Bah, humbug: blame uninformed voters

Posted: Dec 26, 2003 12:00 AM

You may recall that a mere 72 hours after Saddam was captured alive, the president of the United States gave an exclusive interview to Diane Sawyer. Big news, big guest.

"Big deal" quoth much of America.

Paris Hilton was on another channel at the time. Hilton, while lacking the intellectual candlepower to toast bread, has certain other assets - she's rich; she's good-looking; she has a certain Internet-porn come-hither look around the eyes (and around everything else).

The George Bush interview was watched by 11 million people, mostly older. The Paris Hilton reality show, "The Simple Life," was watched by 11.8 million viewers, mostly younger. Perhaps more astonishing, "The Simple Life's" ratings were fairly typical for such drek. The Diane Sawyer interview with President Bush received the highest ratings of any presidential interview all year, including Tom Brokaw's plum interview after the end of the Iraq war.

Now you might think this might be a good reason for Howard Dean to pick Paris Hilton as his running, uh, mate. But that's not my point.

I bring it up for another reason: Americans have a tendency to think the problem with politics lies with their candidates and not themselves. The truth is Americans deserve the blame for the state of our politics and the state of our media. I know it's not savvy to criticize the customers, but perhaps especially at Christmastime, we should still have a few scrooges left.

First of all, if you only get your news from television, I can speak freely because that means you're probably not reading this. Second, you're an idiot.

OK, maybe not technically an idiot in the sense that you're only qualified to be an assistant spellchecker in an M&M factory. But, to the extent you take being an informed citizen seriously, you get a failing grade. Whether you are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, if your only news source is the boob tube you are simply underinformed, though not necessarily misinformed.

Unfortunately, most Americans are underinformed. If current trends continue, only 1 in 4 households will buy newspapers by 2007, according to Peter Francese, the founder of American Demographics magazine. This is a trend with roots that predate the rise of the Internet, and, I'm afraid to say, the Internet will not solve the problem. If huge numbers of people believe they are too busy to read newspapers, there's no reason to believe they'll have enough spare time to sit at a computer.

The ignorance of the typical American when it comes to politics is often staggering. For example, just one week before the GOP convention in 2000, the Vanishing Voter Project conducted a survey revealing that three out of four Americans didn't know when the convention would be held. One in four Americans don't know who their governor is and one in two don't know who their congressman is.

This ignorance is the real reason special interest groups and demagogues have the success they do (though it's a wonder they don't have more). For example, we are constantly told by extreme leftwing groups and more than a few rightwing groups that there's no difference between the political parties.

As anyone who pays attention to politics knows, this is monumental nonsense on stilts; informed people understand that a Dean administration will be very different from a Bush administration.

But if you get much of your news from late-night comics - as is the case with nearly half of young voters, according to the Pew Research Center - it makes complete sense that you'd think there's no difference between the parties, in much the same way people who don't understand physics think protons and electrons are pretty much the same thing.

But Americans don't like being told they're the problem. So when they eventually tune into politics they tend to blame the candidates, as if it's the actors' fault you don't understand the play when you arrive for the last five minutes.

For example, during the last campaign, the news networks convened "undecided voters" to watch Gore-Bush debates. Invariably, these average Americans complained that the candidates didn't provide "enough information" to help them decide between the two candidates. That's right, it was the candidates' fault. They only put out position papers, speeches, commercials and Web sites for a year, while those poor undecideds watched Jay Leno.

Now, as a conservative I don't mind that Americans aren't consumed with political fervor. In fact, I tend to like low voter turnout on the principle that the people not voting are probably the people I don't think should vote.

My problem is with a political culture that tells everyone they're bad citizens if they don't vote but doesn't care if they don't know why they're voting. In other words, I don't really mind if you'd prefer to watch Paris Hilton over George W. Bush - or Howard Dean. That might even be healthy. But spare me your opinion on either of them and, if possible, spare me your vote, too.

Bah, humbug.