Friday, October 24, 2008

On Stupidity and Elections

It's a common refrain, but I've been hearing it more and more of late from the American politics people at my Ph.D. program: American voters are stupid. They make poor decisions, they support parties and politicians who manifestly do not advance agendas that would help them. They elected Bush. What's the matter with Kansas, anyway?

And of course, the common response to these points is to throw one's hands in the air and shrug.

Now, I can certainly appreciate the frustration. I think certain voters have been making idiotic statements about how it was the Democrats that were ruining the country for the past eight years (nevermind that Republicans controlled all branches of government). However, I can't go along with the idea that Americans are dumb (at least when it comes to voting). There are a lot of smart people out there, certainly smarter than me in their own areas of expertise, and definitely more knowledgeable about the matters that affect their lives directly.

So, I want to claim that Americans are dumb, I have to include myself in that measure. The more I get into this Ph.D. program, the more I am convinced that people don't know all that much more about the consequences of political decisions. Sure, I may know more than the average person about the debates, facts, and theories surrounding a political question. But that doesn't mean that I necessarily know more about who will ulimately make a better president, whether a particular decision will turn out for the best.

It's like forecasting the weather. Sure, it helps a lot to have more information. But that doesn't mean you're going to be right. And so I'm wary of painting other Americans as stupid without recognizing my own limitations.


HoBs said...

Yeah. Agree completely. I wrote in my Stanford Daily column four years ago "In just three days, Americans, at least half of them anyway, are going to exercise their inalienable right to vote, so I thought I would take this time to assert that Americans are too stupid to decide who gets to be president. Actually, not so much stupid as ignorant. I freely place myself in that category. "

Though I concluded that column, not so down on democracy, though democracy is inherently flawed.

That's also why I feel most people really aren't qualified to judge the current president. And the very strong ill informed opinions people have tend to annoy me. Opinions are fine, but a little more humility would be appreciated.

Chengora said...

See, that's not exactly what I was getting at. We have to judge: it's what we're called upon to do in an election. What I'm saying is that we can't dismiss the judgments of others because we think they're stupid. Now, I certainly think we can challenge their judgments based on other things. For example, empirical debate.

So when it comes to evaluating a current or future president, we're all very limited by our knowledge of the future. But qualified or not, we still have to judge, and upon that, I believe one element is to understand that we all are limited in this fashion. That doesn't make others stupid so much as coming to a question from a different angle, one that can be legitimately argued with as opposed to dismissed outright.

HoBs said...

Actually I agree with you. That column was written mostly for rheotircal flourish. But in terms of what I believe, I agree with what you said. That actually would have been my piece if I wrote something for NPR's this I believe, if Ed Glaeser hadn't written something pretty close first