Dumbing Down Politics

by Caleb Powers | 10/15/04 5:00am

Congratulations, Dartmouth students, you got in to college. That probably means that you also graduated sixth grade, along with the vast majority of adults in the United States. Kudos. Sure, this is no news to you or me, but apparently George W. Bush and John Kerry didn't get the memo.

In a recent Princeton Review study of the vocabulary used in this year's presidential debates, Bush and Kerry were found to have spoken at a sixth and seventh grade level, respectively. For perspective, the organization analyzed several other presidential debates. For example, in Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy's 1960 debate, famous for being the first televised presidential debate, each candidate spoke at a tenth grade level. The Lincoln vs. Douglas debates were at 11th and 12th grade levels. Surprised? I was too -- who knew that the Princeton Review did more than rank party schools?

John Doe might attribute the results of the study to the "dumbing down" of American politics, and John would be right. Many members of the academic community have been increasingly critical of politicians for their overly simplistic explanations of the issues and for their ceaseless character attacks. These same academics have called upon the American electorate to hold candidates more responsible for the manner in which they run for office. The solution is, they argue, unambiguous in a democracy: Ask the tough questions. If a politician is a liar, don't vote for him. If candidates won't hold themselves to a higher standard, do it for them.

Why, then, have the people of this country failed in this regard? The answer seems to be that they just don't care. Since college campuses are one of the hot spots for political activism, many of us don't see the obnoxious amount of sociopolitical ignorance that exists in this country. The "NASCAR Dad" has become the target voter of candidates across the political spectrum. He is the Platonic form of the America-loving, pickup-driving, war-supporting, mullet-sporting, "kick ass" attitude guy invented by pollsters. There are almost eighty million NASCAR fans in this country. Seriously. This sport makes less sense to me than cricket -- and I'm from Kansas. They watch a bunch of cars turn left for four hours every week. How can we expect these people to have time to decide what they think about single-payer healthcare systems? Politicians are not lowering standards because they hate discussing public policy, but rather, to communicate with the electorate in a way conducive to winning elections.

Indeed, the crux of the problem is not how the politicians run campaigns, but instead is the ignorance of the people following them, and the media acting as bulletin boards instead of arbitrators of the truth. The closest we get to real political discourse is during the presidential debates. Yet two minutes is not enough time to give a satisfactory answer to any real policy question. However, even if more time was given and real debates were held, many Americans would decide to just hear about who won the next day on CNN or Fox. Why? The discussion would be over most of our heads because we don't have time to crunch numbers or delineate every consequence of some policies. The framers understood this problem two hundred fifty years ago, leaving most policy discussion out of the realm of public debate. Today, because we all vote for the president and senators, it might be the case that more knowledge and participation is required of us. Unfortunately, we'd rather get the bullet-points from twenty-four-hour cable news networks than dissect the issues for ourselves.

Although ignorance accounts for most of the dumbing-down of politics, it is not the sole reason. The problem is that what the electorate is looking for in a president is not an astute policymaker, but rather a guy you could "drink a beer with," a "guy like me." These ridiculous demands placed on politicians force candidates to flip burgers at diners for the cameras and to not seem too smart, lest the electorate classify them elitist intellectuals.

Politicians are not perfect people. A lot of politicians are not good people. Many abuse power and are corrupted by money from special interests. Yet, the way that campaigns are run cannot be blamed on them. It is the voters who continue to look for the wrong things and be persuaded by the wrong arguments. A candidate will run a campaign to get elected, not to change the system. The burden is on us, but are we up to the challenge? I'm organizing an activist meeting this weekend at -- wait, never mind, the Subway 500 is this weekend.

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