Bruni: America the clueless

New York TimesMay 15, 2013 

Frank Bruni

 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

The problems with our country's political discourse are many and grave, but an insufficient attention to Obamacare isn't among them. We have talked Obamacare to death, or at least into home hospice care. The “Obamacare” shorthand itself reflects our need to come up with less of a mouthful than “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” given how regularly the topic recurs. “Obamacare” is like “J. Lo” or “KFC.” It saves syllables and speeds things along.

So explain this: According to a recent poll, roughly 40 percent of Americans don't even know that it's a law on the books.

Now if I learned that 40 percent weren't aware of when Obamacare was to be fully implemented or whether any of it had yet gone into practice or precisely how it's likely to affect them, I wouldn't be surprised or distressed. Obamacare is nothing if not unwieldy and opaque: “Ulysses” meets “Mulholland Drive.” The people confused about it include no small number of the physicians I know and probably a few of the law's authors to boot.

But 40 percent of Americans are clueless about its sheer existence. Some think it's been repealed by Congress. Some think it's been overturned by the Supreme Court. A few probably think it's been vaporized and replaced with a galactic edict beamed down from one of Saturn's moons. With Americans you never know.

According to a survey I stumbled across just weeks ago, 21 percent believe that a UFO landed in Roswell, N.M., nearly seven decades ago and that the federal government hushed it up, while 14 percent believe in Bigfoot.

According to another survey, taken last year, about 65 percent of us can't name a single Supreme Court justice. Not the chief one, John Roberts. Not the mute one, Clarence Thomas. Not even the mean one, Antonin Scalia. Though when it comes to Scalia, perhaps the body politic suffers less from ignorance than from repressed memory.

That we Americans are out to lunch isn't news, but every once in a while a fresh factoid like the Obamacare ignorance comes along to remind us that we're out to breakfast and dinner as well. And it adds an important, infrequently acknowledged bit of perspective to all the commentary, from us journalists and from political strategists alike, about how voters behave and whom they reward. We purport to interpret an informed, rational universe, because we'd undercut our own insights if we purported anything else.

But only limited sense can be made of what is often nonsensical, and the truth is that a great big chunk of the electorate is tuned out, zonked out or combing Roswell for alien remains. Polls over the past few years have variously shown that about 30 percent of us couldn't name the vice president, about 35 percent couldn't assign the proper century to the American Revolution and 6 percent couldn't circle Independence Day on a calendar. I'm supposing that the 6 percent weren't also given the holiday's synonym, the Fourth of July. I'm an optimist through and through.

Here's one of my favorite findings: In a poll in 2011, after intense, closely chronicled fiscal battles in California, a sampling of the state's residents were quizzed about which category of spending accounted for the biggest share of California's budget. Only 16 percent correctly said public education through the 12th grade — and they did this poorly despite being given just four possible answers, including the correct one, from which to choose. They more or less underperformed the odds.

Apart from perennial news stories about how many Americans would flunk the citizenship test that immigrants must pass, we mostly gloss over our ignorance or deny it. Election analysts are constantly saying that voters are “too smart” for some ploy or “smarter than” they get credit for being.

And there's a whole subgenre of nonfiction that assures us that we shouldn't be spooked by how uneducated we are. “The Wisdom of Crowds” suggests that if enough bumbling people act in concert, they'll find their way to a less bumbling place, while “Blink” portrays snap judgments as the fruits of an information intake that isn't easily measured but is meaningful nonetheless. There's “Emotional Intelligence” as well as nuts-and-bolts knowledge, and we can be guided, profitably, by it.

I buy some of that. I've talked to enough voters over enough elections to recognize that their flabby impressions aren't always antonyms of concrete information but instead cruder, lesser versions of it, colored if not governed by facts that they've picked up in a peripheral, semiconscious fashion.

Still. In 2010 in California, I covered a tea party rally at which Carly Fiorina, vying for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat, was scheduled to speak. I approached a couple whose profusion of hats and buttons and handmade signs — along with their willingness to spend hours in a crowded field under a punishing sun — led me to believe that they were at least somewhat politically engaged. I asked them whether they were inclined to support Fiorina. With great seriousness, they said that they hadn't yet decided between her and Meg Whitman. Whitman was running not for senator but for governor, in a race that hardly wanted for coverage. They didn't have to choose.

At a heated point of the 2012 presidential primaries, when both Rick Santorum and the news media were making much of his faith and fecundity, less than 30 percent of voters could identify his religious affiliation as Catholic, according to one poll. Months later a different poll asked voters about President Barack Obama's religious affiliation, persistently mistaken by some Americans to be Muslim. The good news? The share of voters making the Muslim error had dropped, to 10 percent. The weird news? Eighteen percent said Obama was Jewish.

It's possible, of course, that respondents just mess with pollsters' heads. He's a Seventh-day Adventist! He's a Scientologist! But too many surveys over too many years show too much abject ignorance for the phenomenon to be belittled or dismissed. What's more, there's no consoling arc over time, no trajectory of progress. Wherever the Internet is speeding us, it's not toward greater civic erudition and enlightenment.

Into the vacuum of substantive knowledge rush the unprincipled advertisements, the unctuous hucksters, the “super PACs,” the swift boating, the Sunday-morning-talk-show spin. A clueless electorate is a corruptible one, and one that seems ill poised to make the smartest, best call about something as sweeping as Obamacare and how it gets tweaked or not down the line. Maybe we'll blink our way to the right decisions. Or maybe we'll just stumble around with our eyes closed.

Email Mr. Bruni at editorial@nytimes.com.

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