Low-information voters can be very funny. Diverse TV personalities like late night TV comedy host Jimmy Kimmel, and Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, regularly send street interviewers to public places, to demonstrate public ignorance on things every American should know. Night after night we see random people who can’t name the US vice president, say that the US fought France in WWII, or that the Civil War was fought in 1920.
Most of us respond by saying, “It’s just entertainment. And it’s funny!” But these mini-interviews tell us something else. Though the quick-answer responses are probably selected for their entertainment value, they actually demonstrate a major problem that is turning elections into meaningless comedies.
Most of these TV field crews acquire 12-15 interviewees, from which the producers choose 3-4 as entertainment. Perhaps that indicates that 75 percent of people interviewed respond with correct answers. Our nationwide elections are normally decided by 2-3 percent. If the street interviews indicate that 25 percent of voters are clueless, how can we select candidates based on voter support for complex issues?
Before the age of social media, most voters read newspapers or watched TV news a few times a week. They may not have been fully informed, but they knew something about issues that they considered important. A majority of the nation’s newspapers have either folded from lack of subscribers, or are struggling to serve a shrinking readership. The network news shows, once the greatest influences, have now faded to irrelevancy.
Candidates for national offices previously ran campaigns around issues they considered important, and tried to win support from swing-voters. But for the past 10-15 years, candidates and their staffs have emerged with something termed “identity politics.”
Low-information voters hear little about actual issues, and select candidates who successfully attack opponents with negative portrayals of factoids about their pasts.
A few examples:
- Senator John Kerry lost his race against incumbent President George Bush in 2004, largely on questionable information about his actions as a Swift Boat pilot in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Though memories of those events 40 years earlier by witnesses were split on what actually occurred, the negative story won out. Kerry was further portrayed as an effete intellectual, based somewhat on videos showing him windsurfing on vacation.
- Former Governor Mitt Romney lost his presidential race in 2012, after being portrayed as a cold, uncaring multimillionaire. The opposition campaign drove a story that he had gone on vacation with the family dog’s kennel strapped to the roof of his car. Opposition also claimed that Romney coldly eliminated American jobs, or “shipped them to China.” This claim ignored the fact that his company’s business was in purchasing unprofitable companies and re-selling them after eliminating obsolete or non-competitive operations.
- Though President Barack Obama won his presidential bid in 2008, he had to survive tales of his church membership led by a demonstrably anti-American pastor. He was further attacked as being a Muslim, based on his biographical account of living in Indonesia for a few years of his childhood. Neither of these attacks told anyone—friend or foe—anything about his presidential agenda.
Unfortunately, none of these races included clear positions on issues that were important to voters. Instead, each campaign staff concentrated on low-information voters and fed them personal attacks against their opposing candidates.
Elections like these don’t serve Americans. We can do better. If only a small portion of the billions of dollars wasted on election advertising could address methods of non-partisan voter education, voters would act much more intelligently. Perhaps leaders in this area can become creative enough to appeal to millennials. Maybe they can deliver education in an online game format. Or perhaps as a modern cartoon series. Maybe they need to give away a T-shirt to everyone who participates.
Educated voters might then see themselves as hiring managers, and see candidates as applicants who must clearly state their positions, then perform as promised during the election process.
My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX