Two days after the 9/11 attacks, CNN and Time magazine released a joint poll asking whether the U.S. should declare war. Sixty-two percent of respondents said yes. Asked whom war should be declared against, 61 percent said they didn’t know.
That, in a nutshell, is why most polls are an exercise in frivolity – a depressing if sometimes perversely entertaining reflection of Americans’ constantly shifting, poorly informed, half-baked and often contradictory collective mindset.
Three years ago the historian Rick Shenkman released a slim but information-packed and thought-provoking volume titled Just How Stupid Are We? in which he lamented a generation of Americans “far less equipped than their grandparents were to grapple with the challenges facing the nation.”
Among the dozens of examples cited by Shenkman, he noted that “Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Fewer than half of Americans could tell you her name during her entire tenure.”
He also pointed out that just “35 percent know that Congress can override a presidential veto” while 49 percent think the president can suspend the Constitution.”
The idea that we are living in a confederacy of dunces is nothing new; Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken were just two of many men of letters who almost from the nation’s founding never tired of excoriating the ignorance of their countrymen. Imagine what they’d think upon making the acquaintance of the current crop of Americans.
In his 2002 book Mobocracy: How the Media’s Obsession with Polling Twists the News, Alters Elections and Undermines Democracy, Matthew Robinson highlighted the following:
● Twenty-nine percent of the American public believes the Constitution guarantees everyone a job; 42 percent believe it guarantees health care; 75 percent believe it guarantees a high school education.
● Nearly half – 45 percent – of all Americans believe the Marxist axiom “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” is in the Constitution.
● A January 2000 Gallup Poll found that 66 percent of Americans could name the host of TV’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (Regis Philbin), but just 6 percent knew the name of the speaker of the House of Representatives (Dennis Hastert).
● Political scientists Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter attempted to get a handle on the public’s political knowledge by studying thousands of questions asked in polls beginning back in the 1930s. Among their findings: more people had heard of John Lennon than Karl Marx; more Americans could identify actor Bill Cosby than could name either of their U.S. senators; and more people knew who said “What’s Up, Doc,” than “Give me liberty or give me death.”
● A 1986 survey found that almost 24 percent of the American public did not know who George H.W. Bush was or that he was then serving his second term as vice president of the United States.
● The Vanishing Voter Project, a program of Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, conducted a running survey of randomly selected registered voters during the 2000 presidential campaign. Respondents were asked six questions on the policy positions of Republican George W. Bush and six on the positions of Democrat Al Gore. Of the twelve questions – which covered a broad range of topics including defense spending, campaign financing, offshore drilling and affirmative action – only one was answered correctly by a majority of Americans. The rest of them weren’t even a close call.
The mindlessness works both ways: pollsters can be just as frivolous as the people they’re paid to question. A Time/CNN poll in 2002 asked, “Just as your best guess, do you think Osama bin Laden is alive or dead?” Meanwhile, TV Guide actually did a poll to learn whether Americans would prefer Barbara Walters or Dianne Sawyer to interview bin Laden (assuming he was alive, of course).
The distinction for the all-time mindless poll question was no doubt earned by the ABC News/Washington Post polling unit, which in July 1985 asked people whether they thought President Reagan would suffer a recurrence of cancer before leaving office three and a half years later. (For the record, 54 percent were certain he wouldn’t, 33 percent said he would, and an intelligent sliver, 12 percent, said they had no idea.)
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org