Because the most recent survey from the Pew Research Center has indicated that only about two-thirds of Americans could correctly identify their state’s governor – roughly the same amount who could correctly identify Beyonce Knowles and slightly less than those who could name Dick Cheney as our vice president – I worry that foggy conceptions might also dominate the understanding about national priorities.
I realize that, fortunately, the people that cannot name our governor are likely not the same as those reading the political column on a University of California campus. Even so, you should know the extent of American ignorance because it is you that will have to work hardest to compensate for it. Political illiteracy works to the advantage of power-hungry lawmakers but has dangerous implications for our ability to curtail government abuses of power.
We are living in an attention-deficit democracy. The majority of us tune in briefly during election season and then switch our attention to more immediately satisfying news – like the change in Jessica’s relationship status or Brian’s new profile picture – and allow those we voted for to proceed with too little public scrutiny. This painfully short attention span is convenient for presidential candidates, but does not bode well for the future of our country. Even though an alarmingly high proportion of the electorate is constitutionally clueless – one McCormick Foundation Museum poll that found that far more Americans could name a “Simpsons” character than a single freedom recognized by the First Amendment – politicians seem pretty comfortable leaving the public mostly in the dark.
Los Angeles Councilman Eric Garcetti must have felt particularly comfortable when he distributed a letter to more than 1,500 tourists urging them to boycott the LAX Hilton. Garcetti cited “unfair labor practices” as a justification for this irresponsible intervention, despite the complete lack of evidence to support such a claim. The move was certainly an affront to the local economy and reflects a real lack of appreciation for the city’s biggest employers and largest taxpayers. Hilton owns 10 hotels in the area and the LAX Hilton alone pays $5.6 million a year in taxes.
The real motivation for Garcetti is clearly the votes, funds, and favors that UNITE HERE – the union that had been attempting to organize the Hilton’s employees for the past two years – promises the councilman. There is no legislative provision granting Garcetti and his colleagues permission to involve themselves in the negotiations between two non-governmental actors. California’s elected officials simply do not feel the need for caution when exercising excessive power in the presence of an apathetic constituency.
In California, our own ignorance is especially pervasive and particularly perilous. Because there is great strength in voter initiatives and very few voters with initiative, the state has effectively been able to become entrenched in political gridlock while amassing massive amounts of debt. In the next fiscal year, California will have to use 7 percent of its entire revenue just to finance its current debts.
Given these indications of the downward spiraling of our political efficacy and interest, I suspect that the common conceptions of the major issues of the day may be no less convoluted. At the very least, one should try to familiarize themselves with those catchphrases and key terms that presidential candidates will no doubt be bandying about over the next 19 months in the hopes of mobilizing your attention, however briefly.
In a national poll of what people thought were the country’s problems and priorities, the trade deficit was frequently cited as deserving of a top spot on the American agenda. Really? I have to suspect that if more people understood the actual definition of deficit, it might not glean the same urgency. Foreign investment does not weaken American competitiveness – it confirms the vibrancy of our economy. Americans are huge consumers with an insatiable demand for, well, everything. Buying products that have been assembled in another country does not in fact make the U.S. indebted to that country – it only increases their dependence on the American market.
Perhaps the pitifully low civic engagement and the embarrassing inability of Americans to fulfill a minimum of democratic functioning should be the greatest priority of all. If there is a real threat to American competitiveness and vitality – and there is – it is the low expectations and even lower performance of American education.