the vice president is, fewer than half are aware that Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House, a mere 29 percent can identify “Scooter” Libby as the convicted former chief of staff of the vice president, and only 15 percent can name Harry Reid when asked who is the Senate majority leader.
Such results are hardly new. The average American is abysmally ignorant on even the most basic facts. And as Goldberg points out, this fact renders meaningless poll results on other issues:
And yet, last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales’ firing of eight U.S. attorneys was “politically motivated.”
So, we are supposed to believe that two-thirds of Americans have studied the details of the U.S. attorney firings and come to an informed conclusion that they were politically motivated — even when Senate Democrats agree that there is no actual evidence that Gonzales did anything improper. Are these the same people who couldn’t pick Pelosi out of a lineup? Or the 85 percent who couldn’t name the Senate majority leader? Are we to imagine that the 31 percent of the electorate who still — after seven years of headlines and demonization — can’t identify the vice president of the United States nonetheless have a studied opinion on the firing of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias?
He’s not defending Gonzales here; in fact, he thinks Gonzales should be fired. But the point he’s making is a valid one:
No, this is a column about how confused and at times idiotic the United States is about polls, public opinion and, well, democracy itself. We all love to tout the glories of democracy and denounce politicians who just follow the polls. Well, guess which politicians follow the polls? The popular ones, that’s who. And guess why: Because the popular ones get elected. Bucking public opinion is the quickest way for a politician to expedite his or her transition to the private sector.
More to the point, Americans — God bless ’em — are often quite ignorant about the stuff politicians and pundits think matters most. They may know piles about their own professions, hobbies and personal interests, but when it comes to basic civics, they get their clocks cleaned on Fox’s “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”
Though examples are depressingly unnecessary, here are two of my favorites over the years. In 1987, 45 percent of adult respondents to one survey answered that the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was in the Constitution (in fact, it’s a quote from Karl Marx). Then, in 1991, an American Bar Association study reported that a third of Americans did not know what the Bill of Rights was.
That’s why I always laugh when a politician talks about the “wisdom of the people” and laugh even harder when they strike the pseudo-populist post by ranting about “elites” ignoring “the will of the people.” As a group, “the people” are idiots – not only ignorant about practically everything but proud of their ignorance. We have popular memes and catchphrases to express our anti-intellectual nonsense, phrases like “sure he may be ‘booksmart’ but he has no common sense.”
They invoke such meaningless drivel in order to soothe themselves and elevate their ignorance above another’s knowledge. Far too many Americans have a serious misunderstanding of the principle of equality. All people are equal under the law, but that doesn’t mean all people are equally smart or talented or have equal aptitude for various tasks. And I know this is going to come as a shock, but no, you have not proven all of the world’s biologists wrong because you read creationist pamphlet and think you understand evolution now.