Ignorance isn’t independence, or an excuse

06 Sep 2016 11:30 pm
Posted by: Donna

degrasse tyson quote

WaPo‘s David Weigel makes a humorous, though endlessly frustrating (for us politico types), observation about American voters:

It’s not the most original thought experiment, but it’s useful: Imagine a conversation with your past self, or some confused passerby, in 1991. Tell him that in the future, basically everyone will carry a tiny supercomputer at all times. People will wake up with it, run with it, map their destinations with it, order food with it, find hook-up partners with it, blow off partners after the hook-up didn’t go so well. At any moment, wirelessly, they can look up any information by typing in a few words.

Now, imagine explaining to this person that candidates for office put most of their speeches online, along with their entire party platforms. Some candidates would even allow their speeches to be watched live, or saved and watched later, from the tiny supercomputer. Your future self – or whoever – would probably assume that the problem of political ignorance had been cured.

I think about this more and more, because I keep meeting voters who insist, with a sort of hopeless helplessness, that they don’t know “what the candidates stand for.” This past weekend, at the Minnesota State Fair, I kept hearing people campaign that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were “mudslinging,” and that this was bad, because they (voters) wanted to hear about the issues…

…Whose fault is that, and whose fault is it swing voters are unsure where Donald Trump stands? Not the media’s — piles and piles of money are spent to get reporters and cameras to the places where candidates deliver policy speeches. Not the candidates’s, though in this particular election Clinton has given exponentially more detail than Trump. (Literally, exponentially. CNN’s Brian Stelter points out that there are 9,000 words about policy on Trump’s campaign site, and more than 100,000 words on Clinton’s.) It’s true that “candidate gives policy speech” is not a story that gets a front page (unless it’s in response to a crisis), and “candidates trade barbs” is. But it is easier than ever for a candidate to shoot his or her message past the media.

No, I’m sorry, but this one falls on the voters. It is generally as easy to learn where the candidates stand on all but the most obscure issues as it is to find, say, a recipe for low-calorie overnight oats. It’s also easy to ignore the negative, “mudslinging” aspects of a campaign, for the same reason so many people find it easy to cut their TV plans and watch streaming services…

I agree with Weigel up to a point that voters need to own this but I don’t find the media to be blameless in the problem. The political press pushes certain narratives about candidates, often arrived at via groupthink rather than evidence (Al Gore was bland, George W. Bush was folksy, Hillary Clinton is “untrustworthy”, Trump “speaks his mind”, etc.), that tend to be seized on as shortcuts to the learning about policy stances that Weigel (and I) feel voters should be doing. And some journalists, along with some politicians and others seen as authorities on electoral politics, have spent decades relentlessly disparaging partisanship, with an almost religious fervor, hailing the rise in the number of “independent” voters as if it were God personally sending a sign vindicating them.

But no, it’s not. When you tell people for years that parties suck and are corrupt and are for mindless sheep a lot of people start to believe it. Unfortunately, those same people don’t seem to be finding sources aside from the hated parties to get their information. Ironically, suggestions that they get their information about the issues from the candidates themselves are bound to be ignored because those candidates are – wait for it – partisans! They’re assumed to be lying because everyone knows that partisans and politicians and especially partisan politicians are liars, even when they’re simply stating their policy goals.

There are certainly undecided voters who do want to know where candidates are on the issues but they want that information filtered through trusted sources. That is not going to be the candidates’ websites, for the reasons I just explained and it’s not going to be the MSM if they persist in prioritizing the he said/she said horse race over asking Clinton and Trump about their policy proposals. Perhaps Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy could be enlisted to be our National Election Explainers. Still, Weigel’s point, that voters should at least try to learn what candidates stand for via those amazing space age information machines they have at their fingertips before throwing up their hands about “mudslinging”, is well taken.

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