What We Don’t Know Will Hurt Us

I came upon a very informative article that cited many details about how shallow political knowledge evolves for most American voters and how its used when they go to the polls, write or call their congressperson or send letters to the editor in their local paper.  I have taken the essentials of the article and posted them here but do take the time to read the CQ Weekly piece by Fred Barbash – What They Don’t Know About the Deficit 

In a recent CNN-Opinion Research survey, 30 percent of the respondents guessed that a fifth or more of the budget goes for foreign humanitarian and development aid. The real figure is closer to six-tenths of 1 percent.

In a recent CNN-Opinion Research survey, 30 percent of the respondents guessed that a fifth or more of the budget goes for foreign humanitarian and development aid. The real figure is closer to six-tenths of 1 percent.

In a Bloomberg survey, 70 percent said cutting foreign aid would make a large dent in the deficit. Fewer than half said the same about cutting Medicare.

About 22 percent of the respondents, when surveyed, thought the Corporation for Public Broadcasting consumes more than a tenth of the budget. The reality is closer to a hundredth of a percent.

And about a quarter of those in the survey believed that more than 10 percent of taxpayer money pays for housing assistance for the poor. The real figure is about 1.2 percent.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that nearly half the respondents could not say whether the Obama administration’s health care law was still law. A quarter thought it had been repealed. Another didn’t know whether it existed or not.

On the economy, almost two-thirds of voters surveyed in a Bloomberg poll believed incorrectly that the economy hadn’t grown during 2010, when, in fact, it grew all that fiscal year.

In the immediate wake of the 2010 election, fewer than half of Americans, according to a Pew poll, didn’t know exactly how it came out, whether Republicans had won the House, the House and the Senate, or neither.

A particularly important aspect of this article was the revelation about how voters become entrenched with their misinformation and how paid political consultants will exploit that.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University showed in an ambitious experiment how resistant voters can be to adjusting their version of reality even when presented with the corrective facts. Non-truth sticks, especially when it reinforces an existing bias.

That’s why misleading ads, Nyhan said in an interview, are so popular with consultants — and even more so when such ads create a controversy, which serves to reinforce the falsehood. The consultants’ position “may take a negative hit,” he says, “but they know that once these things are out there, they’re hard to walk back.”

As proof, he says the “death panel” myth persists to this day.

It is shocking for someone like me to see how little my friends, neighbors and family know about what goes on around them.  A poll this last March by the Pew Research Center found that:

• 43 percent of the public didn’t know the unemployment rate.

• 57 percent didn’t know the name of the Speaker of the House.

• 60 percent didn’t know that most U.S. electricity comes from coal.

• 62 percent didn’t know that Republicans had a majority in the House.

• 71 percent didn’t know that the single program on which the government spends the most money is Medicare.

The public’s ignorance on many important social and economic issues is astounding.  A study done by WorldPublicOpinion.org in December 2010. found “strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the issues prominent in the election campaign,” including the economic stimulus law, the health care overhaul, the state of the economy, climate change, campaign contributions and President Obama’s birthplace.”

Voters uniformly misattributed the origins of both the financial and auto bailouts, saying Obama started both, when in fact both began under President George W. Bush.

Only 10 percent of the voters knew that their taxes had gone down in recent years. About 38 percent of them believed they had gone up during Obama’s presidency.

There are of course individuals and small groups funded by wealthy special interests that foster the myths about social and economic policy in a style that conceals their intent.  Think tanks with men of political, academic and economic expertise are paid to put out papers that come across to naive voters as legitimate an unbiased.  Among those wealthy individuals are Charles and David Koch and Richard Mellon Scaife and his wife Sarah.

On Social Security alone the Koch billionaires fund at least 4 think tanks including the CATO Institute and the Heritage Foundation to disperse misinformation about this vital retirement program for millions of Americans in the hope that they can kill this federal program and funnel all that money into private accounts they and the financial industry would use to further the growing gaps between the very wealthy and everyone else.  To get but a taste of this power grab watch this brief video by Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Foundation

One of the Scaife beneficiary’s, Grover Norquist, is cited in this article as a factor in what gets presented to voters as a legitimate concern to the detriment of other equally and more important isasues like jobs and the costly wars in we’re involved with in the Mideast.

