Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Two New Books

A couple of new books this summer tell the same story: the American public, when it comes to politics, ain't all that smart.

The first is Just How Stupid Are We by Rick Shenkman, a sexy enough title to earn him an appearance on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Funny appearance. But his book is more about "American politics" being stupid than some disappointment in the political knowledge of the general public. And yet, he tells Stewart:

"If only two out of five Americans know that we have three branches of government and can name them, we've got a problem."

There is an excellent Washington Post article on one a more serious book, The American Voter Revisited. Unfortunately for the authors, the lack-of-sexiness title will not earn any of them a shot at The Daily Show.

Work on that title, guys.

But there is a reason for the title in that it's a return to one of the most influential books in political science history, The American Voter of 1960. The new and improved book finds that the American public is not all that improved, at least in terms of political reasoning and knowledge. "You could get depressed," one of the authors told the Post's Libby Copeland. Most Americans in the last two presidential elections have few issues in mind, are only vaguely tied to a party or candidate, and often cannot elaborate their reasons behind supporting one suit over another.

In fairness, there is a smaller set of scholars who argue the public is quite well informed, thank you very much, just not as well as some political scientists would like, or at least not on the issues that they think are so vital. The "high priests of culture," as scholar Samuel L. Popkin says in the article, think in ways differently than the general public. They process a lot of info and know more than we give them credit for, he says.

People simply have more important stuff to do than keep up with the political details that so draw news junkies. Or, as Stewart put it to Shenkman: "We have a lawn to mow."

The timing of the books, on the eve of yet another election, is not coincidence. Both timed it well. One just has a sexier title.

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