Are Americans smart enough to vote?
I recently offended some people, quite unintentionally, with my modest suggestion that perhaps it wasn’t in the best interests of the nation to hand over so much decision-making power to people who aren’t informed about the issues and their own system of government. (Responses ranged from “thoughtful disagreement” to what I believe is referred to as a “galloping hissy fit.”) Honestly, I was a bit shocked by the reaction – when I penned those remarks it hardly occurred to me that I was saying something controversial. On the other hand, it seemed to me that I was merely stating common sense.
Since that post I’ve been ruminating about the assumption embedded in the premise – that a goodly number of Americans aren’t intelligent enough to be safely entrusted with the vote. In order to bring a little more depth to this debate I thought I’d do some research to discover whether or not the nation’s citizens are under-informed, and if so, to what degree. I thought about pulling together a laundry list of reports comparing US students to their counterparts in other nations, but that seemed too easy (and not entirely satisfying).
Instead, I decided to present some interesting poll results. After all, you can’t really assess the intellect of the average man in the street by perusing a lot of egg-headed numbers on book-learning. Likewise, it’s not fair to evaluate their media consumption habits, because a lot of what looks at a glance to be trivial is in fact in the public interest.
Here’s what I discovered.
Over a third of the population believes in ghosts and UFOs. This is around the same number who believe invading Iraq was a good idea.
A smaller but still substantial 23 percent say they have actually seen a ghost or believe they have been in one’s presence, with the most likely candidates for such visits including single people, Catholics and those who never attend religious services. By 31 percent to 18 percent, more liberals than conservatives report seeing a specter.
Nearly half of Americans either believe evolution is untrue or have no opinion. Two-thirds believe in “creationism,” the idea “that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” (Which, I think, means that some people simultaneously believe in creationism and evolution.) “34% of college graduates surveyed believe that ‘the Biblical account of creation’ is a fact” and 62% of voters say they wouldnâ€™t vote for an atheist candidate.
64% of those polled by CBS News and the New York Times say they “have concerns about losing civil liberties as a result of anti-terrorism measures put in place by President Bush.” However, 53% approve of warrantless spying “in order to reduce the threat of terrorism.” If that seems inconsistent, consider the LA Times/Bloomberg poll showing that only 43% approve of Bush’s performance as president, but a majority think his policies have made the nation more secure.
Then there’s my favorite: nearly half of all Americans believe the Bill of Rights affords “too much freedom.” I should probably watch my tongue here since “a majority of Americans have said they would restrict public remarks that might offend people of other faiths or races.” Some of the specific findings of the AJR report are just delicious:
- More than 40 percent of those polled said newspapers should not be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military’s strategy and performance.
- Roughly half of those surveyed said the American press has been too aggressive in asking government officials for information about the war on terrorism.
- More than four in 10 said they would limit the academic freedom of professors and bar criticism of government military policy.
- About half of those surveyed said government should be able to monitor religious groups in the interest of national security, even if that means infringing upon religious freedom.
- More than four in 10 said the government should have greater power to monitor the activities of Muslims living in the United States than it does other religious groups.
A separate poll done by Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center in 2002 showed that “over 20 percent of the respondents felt newspapers should not be allowed to publish without some type of government approval.” (Note to America: we had that already. It was called “Pravda.”)
I linger on this last bit to make a point. Some of my critics on those earlier posts were rather bright-eyed about their defense of the rights and autonomy and general goodness of the noble ordinary citizen, and I’d merely ask why I should endure such abuse for suggesting that their freedoms should be curbed when they themselves are convinced they have too much freedom as it is?
In any case, a portrait is painted for your consideration. And again I should note, in parting, that each of these fine people has a vote that counts as much as yours.
God Bless America!