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The Policy of Truth

Americans aren't dumb: we were had!

By Eoghan W. Stafford

It’s tempting for those of us who have recently lost an election to conclude that American voters are just stupid. As one British headline ran: “How can 59 million people be so DUMB??”

But there are a few dim bulbs in every country. One Canadian chap who dropped by “Ask the White House” had this to say: “Small business, big bussinesman [sic], regular fellas and you all stand for your country, the world is living in dangerous times, we need AMERICA to lead in the freedom way.” (Step aside, Tom Paine!)

Sure, some Americans are challenged in the spelling department, but the problem with our politics isn’t voter stupidity: it’s voter misinformation. Droves of voters showed up at the polls last month believing things that just weren’t true, and their misconceptions may have cost Democrats the election.

A poll released in October by the Program on International Policy Attitudes—aptly titled “The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters”—discovered that most Bush voters still believed that Saddam had WMD or an active WMD program and that he was aiding Al Qaeda. Most Kerry supporters believed the opposite—i.e., the truth.

This misinformation seems to be the only reason that 46 percent of Americans still believe the invasion of Iraq was justified. After all, 74 percent of the country, including 58 percent of President Bush’s own supporters, say they would only support the war if Saddam had WMD or ties to Al Qaeda—which of course he did not. Bush literally needed voters to believe outright lies to sustain support for his policies.

Being lied to by the White House for four years may have something to do with voters’ confusion. The list of fabrications is all too familiar now—Iraq would be a “cakewalk,” there was “no doubt” that Saddam had nukes, Mohammad Atta had met with Iraqi agents in Prague—but as another practiced demagogue, Vladimir Lenin, once said, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

But the task of lying to the public was made easier by our political climate, which inhibits independent thinking. In his recent book, The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves, social critic Curtis White argues that our contemporary culture encourages Americans to consume the soundbites they’re spoon-fed rather than seek out information and evaluate it critically. White’s diagnosis would explain why voters seem increasingly willing to buy into prepackaged, spin-dried versions of the truth while tuning out inconvenient facts. In today’s polarized political milieu, many Americans would rather march in lockstep with Michael Moore or Bill O’Reilly than draw their own conclusions on each issue.

These simplistic ideologies frequently graced the campaign trail. Despite Kerry’s plan to cut taxes for 98 percent of Americans, Bush was able to use the senator’s tax increase on the top 2 percent to incite clichéd right-wing fears of Washington Democrats “raising your taxes!” And instead of challenging the Democratic base’s comfort zone by talking about the potential benefits of the World Trade Organization, Kerry ranted against “Benedict Arnold CEOs!”

When the political discourse descends to the level of a sports rivalry (“Taxes suck!” “Trade sucks!”), is it really surprising that many voters are unaware of facts that contradict their preexisting beliefs? After burrowing into a comfortably black-and-white worldview, who wants to go to the trouble of reevaluating it in light of new evidence? It’s hard work!

You can be sure Bush will keep misleading the nation in his second term. And a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted shortly after the election suggests he might get away with it. Consider Republican proposals for tax “reform.” Nearly two-thirds of Americans polled approve of higher tax rates for the rich. But when asked if they would support a flat tax rate, only 33 percent opposed it, with another 40 percent saying they didn’t know what to think!

There’s a disconnect here between people’s goals and their stances on policies that affect those goals. But what else should we expect from a pop culture that treats politics as entertainment and regards the phrase “mindless entertainment” as redundant?

Bush and Karl Rove thrive on this status quo, which is all the more reason for Democrats to defend the politics of truth. Maybe congressional Democrats can’t stop Bush’s bills, or even his loony judges, but when he tries to obscure, twist or ignore the facts to push his agenda, the Democrats can and must call him out for it.

And then Americans can decide which party respects their intelligence.

Eoghan W. Stafford ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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