Rick Shenkman

Just How Stupid Are We?

VTR Date: June 11, 2008

American historian and journalist Rick Shenkman discusses the American voter.


GUEST: Rick Shenkman
VTR: 06/11/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today is Rick Shenkman, an award-winning investigative reporter, a best-selling author, and an American historian who edits George Mason University’s History News Network, the only website on the Internet wholly devoted to putting news events into their historical perspective.

Now Professor Shenkman’s new Basic Books offering, “Just How Stupid Are We? – Facing The Truth About The American Voter” reminds us that people get the government they deserve … but then adds, “if that’s true, why did we deserve George W. Bush?” … which is the very first question that I’ll put to my guest. Why did we?

SHENKMAN: We deserved George W. Bush because people aren’t paying attention. One of the arguments I make in the book is that our politics are stupid. I don’t go so far as to say that the American people are stupid. I think that’s a stupid as saying the American people are smart, which you hear politicians saying all the time.

But our politics are stupid very often and the reason is politicians know the American people, millions of them, don’t know very much and they count on that. And that’s why they use bumper stickers and slogans and they appeal to fear. Because they know that’s how they can connect to the voter.

You can’t have a rational discussion with the American people because it goes over their head. So they pick up on themes where they can exploit people’s fears and their myths and they run with it. And that’s what the Bush Administration did. That’s why he got himself elected and re-elected.

HEFFNER: You sound as though there’s no option. That’s the way it is.


HEFFNER: We’re, if you don’t want to use the word “stupid”, we’re not knowledgeable enough …


HEFFNER: … to be citizens and vote.

SHENKMAN: … well, you know, I had a friend who was a Barry Goldwater supporter. And I grew up in New Jersey and one day we were having a conversation … I started out as a Conservative. We were having a conversation and we were talking about where America got off on the wrong track. This was right after Ronald Reagan’s election.

And I thought he was going to say, “Oh, it was in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won in that big landslide and we got “The Great Society.”

And he said, “Oh no.”

And then I thought he was going to say, “It was when Franklin Roosevelt won in 1932 and defeated Hoover.”

“Oh no, that wasn’t it.”

And I said, “Okay, when then?”

He said, “Well it was in the 1820s and 1830s, when the masses got the vote.”

Well, I almost fell off my chair, I was like “Wow, you are really get … you really have a serious disagreement with the course that American history has taken.”

But here’s the point that he was trying to get at, which really took me years to come to terms with. Because there are so many myths that we have about the American democracy, THE PEOPLE … in capital letters …and being romantic and all glow-y about it.

What he was saying is once you have the masses voting, elections are geared to their interests and to their knowledge or lack of knowledge.

And so that’s why in 1840, in really one of the very first elections where you have millions of people casting a ballot, you have William Henry Harrison running for election as the Log Cabin candidate. He’s exploiting one of the great myths of American history which is that anybody can be President and even a poor guy who grows up in a log cabin can be President.

He was lying about it. He wasn’t born in a log cabin, he was actually born in a three story red brick mansion on the James River down in Virginia. He father had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence, so he was hardly just your ordinary common man.

But he was passing himself off this way because he knew this is how you connect with the ordinary voter. So that’s a strong theme that runs all the way through the course of American history.

HEFFNER: And I repeat my question, Rick, if that’s the case why not just give up on this thing we call political democracy?

SHENKMAN: Well, of course, there’s Churchill’s line, which is “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.”

And I don’t think you can give up on it and I don’t want to take the vote away from anybody. My book isn’t …

HEFFNER: What do you want to do?

SHENKMAN: My book isn’t against democracy, it’s for democracy. Well the first thing I want us to do is acknowledge the weaknesses in public opinion.

It’s just like with an alcoholic coming to terms with his problem. The first thing is he’s got to admit he’s got a problem. We have to admit we’ve got a problem. We’ve got a 10 alarm fire raging and nobody wants to talk about it. It’s not on the front pages of The New York Times or Time magazine or Newsweek.

And the data that have come in over the last few years are so shocking that to me it really is no exaggeration to say “it’s a 10 alarm fire.”

HEFFNER: How do you describe the data?

SHENKMAN: Well, let’s, let’s, let’s talk about 9/11 and Iraq. On the eve of the Iraq War an overwhelming majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 … despite the absence of any evidence.

