The capacity of the human mind to believe the fanciful when it comports with preconceived notions or desires is fantastic.
This is the reason, at least in part, why Thomas Jefferson despised the media of his day.
As Jefferson told Walter Jones in 1814, “I deplore … the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them. … As vehicles of information and a curb on our functionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief. … This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.”
Still, despite his understandable hatred of the media, Jefferson famously told Eward Carrington in 1787, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. … I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments.”
Jefferson tolerated the newspapers because, like government, he saw them as a necessary evil. This is because he knew knowledge was the fundamental key to a free society.
Once again, in his own words, “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.”
This is where the media and, indeed, the American people fail today. Many of the seemingly intractable problems facing the United States today have, at their heart, an uninformed or misinformed electorate to blame. This is partly because Americans are either too busy or too lazy to seek out the knowledge. Or, worse, they rely on the news media to provide that information to them. But even in Jefferson’s day, this was foolhardy: “As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers.”
Let me give you three quick examples.
In 1992, it was abundantly clear to anyone who did any kind of research that Bill Clinton was as corrupt as they come. After he won the election, I wrote in a column that he would be the most corrupt president since Warren Harding. I didn’t need a crystal ball to see that one coming. Unfortunately, an uninformed electorate didn’t bother to learn about him and by a plurality — never a majority — he was sent to the White House twice.
A decade later, it was obvious to anyone who cared to research it that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In many columns leading up to the war I articulated how George W. Bush was flat-out wrong on his reasons for invading Iraq. Yet, conservatives and liberals alike put their hands on the war drums and 4,423 Americans and countless Iraqis lost their lives. No WMDs were ever found.
Then, in 2010, it was clear as the nose on your face that millions of people would lose their health insurance under Obamacare and that health care costs would rise through the roof. Yet, an uninformed electorate and an uninformed Congress — U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi: “But we have to pass the [health care] bill so that you can find out what’s in it” — allowed that abomination to be born.
There are other recent examples of what can only be billed as profound ignorance. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson thinking Guam would capsize if too many people were on it. MSNBC host Touré thinking that gerrymandering impacts the U.S. Senate. And U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee asking in 2005 whether the Mars Pathfinder had taken a photograph of the flag planted there by Neil Armstrong in 1969.
This ignorance has seriously deleterious effects on the nation.
In the book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies,” George Mason University economics professor Dr. Bryan Caplan gives a broader example. He said typical voters have strong opinions about economics but are largely ignorant of the subject and tend to support economic policies that are not in their best interest, usually irrationally biased against markets and international trade.
He rightly argues that the system isn’t flawed, the voters are.
Unfortunately, the problem is going to get worse. Even though researching the truth is easier than ever, the critical thinking skills and desire to do it are lacking. And with the increase in information sources comes a proportional increase in bad sources.
To solve this problem, Americans are going to have to educate themselves and, more importantly, remove the partisan blinders that prevent them from seeing the ugly side of their political parties. For if you can’t admit your candidate lied or was wrong on any issue, the political process is doomed from the start.