by Jay Mangano
I exist in a space shared by most Americans. Not rich enough to be helped by Republicans, not poor enough to benefit from Democratic boilerplate. Along with everyone else I know in the middle, I tend to get stuck with the consequences of fringe policies from both sides. Given my circumstances I’m far more touchy than most when it comes to people casting ballots for reasons that can be far fetched at best, almost universally harmful (even to themselves) at worst.
Uninformed voters are nothing new. Neither are opportunistic politicians who expend the greatest effort and spend the most money trying to capture that bloc. American history is littered with political movements that capitalized on fear bred from ignorance. There were communist witch hunts, actual witch hunts, tea parties of varying degrees of usefulness and coherence, and even a real political party called the Know Nothings. Each election cycle we suffer through political advertising that ranges from overly simplistic to outright hostile. A senate candidate in Iowa released a commercial in which he brandished a weapon and threatened to “Shoot the balls off” of a (nonexistent) intruder. Another Iowa candidate (what’s with Iowa?) based an ad around castrating pigs. And who can forget the death panels of a few years ago? Given the low level of discourse, the individual has to take responsibility for understanding the state of things.
The younger me often wondered out loud how the average person remembered to spell their name and find their way home at night. The older me understands that everyone isn’t dumb, but that life is really hard. It’s time consuming to understand the difference between Sunni and Shia, socialist or communist, or whatever the hell quantitative easing is. The traditional news media doesn’t help: They abdicated their responsibilities decades ago in favor of increased ad buys. Some outlets actively obscure reality rather than inform. So people are left with the internet, where there’s all of the information but none of the context. Some will argue that in today’s world of wifi and Wikipedia, to not have a basic grasp on the pressing issues of the day betrays either a shameful lack of critical thinking skills or a willful ignorance that is counterproductive to the nature of democracy. I’m sure the view is nice from that ivory tower, but for most people the limited downtime we get is seen as a respite from the world, not an opportunity to leaf through position papers from the Brookings Institute. Brains need to rest and families need tending. The problem that America has isn’t that most people don’t know what’s going on, it’s that they’re encouraged to vote in spite of it.
There’s this fifty cent word I like to use, Ultracrepidarian: “Pertaining to a person who criticizes, judges, or gives advice outside the area of his or her expertise.” It’s a useful word to have in one’s arsenal, especially given that most anyone who is an ultracrepidarian hasn’t a clue what it means. Sadly, voting has become the best real world example of the word. Millions of people who can’t even name a branch of government cast ballots based on nothing but hearsay, Facebook posts, and half truths peddled by either fanatic ideologues or corporate shills. The culture then pats them on the back, gives them a sticker and offers platitudes about making a difference. And yet there is no difference, because the status quo is always defended through a fog of propaganda. Precious few votes really appear to represent the wants and needs of those who cast them. The best and probably only way to combat this is through knowledge, which means for most people the sad fact is that staying home is the responsible choice.
That’s not to say that people don’t care or are incapable. I truly believe that they want to know more about the world and how it affects them, so that they can make the best decision for themselves and their families. Sadly, most don’t know how to become more informed, and can’t make the extraordinary effort (the great irony in our information age) to do so.
So I implore you: If you don’t know who your congressman is, if you think ebola is airborne, if you’ve never heard of Benjamin Netanyahu or Bashar Assad, if your idea of reading the paper is box scores, horoscopes, and Hagar the Horrible, then stay at home and watch “Let’s Make a Deal”–they’ve got Wayne Brady hosting it now. Or go to work like you always do. And come home like you always do. Just don’t bother with the pit stop at the library or the firehouse. We’ll all be better off for it.