We take a brief two-week hiatus from our discussion of empathy to discuss this week’s astonishing, if not quite breaking, news that 55% of Americans believe President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. This figure is exactly the same as it was before Obama released his long-form certificate in the spring of 2011, and it comes on the heels of another recent poll, which found, among other things, that only 42% of Americans ranked the following statement as untrue: “Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded in 2003.” 31.8% ranked the statement as true, and a quarter didn’t know.
What accounts for the resiliency of these false beliefs? There are a few possible explanations, all of which have merit. One is that voters have been misled, on these issues and others, by their politicians (and by politicians, I mean Republican leaders) and by a media that often prefers on-the-one-hand-on-the-other stenographing to actual reporting. There is surely some truth here. Donald Trump, take a bow.
Another somewhat related possibility, which Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum has posited when examining other seemingly unlikely poll results, is that respondents’ answers don’t reflect what they really believe to be true but instead function as a sort of tribal marker. In other words, people don’t actually think that Iraq had WMDs. But to say that it did protects their “side” and shows they’re a loyal member of the “team.” (In the above poll, 63% of Republicans said that Iraq had WMDs.) Drum suggests that when people are asked a poll question about Obama, what many of them hear is:
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah President Obama blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Troubling or Not?
I do think there is a lot to this theory, and I’d bet this sort of reasoning manifests itself in a lot of surveys on scientific issues, where for many an answer isn’t just choosing a side on evolution and climate change but choosing a side in America’s ongoing political war. After all, I can’t really pretend to know a massive amount about the science of global warming. It’s not my area of expertise. I take my cues from “elites” I trust: certain politicians, writers, scientists, etc. People listening to other elites might claim to have a completely different “belief” than me.
But perhaps my favorite idea on absurd poll results comes from political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, who notes that many respondents are not taking the “birther” position as a sort of tribal marker but instead out of sheer ignorance. He writes:
I strongly suspect that a decent-sized chunk of ‘birthers’ are aware of neither the natural born citizen requirement nor that there’s any controversy about the whole issue; they heard someplace that Obama was born abroad and he has a funny-sounding name, so they figure he was foreign-born and that’s sort of the end of it, no big deal.
In other words, these are people living totally outside the sort of side-choosing tribal warfare Drum is talking about—people who are unaware that there has been any sort of controversy about the origins of our current President. If you are reading this column, you probably find it astounding that someone could not know this. But that’s because if you are reading this column, you are a high-information citizen. (Even if you think you are not, that is probably only because your friends and coworkers are even better informed than you, but trust me, compared to the general populace, you are.)
There are plenty of fun examples of people who seem spectacularly misinformed about public affairs: The keep-your-government-hands-off-my-Medicare people (though surely tribal markers and identity politics also play a role in this recurring phenomenon). Or the people who think we can balance the budget by cutting foreign aid because they think it constitutes 25% of the budget rather than the less than 1% it actually accounts for.
Don’t get it twisted: this is not a David Brooks-style rant in which I bemoan the decline of American civic engagement and intelligence and self-reliance and our relationship to our leaders. For the most part, I don’t blame low-information voters for being low information. If people don’t know a lot about political issues and happenings, it’s usually because they have plenty of other things to worry about, like finding a job, and feeding their family. Why should normal citizens know what percentage of the budget goes to foreign aid? It’s not their job. There’s a lot more to life than politics. Being stupid and being uninformed is not at all the same thing.
But as we continue to follow this crazy race through the dog days of summer, I think it’s wise to take a step back and remember that most people are not paying attention in the same way that we are, and in fact it’s these people who may be the deciding votes in November. Next week I’ll discuss the consequences of this reality, and what it means for both campaigns and for the way campaigns are covered.