Articles By Rick Shenkman
Politicians continuously tell us how smart the American people are. How then do we square that with all the evidence that suggests our politics are shallow and dumb? We can't. Our politics are often dumb because many Americans are not smart about politics. According to Rick Shenkman, author of the new book JUST HOW STUPID ARE WE? Facing the Truth About the American Voter (June 9, 2008; Basic Books; $25), they don't care about the subject and they don't know much about it.
It would be stupid to say that the American people are stupid—as stupid as saying the American people are smart. It is impossible to generalize—and silly. But our politics are often stupid. And there are times when no other word, harsh as it is, seems to capture the essence of the turn politics has taken in recent decades.
We have all heard the most common explanations for our broken political system – media manipulation, disingenuous politicians, ambitious CEOs. But in JUST HOW STUPID ARE WE? Shenkman cuts through the Gordian knot of contemporary politics with a shatteringly simple claim: the problem lies not in the machinations of elite business leaders and policy-makers, but in the gross ignorance and irrationality of millions of ordinary voters.
An Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter, bestselling author, and historian who founded the History News Network, Shenkman argues that politicians count on us being dumb. They spend millions on dumb TV advertisements because they have figured out that most Americans learn what little they know about the candidates from those ads. They play Americans like a fiddle, exploiting voters’ hopes and fears, because they know that they can get away with it.
If facts don't drive our politics, what does? Shenkman says it's myths. Politicians tell people what they want to hear. They tell us we're smart, better than others, and God's favorites. To win us over they pretend to be just like us, belting back shots of whiskey and playing pool, in a crude exploitation of the myth of the common man.
Decade after decade Americans have been getting more and more schooling while our politics have been getting dumber and dumber. In 1940 6 in 10 Americans didn't get past the eighth grade. Today most have some college experience. So what happened? Increasingly voters have been left on their own, cut off from those hated party bosses and labor bosses of old, who in the past offered political guidance. Cut off, voters turned to television for political information, setting us up for the shallow politics we currently endure.
Although Shenkman’s jeremiad leaves almost no figure un-skewered, his argument is deeply rooted in an old-fashioned political idealism – the belief that we can and should live in a country with smart voters, and that overthrowing the myths that have dominated our discussions will open the door to an honest and clear-eyed analysis of our political state.
Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and New York Times bestselling author Rick Shenkman is the editor and founder of George Mason University's History News Network, a website that features articles by historians on current events. An associate professor of history at George Mason University, he appears regularly as a commentator on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. His books include Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History and Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things Done. His observations about the 2008 election can be followed on his blog, “How Stupid?” He lives in Seattle, Washington.
Comments About the Book
"A smart, stylish, and witty wrestling match with the most difficult problem a democracy can face."--Rick Perlstein
"The bad news is that Americans are ignorant, shortsighted, and swayed by meaningless phrases; the good news is that things could get better -- if we start speaking honestly about the problem. Rick Shenkman's book is a crucial starting point in that process."--Jon Wiener
"At a moment when Americans are choosing leaders, Rick Shenkman’s brisk, provocative and vigorously argued book implores us to rethink our roles as citizens and improve our political environment. There could not be a better time for this important message."--Michael Beschloss
"Are manipulative politicians and an intimidated media the only reasons we've had to suffer through the Bush years? What about the American people? Why don't they stop, pay attention, and think for themselves? In his candid and hard-hitting history of American political culture, Shenkman offers a compelling and disturbing analysis of the American people and why we get the government we deserve."--Ruth Rosen
"With wit, passion and devastating evidence, Shenkman compels us, the praised and petted "American people," to look in the mirror for an explanation of why our elections are travesties of informed, intelligent debate. Lively and crucial, the book reminds us, however we vote, that there's no such animal as "democracy for dummies."--Bernard Weisberger