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Just How Stupid Are Us Americans?

Information you should know about your fellow citizens of the USA, from the book "Just How Stupid Are We? Facing The Truth About The American Voter" by Rick Shenkman (Basic Books, 2008). Some excerpts from the book:

"About 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half of Americans can name at least two members of the fictional [Simpsons] cartoon family, according to a survey."

Shenkman proposes five characteristics of stupidity:

"First, is sheer ignorance: Ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions and who's in charge. Second, is negligence: The disinclination to seek reliable sources of information about important news events. Third, is wooden-headedness... The inclination to believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts. Fourth, is shortsightedness: The support of public policies that are mutually contradictory, or contrary to the country's long-term interests. Fifth, and finally, is a broad category I call bone-headedness... The susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simplistic diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears."

Several examples prove Shenkman's points:

"... only a small percentage of people take advantage of the great new resources at hand. In 2005, the Pew Research Center surveyed the news habits of some 3,000 Americans age 18 and older. The researchers found that 59% on a regular basis get at least some news from local TV, 47% from national TV news shows, and just 23% from the Internet."

"In 1986, only 30% knew that Roe v. Wade was the Supreme Court decision that ruled abortion legal more than a decade earlier. In 1991, Americans were asked how long the term of a United States senator is. Just 25% correctly answered six years. How many senators are there? A poll a few years ago found that only 20% know that there are 100 senators..."

"Which country dropped the nuclear bomb? Only 49% know it was their own country"

And, we only seem to know the basic, easy historical facts:

"What happened at Pearl Harbor? A great majority know: 84%. What was the Holocaust? Nearly 70% know. (Thirty percent don't?) But it comes as something of a shock that, in 1983, just 81% knew who Lee Harvey Oswald was and that, in 1985, only 81% could identify Martin Luther King, Jr."

It's easy to question whether we can elect effective leaders when we don't seem to know who or how our government works:

"Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Fewer than half of Americans could tell you her name during the length of her entire tenure. William Rehnquist was chief justice of the Supreme Court. Just 40% of Americans ever knew his name (and only 30% could tell you that he was a conservative). Going into the First Gulf War, just 15% could identify Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense. In 2007, in the fifth year of the Iraq War, only 21% could name the secretary of defense, Robert Gates. Most Americans cannot name their own member of Congress or their senators."

For the record: mine are Kerry, Kennedy, and Lynch. I write to them frequently.

"Only 34% know that it is the Congress that declares war (which may explain why they are not alarmed when presidents take us into wars without explicit declarations of war from the legislature). Only 35% know that Congress can override a presidential veto. Some 49% think the president can suspend the Constitution. Some 60% believe that he can appoint judges to the federal courts without the approval of the Senate. Some 45% believe that revolutionary speech is punishable under the Constitution."

Poverty is no excuse:

"... Americans in the middle class who attend college exhibit profound ignorance. A report in 2007 published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that on average 14,000 randomly selected college students at 50 schools around the country scored under 55 (out of 100) on a test that measured their knowledge of basic American civics."

A democracy works when citizens participate. The younger generation isn't doing any better than the older generations:

"In 1972, when 18 year olds got the vote, 52% cast a ballot. In subsequent years, far fewer voted: in 1988, 40%; in 1992, 50%; in 1996, 35%; in 2000, 36%. In 2004, despite the most intense get-out-the-vote effort ever focused on young people, just 47% took the time to cast a ballot."

Should civics be taught in schools? You bet! And it should be required. But don't title the class "Civics" or "American History." Instead, give it a more relevant title like, "How to Participate in a Democracy" or "How to Use A Democracy For Your Benefit" or "Your Rights And Responsibilities In A Democracy."

Unfortunately, this stupidity problem also affects consumers' actions about identity theft and company data breaches. It is difficult for consumers to take effective action to protect their identity information, if consumers don't:

Addendum: you can buy Shenkman's book online at It'll make a wonderful holiday present.


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