On Wednesday night Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and pundit/columnist Charles Krauthammer debated the ignorance and passivity of the American electorate.
O’Reilly argued that polling showing Vice President Joe Biden leading every Republican in a hypothetical presidential election despite the same poll respondents’ recognizing that the country is on the “wrong track” demonstrates that Americans are “simply dumb, don’t pay attention, and don’t care.” He ascribed this cognitive dissonance to people who “don’t have to live in the real world anymore” because their “machines” can “obliterate reality” as drugs and alcohol once did.
Krauthammer offered a substantially different view: In addition to political arguments (an important one being that Biden is currently a “sympathetic abstraction” whose popularity would certainly decline upon becoming a declared candidate), he responded to O’Reilly with a question: “What’s your evidence that we have a greater number of lemmings today than we had thirty, forty, fifty years ago?” O’Reilly had to admit that “the evidence is anecdotal,” hardly a strong position for such an aggressive claim on his part. As I often say — and I can’t claim to have come up with this myself — the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”
Krauthammer continued to push back on O’Reilly’s Luddite claim that Americans are wildly uninformed, and more so than in the past due to smart phones, iPads, and computers: “I don’t think Americans are less aware of their surroundings than they were when they lived on a farm with no information from the outside a hundred years ago. They have infinitely more information; they are more literate, more involved, and I think the explanation obviously lies elsewhere.”
The right answer lies in between the two men’s arguments (though Krauthammer is, as always, closer to correct than O’Reilly is).
Information is more easily and freely available to every American, to almost every human being on Planet Earth, than ever in our history. So the question becomes, “What information are people consuming, how are they thinking about it, and how important is it if the answers to both are ‘not much’”?
For as long as there has been American politics, there have been biased news sources: 18th—century newspapers whose front-page editorials aggressively slanted toward the Democratic-Republicans or the Whigs, toward the federalists or the anti-federalists, complete with some of the best political attack ads in history. (If you think today’s politics ain’t beanbag, check out the election of 1800 and the writings of James Callender.) Much the same story persisted until the invention and wide dispersion of radio and television.
Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite and Ben Bradlee, liberals whose worldview seeped into their news coverage (in Rather’s case, with particular ill-effect on CBS News and his career), were mere pikers in the world of bias when compared to today’s broadcast networks or major newspapers, but modern media bias is new neither in quality or quantity.
Reading broadsheets and pamphlets in preparation for thinking about and discussing politics was a national sport since our country’s founding until overtaken relatively recently by cable television and Netflix, by Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, by fantasy football and paparazzi.
And that’s not all bad.
Sure, for those of us who enjoy the blend of contact sport and tragicomic theater that characterizes — and always has characterized — politics, it’s easy to pooh-pooh the seeming mindlessness of modern distractions and the disconnect they allow (or cause) between many members of society and important things being done around them and, when it comes to government, to them.
But the days when politics was nearly the only entertainment in town also coincided with an existence that wasn’t far removed from Hobbes’ description of human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” I realize that O’Reilly is, or at least aspires to be, a contemporary of Thomas Hobbes with his caricature of modern technological wonders as “machines”; perhaps he believes his audience to be similarly “conservative” in the worst sense of the word. But being so remarkably backward-looking is neither entertaining nor constructive.
There’s something to be said for (at least in most of the world) being able to worry about Peyton Manning’s touchdown and interception stats or to ogle a ridiculously-scantily clad former Real Houswife of Miami without having to worry that utterly wasting those few minutes does not measurably increase your chance of poverty, starvation, imprisonment, or death. (To be sure, checking out Joanna Krupa might land you in jail in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan despite her dress having been created by a Kuwaiti couture house. But here in the USA, I’ll risk it.)
