Are Americans Politically Ignorant, Apathetic, or Both?

I don’t know when this article will appear on How to Save the World. At time of writing, Radio Userland has been down for over 40 hours, and there is no word from anyone when they will be back online and accepting new posts or comments.

rfkjr2 I had the opportunity Friday evening to listen to Robert Kennedy Jr. of NRDC speak. He was in Toronto to support Lake Ontario Waterkeepers, a division of the international Waterkeeper Alliance. It was a stock speech — nothing substantial added to the angry litany of Bush’s regulatory rollbacks, non-enforcements, and appointment of giant polluters and their lobbyists to head up all federal environmental agencies. What was new was an expanded discussion about the role of the media in shaping American public opinion on issues such as the environment. The underlying thesis, which may not be new but is the first time I have heard it from him, was (I’m paraphrasing):

There is no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives on core values. What there is is an information gap, caused by the fact that most Republicans and conservatives get all their news from mainstream media sources that are either propaganda arms of the neocon, Christian ultra-right wing, or cowed, timid networks that lack the courage to report what Americans really need to know, for fear of attracting the wrath of this ultra-right wing group, and for fear that it would cost them corporate advertising revenues, and hence their jobs.

There were quite a few Americans in the audience, and I took the opportunity to ask them afterwards what they thought of this comment. I got three different responses in roughly equal amounts:

  • He’s right.
  • He’s wrong — there are real differences in American core values, not attributable to the media, which actually plays a fairly modest role in shaping people’s values.
  • There is no difference between the Republican and Democratic party, and neither represents the core values of Americans. All their squabbling and rhetoric is a sham, a smokescreen to keep Americans from realizing that both parties are in the pockets of corporate America, and that between the two parties it’s only a matter of how quickly the sell-out of America to rich, corporate interests will occur, and which corporations will benefit most from government kickbacks for their campaign donations.

What intrigued me about this third viewpoint was that it was espoused by almost as many self-proclaimed conservatives as progressives. What this implies is that there are a significant number of Americans who are revolted by Bush’s anti-environment and anti-worker laws, regulations and positions, but who don’t believe the Democratic Party will do a significantly better job in either area, and who vote reluctantly Republican because they prefer their conservative moral stance.

I confess to being shocked and appalled both at the thought that the average American could be that ignorant, and at the thought that the situation is so hopeless that informed, intelligent people really believe it doesn’t make that much difference which of the two oligopoly parties wins. I suspect the average Canadian would find either possibility almost unimaginable. After all, we have more than two parties, and the one in power now has a minority and as a result its legislative agenda has been dramatically altered by the need to get support from other parties to stay in office. We are so alarmed at the possibility of the Bush-loving Canadian neoconservative party (which recently took over the more established, moderate conservative party) getting into office that we hold our nose and tell pollsters we would vote for the modestly corrupt Liberal party, as the significant lesser of two evils. And Canadians have repeatedly shown enormous skepticism for what they hear in the Canadian media, and a proclivity for making up their own minds after discussion with peers, rather than after watching or listening to the ten o’clock news. Are Canadians really that different from Americans?

If Kennedy is right, and the majority of Americans are that ignorant (unable or unwilling to hear information that would dramatically affect their vote), or if this third group of cynics is right, and a large minority of Americans are so skeptical that they don’t think it matters which party wins anyway, the neocons win either way. Ignorance and apathy both mitigate against change. If you’re in power and you can breed both in the electorate, you’re laughing.

Let’s suppose Kennedy is correct. He argues that a grassroots movement is needed to get the mainstream media that are not already in the pay of American neocons to get off the fence and start force-feeding the American people some terrible truths. But if you were CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN or any of the (few) independent radio stations or newspapers, why would you risk the wrath of Karl, your ratings, your advertising revenues or your job, to do this? You can get these truths from the New York Times or the New Yorker, from NPR and PBS (for now, anyway) and from a handful of other sources, and from many online sites. The public isn’t abandoning the non-neocon mainstream media for these more illuminating sources, so why would these media rock the boat? Out of a sense of responsibility to give the public what they clearly don’t want? Yeah, right. If Kennedy is correct America is in deep shit, and anyone who listens to him carefully and thoughtfully is going to be filled with despair and defeatism, not with indignation and energy to bring about change.