And 80% of the people who favored the War cited that … this connection between Saddam … supposed connection between Saddam and 9/11 as one of the chief reasons why they supported the invasion.

HEFFNER: But, Rick … I

SHENKMAN: Now how can you have a democracy when people get it that wrong. And it’s even worse that this. Once the 9/11 Commission came out and said … flat out … absolutely … no connection between Saddam and 9/11 … you still had 50% of the American people believing that there was that connection.

Now, you can blame the media and you can blame George W. Bush and that’s fine. But, after all these years of war, I’m sick and tired of blaming Bush and I’m sick and tired of actually blaming the media and say, “We’ve got to hold the people responsible”, and then we can start devising some solutions, but we’ve got to come to terms with that … the voice of the people is not the voice of God and we’ve got to come to terms with that.

I know it’s shocking. I know you’re about to fall out of your chair when you hear that. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Good god, why should I fall out of my chair … I’ve been saying that for so many years.

SHENKMAN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And I’m a hell of a lot older than you are.

SHENKMAN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Seriously, Rick, why … how have you suddenly discovered this? You’ve suddenly discovered that George W. Bush misled us. You’ve suddenly discovered that we are “mis-leadable”. You’ve suddenly discovered that a people whose leader is misinforming them become misinformed. I don’t understand that.

SHENKMAN: (Laughter) Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve just discovered it. But the idea that Bush has misled us has so preoccupied us that the conversation has been weighted down in terms of his lack of leadership and honesty. The media’s lack of leadership and honesty. And, we’re forgetting the third part of this … which is the public. Nobody wants to take the public to task.

The media don’t want to take the public to task because in commercial broadcasting they’re looking for ratings and, of course, you don’t’ want to go on the air with your lead story saying, you know, “The American people don’t know enough and as a result, they’re sitting ducks for manipulative politicians.”

So we don’t have that part of the conversation. Now we used to have that part of the conversation in this country. That’s one of the things that came through in my research. That was something that was … kinda new to me, as a surprise when I really started thinking about it.

Up until 1980 Conservatives, traditionally, all the way through American history raised doubts about “the people”. And they said, “you know, the people don’t know enough”, “they’re easily misled, they’re emotional, they’re myth-driven.”

In 1980 it stops and why does it stop? It stops because of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was an optimist and he inherited from his days when he was a Liberal Democratic supporter of Franklin Roosevelt the idea of having faith in the people, in this kind of vague, romantic idea of “the people”.

So he would never rail on the people in the way Conservatives traditionally did. And in fact, he would celebrate “the people.”

And he never lost an election. He kept winning and winning. And he won over the American people. And Conservatives started winning elections in the Congress. And, of course, once you’re winning elections as a Conservative, you don’t raise doubts about the wisdom of “the people.” It seems like they’re pretty darn smart. So the Conservatives ceased … ceased complaining about “the people.”

And Liberals by ideology didn’t want to raise doubts about “the people” because they have faith in the “common man”. If the Democrats don’t believe in anything … they believe in that, that’s kind of a cornerstone of the Democratic party’s belief going all the way back to Andrew Jackson. Confidence and faith in “the people”.

So what you have is the two major parties who are lacking confidence in the judgment of … who are expressing confidence in the judgment of “the people” and the media refusing to draw any criticism of “the people”, so we’ve got a system now that’s out of whack, it’s out of kilter.

We’re all having these wonderful conversations and nobody is saying the obvious. It’s the elephant in the room. And the statistics that came out over the last five years about the low knowledge of the American people about Iraq and 9/11 … you know on the eve of the Iraq War only one-third of the American people understood that most of the world opposed our invasion.

Another third thought the rest of the world was cheering us on … because all of Bush’s talk about the Grand Coalition. And another third thought, “Oh, it was kind of mixed out there.”

They didn’t apparently get a clue about how the largest rallies in history were organized in Spain, in Britain and in other places against this war. Now how can you have a democracy that way? It’s very, very difficult. We’ve got to come to terms with this. That’s why I say it’s a 10 alarm fire.

HEFFNER: When you say, “How can you have a democracy?” are you really saying … are you going back to your Conservative Burkaen tradition …

SHENKMAN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … and saying the people “no”, not the people “yes”?

