America’s uninformed electorate heads for the polls
William Buckley, the revered conservative icon of decades past, once suggested New York City would be better served if their election process was replaced by a random drawing of names from the telephone directory. His suggestion, obviously made in jest, now appears more rational. While a number of major hurdles have historically restricted American elections from achieving the ideal of a large majority of well-informed citizens being able and willing to vote, in modern times, additional impediments have appeared.
Fundamentally, it has become exceedingly difficult for individuals of average intelligence to remain adequately informed of governance processes, current events, and pressing social and economics issues, as the nation’s cultural maturation has reached a point where the quantity of complex data and information overloads the senses. Without adequate knowledge, participation in civic affairs becomes either a crapshoot or a sporting event.
Additionally, in recent decades, there has been a precipitous decline of credible sources of accurate, unbiased, and in-depth information, essential for an electorate to render wise political judgments. Even with the proliferation of modern technological communication tools and methodologies, the task of regularly accessing, sorting, and contemplating journalistically sound material is a formidable task.
Notably, although American students now spend more years, on average, in formal education civic knowledge has not improved, as the average college graduate of today is less knowledgeable of current public affairs than graduates in the 1940s. The general public’s interest in current events has declined by 20 percent over the last quarter century. From the 1940s to mid-1970s, young people were as well informed as their elders, but this is no longer true. Currently, those under thirty demonstrate less knowledge of current events than their elders do now, and less than the same age group did three decades ago.
In 2000, seventy percent of those born before 1929 read at least one newspaper daily, compared to sixty percent born between 1929 and 1945, forty-eight percent born between 1945 and 1960, and twenty-eight percent born after 1960. These generational percentages are relatively constant over their time periods, which also apply to those who now primarily rely on the Internet.
From 1993 to 1998, evening network TV viewership dropped from 60 percent to 38 percent. A 1997 NBC study noted that the average age for all prime-time programming was 42, but 57 for the nightly news. The most striking change in recent decades is that “most of the time, energy, and creativity of the electronic media is devoted not to news, but to entertainment.” Thus, TV news programming has evolved from a more balanced, informative, and in-depth coverage of important (“hard”) news to a more entertainment-oriented coverage of interesting events (“soft” news).
Additionally, some television outlets have become unapologetic promoters of biased social and political ideologies under the guise of news programming, as this theme has proven to attract large audiences and revenues. But unequivocally; the Walter Cronkite-style, content, and integrity of TV journalism has evaporated, as many viewers seek entertaining political commentaries and politically slanted, partisan interpretations of current events, which conform to their established ideologies and biases.
In the past, journalistic responsibility and professional ethics mandated accurate, balanced reporting of important facts, issues, and events, but abbreviated, opinionated, emotional, and often superficial programming has displaced professionalism and accountability. Quite simply, the majority of citizens are too busy and disinterested to seek an adequate understanding of ever-expanding and increasingly complex socio-economic and political issues. As a consequence, many citizens, possessing an inadequate knowledge base and an average attention span of a tweet, are unable to intellectually digest the complexities and nuisances of modern affairs, easy prey for the slick, modern political marketing tactics designed to agitate and confuse.
Accordingly, media personalities and politicians, utilizing irrational political rhetoric that maximizes skepticism, criticism, and flimflam have successfully filled this knowledge vacuum, often with erroneous and misleading information. “No lie is too extreme to be published, aired, and repeated, with little or no repercussion for its perpetrator. The audiences that hear them repeatedly believe the lies.”
Politicians have come to realize that being outrageous creates attention; it breeds public name recognition and leads to book deals, lucrative speaking engagements, and cable TV careers. This has become the strategy for aspiring, little-known politicians in gaining national name recognition and competing for party nominations, as demonstrated by the crop of 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls.
Perhaps the best example of the electorate’s “knowledge vacuum” is the health insurance-health care issue, Obamacare. Consider recent Kaiser Family Foundation, the Urban Institute, and Commonwealth fund surveys and Congressional Budget Office studies:
-9.5 million Americans no longer uninsured, Congressional Budget Office estimates 13 million Americans may enroll by 2015
-Sharp reductions in uninsured Americans since last fall, 40 percent or higher in Kentucky, California, and Minnesota
-States adopting Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion strategy have three times the decline of uninsured residents compared to Republican controlled rejection states, depriving millions of coverage. Ironically, 74 percent of Republicans are satisfied with their new coverage
-Most popular exchange Silver Plans: average premium cost, after tax credits, is $69 a month; for all plans, half of enrollees paid $50 or less
-More than 80 percent of enrollees able to choose from three or more companies, 96 percent at least two
-34 percent reported benefiting, 49 percent with reduced costs, 45 percent improved access to insurance or medical care
-One-third reported not much affect, 29 percent negative affects, mostly due to cost
-Enrollees switching plans: 46 percent had lower premiums, after the tax credit; 39 percent paying higher premiums, often for better coverage
Over the last 80 years, seven former presidents representing both parties have unsuccessfully attempted to provide universal health care. Now that America has finally joined the other 20 richest nations in reaching this goal, why would any politician vigorously campaign to “repeal and replace” with an unknown plan? How about a good faith, constructive effort to improve a historic, exceedingly complex successful program, as was needed with Social Security?
Tom Wallace is a resident of Loon Lake, N.Y. and Bonita Springs, Florida.