Let’s suppose this third group is correct. Let’s suppose that half of the half of Americans who don’t vote stay away because they’re really convinced it doesn’t make any difference, because they’ve been screwed by both parties and don’t trust either of them. They have to be really cynical to stay away when the talking points of the two parties are so radically different from each other. Is the emergence of a third party, in a country where two-party politics has been so entrenched and where the entire system (gerrymandering, campaign finance, the media, the leadership debate selection committee etc.) is designed to sustain that duopoly, going to happen in anything short of overwhelming, catastrophic circumstances? Of course not. So if this third group is correct, the situation is even worse than if Kennedy is correct.

As much as I like RFK Jr. and greatly admire the work he is doing with NRDC, I cannot agree with his grim assessment that so many Americans are so ignorant they can’t think past the propaganda of the neocon media machine. I think the large majority of Americans are smarter than that. They may not be well informed, but they know bullshit when they see or hear it.

I am less inclined to doubt the cynicism of the third group, who despite the apparently dramatically different rhetoric we are hearing from politicians, really don’t believe it makes much if any difference whether the Tweedledum or Tweedledee party is elected. What Gene McCarthy called acedia (beyond apathy, spiritual torpor, resignation) in the dark days of Nixon’s America, is far more dangerous an enemy than ignorance. It is far more difficult to overcome, and it afflicts those who are creative and who would normally tend to be activists. Worse, if you follow the lessons of history, it is apathy, in deadly combination with fear, that has allowed the deterioration of values and the seizing of power by opportunists responsible for the greatest atrocities of the past millennium.

Apathy, acedia, learned helplessness, hopelessness. These, and not ignorance, are the real enemies of our time. We will not overcome them with rhetoric, or with knowledge. We might overcome them through a few charismatic and independent leaders, though they are as likely to take us down a worse path than a better one. We might overcome them by inventing and talking about a better way of doing things — a better social, economic, political, legal, environmental, and educational system — but will even that be enough to pull people out of their resignation?

Barring that, we can only wait until the situation gets much worse, until the pain of doing nothing exceeds the pain of revolution. Until, in other words, there is nothing more to lose.

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11 Responses to Are Americans Politically Ignorant, Apathetic, or Both?

  1. dave says:

    Yeah, it’s the right-wing media or “neocon media machine”. I often wonder if lefties even have a clue of how ridiculous that sounds when they say it. Seriously, to believe for even one minute that the media in the US is tilted even remotely to the right is to take yourself completely out of the realm of serious debate. It’s great to see you and Eric Alterman are in the same ludicrous thought cycle.

  2. Patry says:

    I think that people are going to have to feel the consequences of the government’s actions and the corporate culture’s stranglehold on our lives before they begin to understand how thoroughly they’ve been lied to. Or how skillful the liars. And then? It’s probably gonna take a revolution.

  3. Raging Bee says:

    RFK Jr. is proving that yesterday’s “progressive” is today’s obsolete extremist crankcase.First, anyone who wishes to allege a “right-wing” or “neo-con” bias in US media will have to explain why so many conservatives are screaming about “left-wing” bias in the same media. (And no, the dreaded “mainstream media” aren’t particularly “right-leaning” when it comes to Iraq: all I see in the headlines is casualties, kvetching, and reports of an ever-stronger insurgency; nothing a neo-con would want to emphasize as a sign of success.)Second, did RFK Jr. ever think that ordinary Americans might disdain the “progressive” left precisely because of their snobbish, insulting droning about how abysmally stupid Americans allegedly are? The very least I can say for the neo-cons is that they’re smart enough to wait till AFTER election day to start insulting people; while the so-called progressives haven’t changed their insulting monotone since the ’60s.Finally, isn’t it about time we dispensed with all that rubbish about both parties being the same? Does ANYONE still think Clinton, Gore or Kerry would have invaded Iraq, issued memos justifying unrestrained torture of prisoners, funded faith-based sex-ed, pushed creationism as science, AND attacked the very scientific foundations of our understanding of the environment?Before yesterday’s “progressives” start calling the people whose votes they need “stupid,” perhaps they should take a look at themselves first.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    Anyone who can seriously suggest that the US media does not have a right-wing tilt of bias must not have any sources of information other than US media, or refuses to consider other points of view as credible. From the outside looking in, it looks very much like a giant echo chamber scripted by a corporate agenda.