SHENKMAN: Yeah. Well …

HEFFNER: What are you saying?

SHENKMAN: Well, I’m saying …

HEFFNER: Because you take …


HEFFNER: … you take this instrument … this beady red eye …


HEFFNER: … that’s looking at us now and you’ve said in a number of places that it’s largely responsible because in a sense it’s a surrogate for the people.

You don’t like the idea of cultural democracy. You don’t … and I don’t either …

SHENKMAN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … but you’re sort of reverting to that Conservatism that you identified as your younger …

SHENKMAN: Yeah, when I, when I …

HEFFNER: … in your younger years.

SHENKMAN: … started out. Well, I opposed the Iraq War … I didn’t like the Bush Administration, I didn’t vote for George Bush so I don’t think I’m a … I’m going back to being a Conservative.

But there were things that I picked up from my years as a Conservative and maybe that has, that has stuck with me. I don’t believe the voice of the people is the voice of God.

And I do think that we have to have an open conversation about the limits of the public. And what could actually be more democratic than that. Democracy is all about having a conversation, getting it out there, no taboo subjects … let’s talk about it. So let’s talk about it!

But this is the last taboo … you know we can talk about the shape and size of the President’s penis, but we can’t talk about the weaknesses in public opinion. I mean there’s a paradox. And let’s talk about another paradox in American history.

Over the last half century Americans have become smarter and smarter. At least in terms of schooling. In 1940 six out of ten Americans hadn’t gone passed the eighth grade. Today most Americans have gone to college. And yet during this same period that Americans are getting more and more schooling … our politics are getting dumber and dumber.

We need to explain that paradox. We need to be talking about it. Now that’s democracy to talk about that.

HEFFNER: And your explanation has to do with the schools and what goes on inside of them? Or with the media and the way it contradicts, in a very real sense, with its emphasis upon entertainment, essentially, rather than information.

SHENKMAN: Yeah, well …

HEFFNER: Where are you in this?

SHENKMAN: Well, it’s, it’s a very complicated series of forces that led us to this situation.

And it begins with the schools not teaching civics and not placing an emphasis on civics and not placing an emphasis on history. And certainly over the last eight years, with the “No Child Left Behind Act”, which leaves behind history, doesn’t test for history, so teachers have stopped teaching history so the generation coming up is even dumber.

And then we go to broader forces in the society and we’ve got television which just upends our politics. First of all, it helps destroy the two party system. Once television gets into the act, it’s the people who run television, it’s consultants, it’s TV directors, news directors who wind up running politics. As opposed to party bosses.

And people used to take their cues from party bosses. The much reviled party bosses like Daley in Chicago. They would send a signal down the ranks, down the line to the people who were voting and people were getting their cues, so even if they weren’t all that knowledgeable about the issues, they were taking their cues from party bosses, from labor bosses and of course, the kind of labor unions plays into this. So it’s a complicated mosaic.

But if I had to pick one thing … it’s this box. It’s this box with wires. And I’ve been in television for years … I was … actually I’ve been in and out of academia and when I’m out of it, I’ve been in the, in the television business. And, you know, there’s nothing more shallow then, then broadcast corporate television.

And it’s shallow for a reason. Because the people who are watching the television sets don’t have much knowledge and so there’s a constant emphasis to talk about something that is not going to go over the heads of the audience. So instead of having a conversation up here (moves hand), the conversation is always down here (moves hand).

When I was helping run a local news station … in Seattle, KIRO-TV … we did a million dollar study when I first came in to figure out what dos the audience want? What are they interested in?

Politics was last on their list … dead last. First and foremost was weather … they loved weather. They wanted to know about the weather, they wanted to know about traffic, they wanted to know about sports, they wanted to know about earthquakes in Seattle … because we have the threat of earthquakes there. But politics? Forget it.

So, as a, as a managing editor, which was my position … every night when I’m trying to program for my newscast, I insisted that we have politics because, just as a matter of good conscience, I could not have politics.

But often you’re leading with Keko, the Whale. Now I have to tell you I had to finally get out of the business because I just couldn’t bear it anymore, I couldn’t bear it.

