15 March 2010

Book: Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter

Rick Shenkman, "Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter" (Basic Books, June 2008):


Publisher's description (hardcover edition): "Levees break in New Orleans. Iraq descends into chaos. The housing market teeters on the brink of collapse. Americans of all political stripes are heading into the 2008 election with the sense that something has gone terribly wrong with American politics. But what exactly? Democrats blame Republicans and Republicans blame Democrats. Greedy corporate executives, rogue journalists, faulty voting machines, irresponsible defense contractors – we blame them, too. The only thing everyone seems to agree on, in fact, is that the American people are entirely blameless. [...] Shenkman takes aim at our great national piety: the wisdom of the American people. The hard truth is that American democracy is more direct than ever – but voters are misusing, abusing, and abdicating their political power. Americans are paying less and less attention to politics at a time when they need to pay much more: Television has dumbed politics down to the basest possible level, while the real workings of politics have become vastly more complicated. Shenkman offers concrete proposals for reforming our institutions – the government, the media, civic organizations, political parties – to make them work better for the American people. But first, Shenkman argues, we must reform ourselves."

From the publisher's description (paperback edition): "Fifty percent of Americans can name four characters from 'The Simpsons,' but only two out of five can name all three branches of the federal government. No more than one in seven can find Iraq on a map. Just how stupid are we? Pretty stupid."

Reviews: "Shenkman [...] makes the provocative argument that as American voters have gained political power in the last 50 years, they have become increasingly ignorant of politics and world affairs – and dangerously susceptible to manipulation. The book provides a litany of depressing statistics – most Americans cannot name their representatives in Congress, only 20% hold a passport, 30% cannot identify the Holocaust – as Shenkman inquires whether Americans are capable of voting in the nation's or even their own best interests. Although Shenkman clearly derives some pleasure in pointing out the stupidity and irrationality of the American public, his concern is genuine and heartfelt. In lucid, playful prose, he illustrates how politicians have repeatedly misled voters and analyzes the dumbing down of American politics via marketing, spin machines and misinformation." ("Publishers Weekly")

"With wit, passion and devastating evidence, Shenkman compels us, the praised and petted 'American people,' to look in the mirror for an explanation of why our elections are travesties of informed, intelligent debate. Lively and crucial, the book reminds us, however we vote, that there's no such animal as 'democracy for dummies.'" (Bernard A. Weisberger, formerly University of Rochester)

Rick Shenkman is Associate Professor of History at George Mason University.

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