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Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 02:30 pm

The new Know Nothings

What voters don’t know can hurt everyone else


Radio and Fox television commentator Glenn Beck addresses thousands of tea party activists at a “Restoring America” rally in Washington, D.C.

The late Daniel Moynihan, who represented New York in the upper chamber of Congress in the days when the U.S. still had senators, once observed that while everyone is entitled to his opinion, he is not entitled to his own facts. Nothing – not the bow ties, not the Ivy League education, not the erudition – more marked him as an elitist (as elitists are now defined) than his insistence that facts be the basis of public policy-making.

Facts are often inconvenient to opinion and usually fatal to belief, so it is no surprise that quite a few Americans have embraced ignorance as a political creed. Not the familiar did-Pearl-Harbor-come-before-or-after-the-Civil-War sort of ignorance, but a determined, enthusiastic indifference to the fact of the fact. Their ambition is not merely to know nothing (the phrase eventually attached to nativist Americans in the 1840s and 1850s who also believed that “their” country was being taken away from them) but to know less than nothing, insofar as what they believe they know is mistaken.

It might not be true that ignorance (to borrow a phrase) moves mountains, but it does move majorities, as happened when George W. Bush (in some ways this era’s Andy Jackson) was voted into office for a second term by the tens of millions of voters who believed the president’s innuendo that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks.

More evidence that public opinion is no longer tethered to any measurable reality piled up during the recent political season. A Bloomberg National Poll in October found that two of every three likely voters believed that “taxes have gone up” when federal tax rates remain unchanged, and that the national economy has shrunk, even though it has continued to grow, albeit more slowly than in the bubble years.

Citizens across the political spectrum believe that what they don’t know can hurt their opponents. Most of the people of all persuasions who oppose Obamacare don’t know what the act contains (and when informed, tend to change their minds). Confusion of that sort might yet determine the fate of that particular government program; public ignorance of it and its like is wrecking self-government itself.

Ignorance has cast its deepest spell on the audience of spellbinders like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Their benighted listeners were bombarded with the idea that President Barack Obama’s recent presidential trip to Asia cost taxpayers a staggering $200 million a day. The claim is ridculous — the U.S. spends less than that per day on the war in Afghanistan. Nearly half of self-described Republicans told one poll that they believed Obama to be a Muslim, more than a quarter of them doubt that he is a citizen and half of them believe that it was Obama and not Bush who bailed out the big banks and insurance companies.

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn asked a hard question the other day. Why, aside from political expediency, should politicians listen to voters when voters plainly don’t know what’s going on? The authors of the U.S. Constitution asked that question too, and came to an answer that the tea partiers, for all their reverence for the Constitution, seem not to be aware of. The founders believed that all men should be considered equal in their treatment by the state, but not in their ability to direct the state. That is why the federal charter permitted the vote only to white males of property – the elites of their day – because that class was assumed to have a greater stake in good government, it being in their self interest, and were literate and informed enough to know good government when they saw it. The founders’ distrust of the mass opinion also was reflected in their provision that the Senate was not to be selected by popular vote, immunizing its members against the popular manias of the House.

The country is not going to go back to the 18th century, although it might someday revisit the early 20th, specifically the Germany of the latter 1920s, when Hitler’s National Socialists rose to power when unscrupulous politicians adept at the dark arts of the Big Lie exploited resentments of cultural elites, anxiety about money and fear of “foreigners” in their midst. That the disgruntled Right sees the shadow of Nazism cast by Obama is merely one more thing they’ve got wrong.

Voting remains virtually the only grownup responsibility which people are allowed to discharge regardless of the ability to do so capably. I was put in mind more than once during the campaign of Paul, the octopus in the aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany, which “predicted” several recent World Cup match results. Growing minorities of U.S. voters are scarcely better informed about their government than Paul was about soccer, but at least all Paul did was predict the winners. He was not allowed to decide them.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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