HEFFNER: Then why do you think … and I gather from your book and from other things you’ve said and written and from what you do with your History News Network … I gather you’re hopeful … how can you be hopeful … you’re describing …

SHENKMAN: How can I be hopeful? (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … you’re describing the nature of human nature.


HEFFNER: And we respond to it … we reflect it.

SHENKMAN: Sure. Well, one … by nature I’m an optimist. So …

HEFFNER: I thought you were a Conservative.

SHENKMAN: (Laughter) I’m a Liberal … but I had my origins in my Conservative days. But ah, ah, no, I’m an optimist. And I do think that there are steps that we can take as a society if we commit to it. What we need is kind of a Sputnik civics program. Nationwide.

If … here’s a good concrete example of what I think we could do that would really change things for the next generation.

Every college and university in America that receives public funding ought to require Freshman students to take a current events quiz every single week for their first year.

HEFFNER: You mean read the newspaper?

SHENKMAN: Actually read the newspaper.

HEFFNER: Oh, my goodness.

SHENKMAN: I was teaching graduate school at a university in Washington, DC in journalism. And I had graduate students in journalism who weren’t reading the paper. And it was obvious when one day in the 1990s, three weeks after Denny Hastert had become the Speaker of the House, I just asked the class because I was talking about him and I realized they were kind of like giving me blank stares.

I said, “Well, who is the Speaker of the House?” And there was dead silence and then one kid, you know, raised his hand and he said, “Hastert?” and he was, you know, really unsure and I was like, “Yes”, I said Denny Hastert.

Well, it was at that point I said, Okay, you are journalism students, you’re going into the business presumably because you love journalism. You’re going to be writing stories, that’s what we’re teaching in this class is how to write news stories.

And what’s happening here … you’re not … I said, who do you l think is going to read all the stuff that you’re going to write, if you’re not reading it.

So I said, “That’s it. We’re going to start having weekly quizzes.” Well, by the end of the term they were reading The New York Times, they were reading The Washington Post, they were much better educated. And I felt like “I’ve done something.”

Why can’t we do that in every college and university. It would have an enormous impact. And if a society communicates the idea that it’s not just money that is important, but civics is important. I think you could change a society.

HEFFNER: Now when you go to the Stewart Show, the Jon Stewart Show … are you going to say that? Are you going to say, Hey, I can’t stand it that I or a guy by the name of Heffner asked his students where do they get their news about the world around them? And they say from Jon Stewart.

SHENKMAN: I’m happy that they pick up some information from whatever source they can as long as it’s halfway reliable. The Stewart Show is actually fairly credible.

Of course, as he always says, it’s a fake news show and he says he’s shocked that people are using his show as a source of information. And that is shocking. College students in particular. It’s a gift … education is a gift. You’re not making the most of your gift if you are getting your information from the Jon Stewart Show rather than from the morning newspaper.

I mean, to me, reading The New York Times every day is almost an act of religion … I have to do it. I’ve been doing it since the seventh or eighth grade when I grew up in Hohokus, New Jersey and they made us kids get subscriptions to The New York Times at a discount to get us into the newspaper reading habit.

And to me … you know if you’re a kid and you’re going to college and you’re paying thousands of dollars per course. Think of it this way, The New York Times every morning is like a high level seminar in American politics. And it’s free. You can go on the Internet and it’s free. And I think the digital divide is collapsing. Most people have access to the Internet.

Do yourself a favor. Spend five minutes … I take maybe sometimes up to two hours to get through the paper there’s so much in there.

Okay, a student … you’ve got a lot to do … fine. Take five minutes, find one meaty story on the front page … read it all the way through to the end, dip into the OpEds and over six months you’ll start to get that knowledge.

So that the political conversation isn’t taking place above your heads.

HEFFNER: Rick, you know, as I so often say …

SHENKMAN: I apologize for being ahh, so …

HEFFNER: For being what?

SHENKMAN: … deadpan and boring about this. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Right. Right, so restrained.

SHENKMAN: (Laughter)


SHENKMAN: … I’ll try and summon up a passion for it.

HEFFNER: I’m very serious about what I’m going to say now. I’m kind of surprised that given your historical knowledge that you don’t get to a point in which you say, “look the world is different. It’s changed.” We know, in fact that newspapers are disappearing. I mean … as you talk about The Times and as I would beg my students to read The Times, I know that it may not be there … not in the tangible newsprint form at any rate.