In recent months, Norquist has figured prominently in the deficit debate, feuding with some GOP senators who think he’s getting in the way of a possible compromise that would bring Republicans on board to raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2 to avoid what Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner says would be catastrophic consequences.

“Simplification of the tax code was something Republicans have talked about for a long time,” says Maryland’s Ramsay. “But Grover Norquist says ‘no.’ The question is why is that so potent. . . . Where does this depth of perception that he has this power come from? The biggest political decision was Grover Norquist sitting alone and deciding that reforming the tax code consisted of a tax increase. Had he decided the other way, the road might have been open” to agreement.

Activists such as Norquist may be simplifying things for voters. But some believe that the black-and-white inflexible distinctions they draw discourage political deal-making in Congress, Grove said. Meanwhile, citizens who might support compromise largely remain in the dark and on the sidelines. Recent polls do in fact show the public to be more receptive than Congress to a compromise of tax measures and spending cuts.

Barbash tries to end his article on a positive note.

“Opinions do change when people get information,” Andrew Kohut says, “and they will get the information on things they’ve not thought about when they see an opportunity, or when they feel threatened.”

But there is a limit that when exceeded will make it more difficult and perhaps even impossible to reverse course on.  The German people learned this the hard way as they were carried away with the views of an elite group and their charismatic leader that stoked a nationalistic fervor excluding all but the most rigid steps to bring themselves out of the morass they found themselves in following World War I.

Sadly too, there were but a handful of those people who survived after following Jim Jones down to the jungles in Guyana South America in the hopes that they too would see a better world as they isolated themselves from the rest of the real world.

10 responses to “What We Don’t Know Will Hurt Us

  1. It’s impossible to know everything, but I think it’s easy to count on media outlets to get the sound bites that sort of go along with one’s beliefs. It is very disheartening especially now with so much at stake to not be aware of the most crucial issues. We might not have to know numbers, but we could know the issues.

    • It is imposible to know everything Donna but as Barbash points out in his article “Not knowing in America is an old habit that should have faded over the years, given Americans’ educational opportunities and access to information, but hasn’t, according to those who study public opinion. … civic-minded activists, indeed generations of civics teachers, used to hope that as people became better educated and as news became more accessible, America’s political IQ would improve. That does not appear to have happened.”

      Even when people here the facts they dispute them. You would think this would send up red-flags for them and decide to start checking every “outrage” they get from e-mail alerts on or what people in their select clique tell them. Many seem to prefer ignorance over changing bad habits.

  2. Ohhhh Yeah!..pass the Kool-AIDE……..
    LB you are remarkable, what I don’t get is: HOW can you enjoy reading MY stupid nonsense blog with all your captivating knowledge and insight to what really matters……

  3. Charly is a fine writer. Of course I just found Charly’s blog, via your’s, but that has no bearing on my assessment of her. 😉

    You, Mr. Woodgate, are a wonder to behold. I adore you and I don’t even know you. Speaking truth to power isn’t always an easy row to hoe..but you do it quite well. Thank You for blogging!

      • I use Intense Debate commenting system. You do not have to log in, you can comment w/just your name and email addy. That part is at the bottom of the comment section. I hope you can see that part of the section. Depending on the browser you use..anything but IE, you should be able to see the entire comment system.

        I hate them, but if I try to uninstall their software, it will erase all my comments and I have done that already and I am tired of losing all my comments.

  4. I blame the lack of knowledge for the sad shape that our governance is in…….ignorance is what got working people in trouble in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, etc………they could not see the hidden agenda of the governors they elected and now thet are paying the price and unfortunately it will continue to grow until the voter drops the XBox control and reads a newspaper……

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