  5. Jon Husband says:

    But just in case there may be a tad too much liberal bias in the US media, the NY Times has decided to do its part and develop a cultural affirmative action program to ensure that the right gets heard too.

  6. “I cannot agree with his grim assessment that so many Americans are so ignorant they can’t think past the propaganda of the neocon media machine. I think the large majority of Americans are smarter than that. They may not be well informed, but they know bullshit when they see or hear it.”More people watch Fox News than CNN. The large majority of Americans are not smarter than that. They don’t know bullshit when they hear it. Being stupid is too easy. Being smart is hard and takes work. People don’t want to know anything that obligates them to change the way they live or what they already believe. Period.

  7. Raging Bee says:

    The American media do not have a right-wing bias; they’re just too lazy to care one way or the other, which happens to serve the interests of those who know best how to manipulate the media.If you can’t identify the enemy clearly, how can you hope to fight it?And if you want to educate the American people, the first effective step you can take is to stop calling us “stupid.” Do you really think that anyone – smart or stupid – will listen to you after you’ve insulted them?

  8. Cee says:

    Perhaps this Media Channel article in which it summarizes Sonoma State University analysis showing that the boards of directors for US media giants are comprised of a small number of people representing many of the same large corporations, might serve to convince the sceptics of the MSM’s right-wing/corporate bias already so evident to the rest of us?

  9. Raging Bee says:

    “Right-wing/corporate bias?” Is it right-wing or is it corporate? The two don’t necessarily go together.And you still haven’t explained why so many right-wingers (not corporate suits) are screaming about “librul media bias.” As I’ve said before, I’m not hearing much about Iraq that Bush, Wolfowitz, or a coalition soldier would want me to hear; and the “MSM’s” coverage of the whole Terri Schiavo fiasco has been pretty balanced and factual overall, despite the shrieking lunacy of the “culture of life” charlatans. Generally, when extremists of all camps call the same media “biased,” all of them are wrong.There’s a big difference between “bias” and “laziness.”

  10. AF says:

    Dave I think I can point you to a few sources:1. Shortly after November, TIME interviewed four retiring Senators. Two Dems, two Repubs. All cited money, or the incessant need to raise reelection campaign money, as their reason for retiring. They barely had time to govern, to be Senators. It was money, money, money and grew exponentially worse every year.2. Narrowcasting. We live in an age of one-to-one marketing, grocery club cards give different discounts to different folks on the same day, traffic congestion keeping us isolated in our own cars. I don’t know about Canada, but we in the U.S. are very tired from long commutes to and from jobs with long workdays.3. They no longer teach civics in junior high or high school. Kids cramming SAT classes to get into IVY League schools don’t know who their U.S. Representative is, but they know who Tom Cruise is dating. I agree with you in that people DO care – I know a woman who voted Bush in 2000 because she thought he was better on environmnetal issues. She learned her errors. But not everybody is as willing to admit being “had.” Instead they feel burned, they withdraw. And people are less engaged on the local level, which means they lack the critical thinking to recognize patterns of corruption on the state and national level.4. Bill Moyers’ last episode of NOW on PBS, he talked about driving up the east coast from Florida to NYC. He described the right-wing domination of the AM airways. See narrowcasting, above.5. I echo the laziness of the other commenters. Have you seen I no longer watch tv news, yet the runaway bride and the Aruba missing girl creeped into my story set.6. We are one nutty ass country. But we love our nutty ass country. No doubt you up north are tired of hearing it, which must explain the excellent rate at which you crank out the standup comedians. Keep at it, we need the comic relief now more than ever. Please take care :)

  11. Kim says:

    For those who think there is a “Liberal” domination of the media, you may choose to look at the huge percent of tv, radio and print passed off as “news” in this country that is actually propoganda from the Ruppert Murdock megalopoly. If/when a supposed “Liberal” is ever featured on any of his networks, they’re actually a toothless moderate, outnumbered by rabid neo-cons, who generally succeed in winning a shout-down with unfounded smears the liberal never gets a word in to refute. This is neither news, nor is it a discussion of views, which might give a voter some fair/balanced information to make decidions from. Now, of greater importance, in regard to the upcoming ’08 election: 1) The problems with the voting machines have yet to be addressed and no legislature has been put in place to guarantee that our votes will count for anything. 2)Obama and McCain are BOTH members or and will be puppets for the Trilateral Commission and The Council on Foreign Relations. Read up on them if you REALLY care about the direction of your country.

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