Don’t you think it’s time that we accept what is happening, not embrace it, but recognize it and you say yourself, recognition is number one.

SHENKMAN: Is the key, yeah.

HEFFNER: First step. Then think through the notion that we may have to formulate different kinds of political forms … we may have to create a new kind of society based on what we now know is happening in our own society.

Why keep talking about the people … “yes” … if you know that when you say, “the people … yes”, you get George W. Bush.

SHENKMAN: Well, I don’t think you always get George W. Bush because here’s one terrific thing about the American people … they recognize success and failure. They recognize George Bush’s failures … finally … slowly. Of course tens of thousands of people had to die. Billions of dollars had to be expended. Thousands of American soldiers had to be wounded. Four million Iraqis had to become refugees in their own country. But eventually the American people caught on and they’re going to turn out these Republicans as a result.

And they do this when the Democrats screw up. That’s why they turned out Jimmy Carter back in 1980 and they went for Ronald Reagan, who they had lots of questions about, but they at least knew Carter failed.

So they get that … that get that big picture sense. So I’m not giving up on democracy as long they’ve got that. If we get to the point where, you know, they’re just blind to failure like the German people were in the 1930s …

HEFFNER: What are you going …

SHENKMAN: … that would be a problem.

HEFFNER: … to say when, when I show this program, what are you going to say in November if they have not repudiated our friend George Bush and if, indeed, they have re-elected George W. Bush in the person of the Republican candidate.

SHENKMAN: Well, if they also elected a Republican Congress, I’d be willing to come back here and eat my words and just say, “Okay, I’ve got to re-think this.”

HEFFNER: But only, only in that extreme. If they elect a Republican President … you, you won’t take back …

SHENKMAN: I won’t, I won’t take it back if they elect a Republican President … no. I think they’re … you could make a case for John McCain … it’s not my view, but you could make a … an intelligent case for John McCain’s election. You can certainly make an intelligent case for Obama’s election. But if … you can’t make an intelligent case that you want to reward this Republican House … you know … no … you just, you just cannot make that case. Reward them … even the Conservatives in the House and the Senate themselves say that they deserve to be defeated for the way that they have wielded power during their time in office.

HEFFNER: Very few of them have whispered that thought into my ear. Maybe into yours.

SHENKMAN: Well, John, John McCain actually came right out and said it. I had a quote in the original manuscript, I don’t think it made it into the final edition of the book.

But he came flat out and said that … over a year ago … he said, “We don’t deserved to be re-elected given the way we squandered money.” So, I think that that’s one measure of the discontent within the party. And he is going to be the presumptive Party nominee. So it’s not insignificant when he comes out and he makes that kind of a statement.

HEFFNER: And you, you believe it?

SHENKMAN: Well, I believe he’s telling the truth in that case. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Okay. Okay. I’m not going to press that, because this is not a partisan program, to be sure.

SHENKMAN: Yeah, sure.

HEFFNER: Look we have two minutes left. Doesn’t it all come down to you’re feeling very uneasy about this notion of cultural democracy, even of political democracy in our time, when we are less well informed than ever before.

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is the way that Neil Postman put it.

SHENKMAN: Well, before Neil Postman there was John Dewey. In the 1920s. He’s one of the great optimists in American history. And even he recognized in a, a chapter … it was called, I think, “The Problems of Democracy”. And he has turgid prose, but as you read him he gives this warning. He says, “In a consumer society, where people have so many different things that they can do with their time, politics is going to suffer because they’re not going to pay attention to it”. Why pay attention to some boring politician when you can go to the movies, or you can listen to the radio. So he saw it all the way back then, and here we are … we’re coming up, it will be almost a century since he, he wrote those prophetic words, and it’s coming true.

In a consumer society, it’s very difficult. You know Ben Franklin said in the eighteenth century, “we’re all politicians.” I don’t think you say that any more about Americans. We’re not all politicians. We’re social creatures, but we not political animals.

HEFFNER: I’m glad you come to basics, to John Dewey and you could have said Walter Lippmann, too, as you write.

SHENKMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Rick Shenkman for joining me today on The Open Mind. Maybe we’ll both have better things to say and to think six months from now.

SHENKMAN: I hope so.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.