Huge numbers of Americans don't know jack about their government or politics. According to a Pew Research Center survey released last week, 31 percent of Americans don't know who the vice president is, fewer than half are aware that Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House, a mere 29 percent can identify "Scooter" Libby as the convicted former chief of staff of the vice president, and only 15 percent can name Harry Reid when asked who is the Senate majority leader.
And yet, last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales' firing of eight U.S. attorneys was "politically motivated."
So, we are supposed to believe that two-thirds of Americans have studied the details of the U.S. attorney firings and come to an informed conclusion that they were politically motivated - even when Senate Democrats agree that there is no actual evidence that Gonzales did anything improper. Are these the same people who couldn't pick Pelosi out of a lineup? Or the 85 percent who couldn't name the Senate majority leader? Are we to imagine that the 31 percent of the electorate who still - after seven years of headlines and demonization - can't identify the vice president of the United States nonetheless have a studied opinion on the firing of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias?
Oh, before we proceed, let me make clear: This isn't a column defending Gonzales. This administration should have long ago sent him out of the bunker for a coffee-and-doughnut run and then changed the locks. No, this is a column about how confused and at times idiotic the United States is about polls, public opinion and, well, democracy itself. We all love to tout the glories of democracy and denounce politicians who just follow the polls. Well, guess which politicians follow the polls? The popular ones, that's who. And guess why: Because the popular ones get elected. Bucking public opinion is the quickest way for a politician to expedite his or her transition to the private sector.
More to the point, Americans - God bless 'em - are often quite ignorant about the stuff politicians and pundits think matters most. They may know piles about their own professions, hobbies and personal interests, but when it comes to basic civics, they get their clocks cleaned on Fox's "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?"