So some people do distract themselves from the pressures of daily life with trivialities, often to the exclusion of thinking about politics and ignoring the (perhaps apocryphal) warning of Pericles that “just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
Some of these people are willfully ignorant of who their representatives and senators are, even more so of what they’re doing. They don’t know how many members the Supreme Court has, much less be able to name them. And they’ll tell a pollster that they support Joe Biden because they think they heard somewhere that he’s had more than his share of tragedy in his life (which is undoubtedly true) while understanding that he’s closely tied to a president whom they know is not succeeding even if they won’t quite admit that he has failed.
Krauthammer is clearly right that these people — whom O’Reilly bemoans — have access to an essentially unlimited amount of information. But that doesn’t mean they’re seeking out knowledge about politics. It also doesn’t mean that those with interest in politics seek out varying opinions or philosophies, and this is where O’Reilly has a point: Gathering and discussing political information online facilitates, even encourages, confirmation bias of a most extreme sort.
Whereas meeting people in almost any group — I mean really meeting, in a conference room or a bar or over a meal, not trolling the same website comment sections or politically oriented hashtags — would expose a person to at least a modest range of views, the online world allows and encourages us to associate with people who think almost exactly as we do, to the exclusion of all others, regaling in “our team” while not just discounting or insulting outsiders but doing so with approximately zero understanding of them.
As Paul Simon put it in The Boxer, “a man hears what he wants to hear/and disregards the rest.” Nowhere and never has this been easier than in 21st-century America as millions gather information about everything from food to music to shopping to politics on their infernal “machines.” What’s worse, when it comes to food and music and shopping, people really want to learn: who wants to eat a bad meal or hear a boring band or buy a TV whose contrast just isn’t contrasty enough? But when it comes to politics, learning is often secondary; belonging to the club, feeling superior to those who don’t share your views, and (for young people in particular) looking cool are more important than gaining true understanding.
Politically, this behavior is only harmful to the extent that uninformed people vote. To be sure, many of them do, but it’s been nearly a half-century since more than 60 percent of the American population voted in a presidential election. Typical turnout for mid-terms in recent years is about 40 percent; the 36.4 percent of Americans who voted in the 2014 mid-terms was the lowest since 1942 (when a large part of the voting public was fighting overseas in World War II). Do you think that the huge number of Americans who don’t vote are mostly the well-informed? Neither do I.
There is an interesting concept in politics, perhaps best described by George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, in which he explains that voters routinely misunderstand economics, often due to politicians wanting it that way, that the lack of understanding makes them cast inappropriate votes, and that “rational ignorance” goes a long way toward explaining why this may not change very much: in a country of over 300 million people, the chance that any one person’s vote will decide an election is approximately zero and therefore the time one might use to better understand an issue will be more profitably or enjoyably used elsewhere, even if that elsewhere means drafting your fantasy NFL team or ogling ridiculous near-celebrities. (And to the extent that a voter is well-versed on anything, it’s usually on a very small number of issues which are, for whatever reason, of particular importance to her; even then she probably doesn’t have much of a grip on what the candidates really think other than as predicted by party labels.)
It’s true that many voters don’t take in a lot of political information, it’s true that they may not think too deeply about it (especially if doing so might contradict what they already believe) but I suspect that the harm in that is overstated — and I say that as someone who still lives in daily dismay that Barack Obama was re-elected. (That didn’t only happen due to ignorant voters; the GOP had spent more than a decade tarnishing its own brand.)
Charles Krauthammer is right that Americans have access to more information than at any time in history and that such access inspires political action and involvement. O’Reilly is partially right (but without actually understanding why) that the age of the Internet has changed how people acquire and process the information they do receive, and not always for the better.
Beyond the differences in what the two men said, another factor makes Krauthammer’s position much more useful: It is forward-looking and realistically hopeful (or hopefully realistic?) whereas Bill O’Reilly’s antediluvian approach puts all eyes on the rear-view mirror and offers no potential solutions to the real question of voter ignorance and passivity and what, if anything, is to be done.
To Mr. O’Reilly, I say the only thing worse than a world with all these “machines” is a world without them.
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