Friday, August 29, 2008

A Failure of Intelligence

By Alan Pavlik & Rick Brown

The fact is, knowing about the world is like sporting an understated, but impressively well-tailored, Seville Row suit – it gets you in the right doors – a ticket to the big time. But in and of itself, it has no intrinsic value.

That may help explain what Steven Benen explores in Tuesday's CrooksAndLiars.Com about the latest Pew Survey on News Consumption, conducted every other year, which this year shows that most of us don't know much about what's swirling around us. Benen flags this section:
About half of Americans (53%) can correctly identify the Democrats as the party that has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. … About four-in-ten (42%) can name [Condoleezza] Rice as the current secretary of state. … Just more than a quarter (28%) can correctly identify Gordon Brown as the leader of Great Britain. Overall, 18% of the public is able to correctly answer all three political knowledge questions, while a third (33%) do not know the answer to any of the questions.
Of course, he admits he has just finished reading Rick Shenkman's Just How Stupid Are We? (pretty stupid, apparently) and concludes that "at a certain point, the political world is going to have to come to grips with the fact that a striking percentage of the electorate has no idea what's going on."

The report does make some differentiations of just who knows what, and where they get whatever it is they know:
Regular readers of magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper's Magazine stand out for their political knowledge; almost half (48%) can correctly identify Rice, Brown and the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives. NPR listeners rank closely behind, with 44% of regular listeners registering a high knowledge score. More than four-in-ten regular Hardball (43%) and Hannity & Colmes (42%) viewers also score relatively high for political knowledge.
Benen notes that according to a National Annenberg Election Survey four years ago, Fox News viewers were the most confused about current events – they had no clue about weapons of mass destruction not being found in Iraq and Saddam Hussein not "working closely" with al-Qaeda. Benen's conclusion:

So, have things changed? I kind of doubt it - these Pew questions were easier and covered non-controversial subjects. My hunch is, had Pew asked more about subjects relating to Republican talking points, those Fox News viewers would have done considerably worse.
Maybe so, but it would seem the "high-information voters" might be the smallest voting bloc of all – and yes, Obama may have those in his back pocket, for what it's worth. After all, he only barely defeated Hillary Clinton in the primaries, with her don't-think-just-feel approach that's not unlike McCain's.

That's why, after that Rick Warren Faith Forum, McCain might not have to worry about what CNN's perpetually-grumpy Everyman, Jack Cafferty, had to say – on air, and later, in his blog – about McCain's performance that night:
It occurs to me that John McCain is as intellectually shallow as our current president. When asked what his Christian faith means to him, his answer was a one-liner. 'It means I'm saved and forgiven.' … McCain then retold a story we've all heard a hundred times about a guard in Vietnam drawing a cross in the sand. … Throughout the evening, McCain chose to recite portions of his stump speech as answers to the questions he was being asked. Why? He has lived 71 years. Surely he has some thoughts on what it all means that go beyond canned answers culled from the same speech he delivers every day.
And he harps on McCain graduating 894th in a class of 899 at the Naval Academy.

Also see Matt Welch, the fellow who wrote the book on McCain: The Myth of a Maverick with his article in Reason that puts John McCain's overheated Georgia rhetoric in context. He lists McCain's record of overreacting to every international event. It's a fascinating, well-documented list. Everything is a crisis – or actually, the one big crisis, until the next comes along.

"Now of course there's no way to make sense of that," says Matthew Yglesias, of ThinkProgress.Org,
"because it's not supposed to make any kind of sense. McCain just thinks that overreacting is the right reaction to everything. It's a hysteria-based foreign policy."
Kevin Drum, in The Washington Monthly, carries this forward:
Conservatives - and neoconservatives in particular - have always thrived on a sense of being surrounded by manifest, civilization-threatening dangers. But somehow, even compared to their usual hysteria level, they seem to have turned their internal threat-o-meters up to 11 for this campaign.
The scary thing is, this may be just the right appeal for the low-information crowd – which, according to that Pew survey, might include most people in America today.