Citizenship In The Age Of Ignorance


If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be. — Thomas Jefferson

Here is a question: What is the most important issue in the United States today? Illegal aliens? Terrorism? Federal government spending? Global climate change? Replacing Obamacare?

The answer is ignorance and stupidity. They are not the same. Ignorance implies a lack of knowledge, while stupidity as I use it here is the unwillingness to accept the difference between fact and fiction, lies and truths, straight talk and propaganda. Further, as Forrest Gump has told us, “Stupid is as stupid does.” In other words, an intelligent person who does stupid things is still stupid.

As I get older, I find myself romanticizing about the past when the most serious problem in the news world was the paper boy chucking the morning edition into the flowerbed. As I remember those days, we usually could trust our leaders and news sources to be factual and truthful, and most of them were. That was in the Age of Cronkite, before we entered the Age of Limbaugh and Hannity.

Back then, finicky news editors were our firewall against inaccuracies in media. Today, anyone can publish misinformation on the internet or social media, and make it available to a global audience without fact-checking.

In the old days, facts were facts and news was news. Now we have alternative facts and fake news. Rather than feeding our intellects, many politicians and media feed our fears, fuel our fantasies and cement our biases. Democracy depends on citizens being smart enough and informed enough to resist this kind of manipulation, but the evidence shows that many of us are neither of those things. In fact, a significant number of Americans don’t seem to care about facts and truth. Otherwise, we would not have elected a serial fabricator to the highest office in the land and we would not tolerate his fabrications now that he is in office.

If this judgment seems harsh, consider these few indicators of American intelligence in recent times:

  • Last year, only one in four Americans could name all three branches of government. One in three Americans could not name any of the branches.
  • Also last year, 40% of those surveyed apparently were not aware that the First Amendment forbids making any law that infringes on the freedom of the press. They favored the idea that Congress could prevent news outlets from “reporting on any issue of national security without first getting government approval.”
  • In 2008, only 18% of Americans could correctly identify which party controlled the House of Representatives. Only three in 10 Americans could name two or more of the five freedoms set forth in the First Amendment. However, 52% of us could name at least two of the five family members on the Simpsons.
  • In 2006 during prominent coverage of the Iraq war, 60% of young Americans ages 18 to 24 could not locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East. Despite intensive news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, one-third of the young people surveyed could not find Louisiana on a map of the United States.
  • It gets much worse. In a recent poll, more than 16 million Americans said they think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Nearly half of American adults can’t explain how chocolate milk is made.

We can safely assume that Donald Trump knows where chocolate milk comes from. It comes from the wait staff at Mar-a-Lago. But on matters of national importance, he and many other high-level government officials are either unaware of or unconcerned about facts. They believe what they want to believe, and pronounce what they want us to believe.

A prominent and cruel example is President Trump’s hollow promise to coal miners that he will revive the industry and get their jobs back. He can’t and therefore won’t. Another example is how the President and prominent members of Congress with no background in science pretend they are qualified to refute the abundance of scientific evidence that climate change is real.

The third branch of government, the U.S. Supreme Court, has demonstrated startling naiveté on key issues such as voting rights and campaign finance, seeing the world not as it is, but as the Justices wish it would be. In 2013, the Court gutted the Voting Rights Act by removing the requirement that nine states with histories of racial discrimination had to get federal approval of any changes in their voting laws. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts reasoned that while the 1966 Act remedied the “blight of racial discrimination” in voting, “things have changed dramatically” and racial discrimination now is rare.

But by the 2016 election, six of the nine states where “things have changed” created new requirements designed to suppress voting by poor and minority citizens. A study by Priorities USA found that just one form of voter suppression, strict ID laws, caused a significant reduction in voter turnout in 2016, especially among African-American and Democrat-leaning voters. In one of the states, Wisconsin, an ID requirement reportedly resulted in 200,000 fewer votes. President Trump won the state by fewer than 23,000.

The Supreme Court has tested the tensile strength of the law by ruling that money is speech and corporations are people. In the majority’s decision in one famous case, Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged that big campaign contributors get better access to their congressmen than other voters, but he found nothing wrong with that:

That speakers (i.e. big contributors) may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy.

That ruling was in 2010. By 2015, Gallup found that 75% of Americans believed that corruption in government was widespread. The same year, nearly 60% of voters questioned by Rasmussen Reports believed that most members of Congress were willing to sell their votes for cash or campaign contributions; 56% said it was likely their representative had already done so. By 2016, 81% of voters questioned by Rasmussen said they believed the federal government was corrupt.

Whether it’s Joe the Plumber in Milwaukee, the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court or the President of the United States, democracy depends not only on the people speaking truth to power, but also on power speaking truth to the people. During my lifetime, there has never been a lack of allegiance to facts like we see today, or such a lack of consequences for those who mislead us.

Being a responsible citizen was much easier in the Age of Cronkite. Today, it takes work to confirm or discredit what we hear from our leaders or read on social media. But unless we are content to be ignorant or stupid, that is what we each must do.