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?"
Though examples are depressingly unnecessary, here are two of my favorites over the years. In 1987, 45 percent of adult respondents to one survey answered that the phrase "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" was in the Constitution (in fact, it's a quote from Karl Marx). Then, in 1991, an American Bar Association study reported that a third of Americans did not know what the Bill of Rights was.
That the public mood is a poor compass for guiding the ship of state is an old lament. Here are two reasons why.
The first has to do with the laziness, spinelessness and vanity of political elites. Citing polls as proof you're on the right side of an argument is often a symptom of intellectual cowardice. If the crowd says two plus two equals seven, that's no reason to invoke the authority of the crowd. But pundits and pols know that if they align themselves with the latest Gallup findings, they don't have to defend their position on the merits because "the people" are always right. Such is the seductiveness of populism. It means never being wrong. "The people of Nebraska are for free silver, and I am for free silver," proclaimed William Jennings Bryan. "I will look up the arguments later."
Which brings us to ideology. The days when politicians would actually defend small-r republicanism are gone. The answer to every problem in our democracy seems to be more democracy, as if any alternative spells more tyranny. Indeed, once more the "forces of progress" are trying to destroy the Electoral College in the name of democracy. Their beachhead is Maryland, which was the first to approve an interstate compact promising its electors to whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote.
If these progressives have their way, we'll soon see candidates ignoring small states and rural areas entirely because democracy means going where the votes are. The old notion that this is a republic in which minority communities have a say will suffer perhaps the final, fatal blow.
But that's OK, because 70 percent of Americans say they're for getting rid of the Electoral College. And Lord knows, they must be right.