Politics & Policy

Don’t Praise the Ignoramus

A fine line between clever and stupid.

Say you’re shopping for a new family vehicle. You’re torn between buying a Volvo station wagon and a rusty toy wagon pulled by a three-legged pig. On the one hand, the Volvo is very expensive, while the pig-wagon is quite affordable. The Volvo requires a lot of upkeep, including gas, tags, title, an expensive mechanic, and relatively high insurance. With the pig wagon, as long as you keep a low profile, you don’t need tags or title, you can feed him leftovers and, worst-case scenario, you can eat him if he keeps breaking down. On the other hand, a three-legged pig pulling an old wagon doesn’t make the commute any easier.

I bring this up for a reason: Just because you’re undecided between two options, it doesn’t mean you’re not a moron. And yet, in American politics today we are constantly told that the most discriminating, intelligent, pragmatic voters are the undecideds, the independents, the middle-of-the-roaders. Why? Is there a hard rule which says that not being able to easily choose one party or another is a sign of intelligence? Are “independent” positions on Medicare somehow more legitimate than positions reached by political parties?

I should be clear, I am not saying that Gore or Bush is the political equivalent of even a four-legged pig wagon. This has nothing to do with Democrat versus Republican or liberal versus conservative. Whatever your ideology, at this stage it’s clear that the differences between Bush and Gore are very dramatic, at least on most of the issues voters consider to be important.

Among pundits, activists, political consultants, and every other kind of American cursed with the political-junkie bug, the consensus is that this election poses the clearest choice between candidates since Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980. As E. J. Dionne, an astute and liberal student of American politics, writes in the Washington Post, “Whatever their weakness, Bush and Gore deserve credit for giving us an election in which basic disputes that have ravaged American politics for two decades might come close to settlement.”

And yet this is the tightest election since 1960, with the most volatile undecided electorate since at least then. The reality is that most undecideds aren’t undecided because Gore and Bush haven’t provided enough information or because the choice isn’t clear enough. These people can’t make up their minds, in all likelihood, because either they don’t care or they don’t know anything. If they don’t care, that’s fine. They just shouldn’t vote. In my book, not voting is the only honorable choice if you don’t care about politics enough to stay informed.

But if these undecided voters don’t know anything, why credit them with any great nobility or intelligence? When I talk to students on college campuses, many of them boast of their independence and inability to make a decision. “I can’t tell the difference between the Democrats and Republicans,” they say, like wine connoisseurs dismissing ripple and Zima.

Admittedly, some of the students who can’t tell the difference are actually informed. But invariably these students are Nader, or, more rarely, Buchanan supporters. Of course, if you go far enough into outer space you can be forgiven for thinking the Earth and Mars are close together; but that doesn’t mean they are.

Still, far more often these kids can’t tell the difference between the two major parties because they don’t want to try. More telling, if you watch the insipid focus groups the news networks have been running — especially after the presidential debates — you will see “average Americans” talking about the election with a tone normally reserved for snooty judges in cooking contests. Hmm, I’d like to see a pinch more on taxes. Or, how about a soupcon on trade? An extra helping of education giveaways? In response, the interviewer-reporters nod solemnly at the wisdom of the vox populi.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with people tuning into the campaign late and therefore needing to be brought up to speed. But we don’t think people who walk in halfway through the movie know what’s going on more than those who’ve been there since the beginning, and we don’t expect that students who missed two-thirds of math class are going to be better at long division than those who took notes. By all means, let’s get these latecomers up to speed on what’s at stake in this election and what the differences are — but let’s not put them on a pedestal in the process. As they said in Spinal Tap, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. Well, there’s also a fine line between discriminating and ignorant.


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