American author Isaac Asimov once noted in a 1980 Newsweek column that there existed a cult of ignorance in the United States. He went on to state, “(This) strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
While Asimov pulled no punches here, his words should serve not to enrage American voters, but to remind them of the weight of their responsibility. Participation is not the only ingredient necessary for a successful democracy. A voter with no understanding of the impact of his or her choices, simply going through the motions in order to affirm his or her notion of civic engagement is the equivalent of finding your next home with a dart board and a map. Informed participation is a facet of American democracy that has become dangerously scarce.
Texas’ March Primaries exemplified the sort of disastrous disconnect that occurs when informed choices elude voter participation.
According to the Texas Tribune, primary results reflected that “Republicans who touted their stance against abortion — even when the offices they sought had little to do with the issue — saw strong primary night returns.”
The Republican primary for agricultural commissioner was taken by former state Rep. Sid Miller. Miller noted on his campaign website endorsements which included Texas Right to Life and Ted Nugent. On the other hand, one of his opponents, J. Allen Carnes, a farmer, had the endorsement of 14 agricultural trade associations — including the Texas Farm Bureau — but won just 13 percent of the vote.
As history has shown, the Texas Republican primaries are equivalent to the general election and when voters fail to recognize candidates’ qualifications there is a big problem with the system.
The Texas Farm Bureau, which endorsed Carnes and happens to be one of the state’s largest and most powerful agricultural lobbying organizations, will not endorse a candidate for agriculture commissioner in May’s runoff election.
It is a fallacy to assume — as many politicians do — that American voters are inherently informed and equipped to make the right choices.
It seems that the increasing accessibility of information has not been able to assuage the growing incidence of voter ignorance. Ilya Somin of George Mason University School of Law noted to The Washington Post that “during the Cold War in 1964, only 38 percent of Americans knew the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO. In 2003, about 70 percent was unaware of enactment of the prescription drug entitlement, then the largest welfare-state expansion since Medicare (1965). In a 2006 Zogby poll, only 42percent could name the three branches of the federal government.”
With the Texas primary run-off elections on the horizon for next month, voters will have another opportunity to exercise their right to vote. It is vital to the success of the democratic process that Americans start seeing this not only as a right but also a responsibility.
According to a Gallup poll releaed earlier this month, as of April 2014, 83 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. In April 1974, the disapproval rating was at 47 percent.
When a company consistently hires unqualified and unproductive employees, the blame eventually falls squarely on the shoulders of the HR department. That said, the HR department for the state and federal government in the American democracy is and always has been the American voters.
Recognizing the reality of American ignorance is the first step to refuting those who would undermine its validity.
Winston Churchill is alleged to have said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Perhaps instead of dismissing this sort of dissent, it is time the responsibility for ineffective politicians is shouldered by those who put them there.