Yesterday, Ted Cruz received considerable incoming fire for noting that a number of Trump supporters had “relatively low information” and were “not that engaged.” Never mind the truth of the assertion, its very utterance was deemed insulting.
Then, last night, I saw this:
Throughout tonight, @realDonaldTrump was scoring in the 80s and 90s.
My focus group says it was his best debate ever. #GOPDebate
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) March 11, 2016
Keep in mind that throughout the night, Trump was offering answers to policy questions that veered from outright reversal (indicating he’s willing to send up to 30,000 troops to the Middle East) to sheer nonsense (he clearly has no clue about the financial realities of entitlements), to confusing word salad (even if you’re protectionist, do you really believe Trump has a grasp on international trade?).
Conservatives are fond of saying that Obama won reelection on the strength of vast numbers of low-information voters, but we’re now seeing that the GOP has its own “don’t know/don’t care” electorate. When a politician claims he’ll fix the budget by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse,” he’s appealing to don’t know/don’t cares. When a candidate flips on major positions not just within the same election cycle but sometimes within the same day or week, he’s counting on the don’t know/don’t cares.
Look, I completely understand that it is extraordinarily difficult to keep up with the twists and turns of the economy, culture, and foreign policy. It’s even more difficult with so many competing news outlets claiming that their competitors are distorting the truth. Add in the normal cares of life and the proper prioritization of family and career over news-gathering, and it’s simply inevitable that vast numbers of Americans won’t have high awareness of public policy. It’s not a crisis, it’s a fact of life.
The problem comes, however, when — during an election cycle — voters don’t even try. They ignore their responsibilities as citizens and become content with ignorance, happy to shortcut real evaluations with a number of tried-and-true tricks. The identity of the speaker matters more than the content of the speech (we tune out the “establishment” or the “media” or “pundits”). The tone matters more than substance (I’m not sure about Trump’s math, but he sure sounds presidential). And narrative hovers over everything.
It’s hard for a democracy to thrive without good leaders, but it can’t survive without good voters. And if you watch a debate without the slightest clue (or perhaps even concern) as to who’s telling the truth, you’re simply not doing your job.