Are we too dumb for democracy?

Published 11:00 pm Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The following article … was originall published in the Orange County Register, Orange, Calif. I first read it in the Panama City News Herald. I feel it is a good article worthy of sharing with our commuity.

– Kenny Campbell


Be warned: This column probably will offend just about everyone.

We start with news of offensive research at Cornell University. Researchers have challenged the assumption that most citizens can recognize the best political candidate when they see him.

Article Tab: image1-Mark Landsbaum: Are we too dumb to vote?

A “growing body of research has revealed an unfortunate aspect of the human psyche that would seem to disprove this notion, and imply instead that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies,” reports

“Why is that?” you might ask.

It’s because incompetent people are incapable to judge the competence of others, or even the quality of their ideas, according to a Cornell University research team. For example, if voters lack expertise on tax reform, how do they identify a candidate who knows what he is talking about when it comes to tax reform? They simply lack the mental tools to make such judgments, say researchers.

This may explain how Americans chose a community activist devoid of executive skills to be the nation’s chief executive, and how voters before that unfortunate selection picked his predecessor, among whose accomplishments was managing an unprofitable oil company, in Texas yet.

Think about it. Who would deem such people competent to hold the office of the world’s most powerful person? Voters of similar – or less – intellectual competence, that’s who, according to the Cornell research. Dumb and dumber.

The researchers concluded that it won’t matter how much information or how many facts voters are given. The inherent inability of many of them to make sense of the data means arriving at a smart conclusion will be a long shot. In short, they wouldn’t recognize a good idea if it hit them upside the head.

“We always want the best man to win an election,” mused folksy political sage Will Rogers. “Unfortunately, he never runs.”

But, according to Cornell researchers, how would we know?

There was a day in the U.S.A. when we erred on the side seemingly endorsed by the Cornell research, allowing only the best and brightest, or at least that’s what they insisted they were, to vote and to hold office. But within short years of 1776, suffrage broadened throughout the land. Bars to holding office were lowered. Larger segments of the population beyond property-owning white guys were permitted the franchise. Nevertheless, Cornell researchers make a case that allowing nearly any sentient human being to vote hasn’t helped much, if at all.

Are we offended yet? Stay tuned, it gets worse.

Large percentages of Americans regard the four remaining Republican presidential candidates unfavorably, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll last week. That, in the words of a Post reporter, is “a sobering reminder for the party that the extended primary season has damaged the brand.”

It seems that the more those perhaps not-so-bright (according to Cornell) voters are exposed to those apparently less-than-impressive candidates, the less they like them.

The upshot? “The Post/ABC poll suggests that move to the ideological middle can’t happen soon enough for Republicans.”

Let’s now consider yours truly’s pet political peeve. Elections almost always are determined by what charitably may be called “the muddled middle,” many of whom are unmoored to ideological anchors, such as political parties. These are people, who for as long as 47 months and three or four weeks of every election cycle, remain “undecided,” apparently incapable of discerning the best of available options. We suspect one reason for the indecision may be the point made by Cornell researchers.

But let’s consider the flip side of that equation. What’s compelling about any of the candidates?

All three GOP frontrunners’ track records while in and out of office belie their campaign rhetoric. Each has advocated and even profited from the very kind of government-as-solution bailout, mandate and interference that they unconvincingly now ask voters to believe they oppose. Despite their posturing, these men are not Reaganesque. Over the years they have acted not as if “government is the problem.” They have behaved as if “government is the solution.”

To sum up, candidates who have failed to inspire even the most committed voters, who are more likely to have convictions to help them sort wheat from chaff, now are facing increasing pressure to appeal to the muddled middle, who apparently have fewer convictions and less ability to discern.

That’s offensive. What comes next is simply depressing.

Of those the Post identifies as “independent voters,” no Republican candidate last week had higher than a 38-percent favorable rating, and that was Ron Paul, whose chances of winning the nomination are about as good as Rush Limbaugh’s. The GOP frontrunner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, trailed with a dismal 32 percent favorable score, and that was 16 points lower than the 48 percent of independents who viewed Romney unfavorably.

Let’s recap. Voters may not be the best judge of competence in presidential candidates, and virtually no Republican candidate for president appears acceptable to “independent” voters, who probably will decide the outcome.

Is it any wonder that the candidate who will emerge as president will be no better than a pig in a poke?

There’s another dimension to this perplexing problem. In an age of news saturation and 24/7 campaigning, it seems familiarity indeed breeds contempt. We offer as evidence the recent campaign to sell Americans on the incumbent president’s controversial mandate that a morning-after abortifacient pill must be provided by all employers, or their insurance companies.

The Wall Street Journal reported that a poll on the Obamacare mandate had 53 percent support and 33 percent opposed. But when people were asked about applying the mandate to religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges with the insurer paying the cost, support dropped sharply to 38 percent. When the morning-after pill was specifically mentioned concerning Catholic institutions, support for the mandate dropped further, to 34 percent.

“In other words,” Journal columnist James Taranto deduced, “the less you know about the Obamacare mandate, the more likely you are to support it.”

The devil, they say, is in the details. If exposure brings more awareness of issues, it certainly must have the same effect on candidates, who are nothing if not bundles of issues. Gratuitous sound-bites and glamour photos give way over a year-long campaign to a lot of up-close-and-personal inspection. There are a lot of warts up close.

In other words, the less you know about candidates, the more likely you are to support them.

Here’s a glimmer of hope that Cornell’s researchers seem to have overlooked. Even if people are too dumb for democracy, that ignores more important factors, such as good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, freedom vs. slavery.

If voters, dumb or smart, paid closer attention to those criteria, the outcome probably would be better than it has been in recent years.

It doesn’t require much smarts to make those choices. Weighing candidates against the golden standard of their humility and devotion to mercy and justice does require wisdom, however.

Wisdom recognizes that it is not charity to forcibly take from one in order to give to another, even under color of authority. Robin Hood was not charitable. He was a thief. It is not justice to infringe on one person’s God-given rights to property, religion and speech in order to provide benefits to another. Our nation’s principles stem from 1776, not 1984.

So, the question as we proceed down the stretch in the primary and then the general election is whether voters will be wise enough, even if they aren’t smart enough, and then whether any candidate can emerge as worthy enough, rising out of the muck of endless recriminations, perhaps at a brokered convention.

Unfortunately, given the circumstances, George Washington probably couldn’t be elected today. If that doesn’t offend you, nothing will.

– Mark Landsbaum, Orange County Register