Ignorance of the Vast Electorate

Ignorance and apathy

By Cal Thomas

Tribune Content Agency

There’s an old joke about a fictitious poll taker who asked people what they thought about ignorance and apathy when it comes to politics and elections. One respondent said, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

I thought of that joke after seeing a recent YouGov poll. It shows a vast gap between what people believe to be true and what is verifiably true.

Here are a few examples. According to the poll, transgender individuals make up just 1 percent of the U.S. population, yet people believe the estimated proportion is 21 percent. Only about 1 percent of U.S. households earn more than $500,000 a year, but the survey shows respondents believe 26 percent earn more than that amount.

Three percent of the U.S. population identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, but the survey shows people think the figure is 30 percent. The Black population of the country is 12 percent, but people surveyed think it is 41 percent. Hispanic? The actual number is 17 percent, while the perception is 39 percent. It is the same for atheists: 3 percent (actual) vs. 33 percent (perception).

What accounts for this vast disparity between perception and reality? It can only be the news and entertainment media and what they choose to highlight, as well as the bias they bring to subjects and issues they seek to promote, denigrate, or ignore.

As James Freeman recently noted in The Wall Street Journal: “The current custom in journalism holds that legislation sponsored by Democrats carries the title preferred by Democrats, while a Republican-sponsored bill carries the title preferred by Democrats.” He cites President Biden’s “Build Back Better” proposal, which is about raising taxes and increased spending. The media call the measure by his preferred label. Compare that to “Florida’s new law shielding 7-year-olds from state-sponsored gender identity,” which the media and activists insist on labeling the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Numerous other examples could be mentioned, including the media’s propensity to use words like “hard right” and “extreme” when they mention conservatives, but often decline to attach the word “liberal” or “hard left” to people whose policies and views fit that description.

Controlling language shapes public perception and eventually opinion.

Variations of this quote have been attributed to different people, but it sums up the problem when it comes to the public’s understanding of major issues: “Never underestimate the ignorance (or stupidity) of the vast American electorate.” That sounds cynical but given how some elections have gone based on what people think is true (but often is not) it has the ring of credibility. President Biden campaigning as a “moderate” is another example of falsehood vs. reality.

People applying for a driver’s license must take a written test to prove that they know the rules of the road. Those seeking U.S. citizenship must prove they speak English and have a basic knowledge of civics, the Constitution, and a familiarity with U.S. history. To earn a degree, students must pass written tests and for advanced degrees make a verbal defense of their thesis. Only when it comes to voting can someone cast a ballot with no knowledge, or incorrect knowledge, about the candidates and issues.

While I’m not suggesting mandatory tests before people can vote, which smacks of Jim Crow laws that discriminated against Black people, it would help strengthen democracy if an effort was made to ensure that voters have at least a minimal understanding of issues and candidates before they cast their ballots.

How this could be done without the imposition of one’s own perceptions is key. I am open to suggestions, but the system we have now could be improved if people had a better understanding of economic, political, and cultural issues than what they get from major media.

Perhaps Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter will help swing the scale in the direction toward reality.

(Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribpub.com. Look for Cal Thomas’ latest book “America’s Expiration Date: The Fall of Empires and Superpowers and the Future of the United States” (HarperCollins/Zondervan).

(c) 2022 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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6 Comments

  1. James C. Kilgore on May 3, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air to have every candidate running for office, to state their history in public office (or not), and what their platforms truly are ; what they believe is going to be best for this country and/or the office that they are running for in a state wide election. And then have this posted in a newspaper (w/o bias) for all people to read and make an educated decision based on these declarations.
    I personally would love to see all television ads be banned and have this be the law of the land. These days and probably the last 40 years or more it’s almost abhorrent to me to think someone can be elected just by what someone hears on a TV ad and think it’s the gospel for that candidate. That’s my view.

    • James L. Snyder on May 6, 2022 at 4:36 pm

      There once was a time when there was a firewall between the op-ed section and the front page. While PBS claims to give us the “unvarnished” facts about issues, I note the commentators are often folks who are past (or present) mainstream news people – who seem to have a liberal flavor. I do like newspaper reporting where the news staff have the time to research their stories. Unfortunately, today’s news is like “fast food,” hastily prepared with little care for quality (veracity).

  2. Michael Dunn on May 5, 2022 at 3:14 pm

    I know this sounds like a simplistic approach, and would need a good Having read your article, “Ignorance, apathy taking over”, in New Bern, NC Sun Journal. I just have to say that I couldn’t agree more that voters desperately need to have some minimal understanding of issues and candidates before voting. Like you, I am not sure exactly how to achieve that given the publics opposition to so many efforts to maintain public health for example, as an attack on personal freedoms or democracy. All the while, these same people are supporting political leadership who have participated in the insurrection Jan. 6, 2020. in an effort to thwart the rightful winner of the cleanest election in our history claiming it defrauded Donald Trump of the win. Thats a long way to say that ignorance seems to be running rampant among the electorate. Despite all evidence to the contrary by some 60 baseless court cases claiming election fraud with not a scintilla of evidence to validate that claim. People still chant the big lie as a truth.
    How does anyone illuminate the electorate to factual information regarding issues as well as candidates when these same people refuse to accept plain truths as facts. Trump supporters are not dissuaded in their fervor for his so-called leadership regardless all evidence of his corruption in office, complicity in events of Jan 6, unbounded lies tallied in the thousands while in office. Of course, this is tip of the iceberg of evil doings by Trump and family, friends.
    I fear we may well be in serious jeopardy of losing our democracy when the candidates for president of these United States for the Republican party are to be chosen from the very people perpetrating the overthrow of democracy to serve their desires.
    Getting back to the issue at hand, i.e., help the voters to gain a truer and more accurate picture of issues and candidates.
    I believe a multipronged approach would be necessary. Public discourse with all parties presents should have to briefly state their belief in a concise manner. A panel of judges (or other designation) would press each individual to validate their belief or claim. The panel would have open debate to determine the truth or fallacy of said claim of belief as fact or fiction. Opinion would not be a viable argument.
    Panels could appear on television, internet. and public venues. Other option would be to send out information to the electorate at large wherein many common forms of misinformation would be listed along with claims made. Each would need to be debunked with verifiable evidence referenced and documented. The reason these false conspiracy theories are promoted and the dangers they present to the country and our democracy. Panels of truth seeking would need to have solid credentials and could be chosen from government, industry, as well as educational backgrounds. They would need to be compensated for their time, travel, at a minimum. deal of tweaking, but I think some variation of this needs to be put forth to at least try to stem the tide of misinformation out there.
    I am also aware you can’t change a person’s heartfelt beliefs with just the facts. People adopt those beliefs based upon a myriad of reasons such as fear, religious beliefs, educational level, socioeconomics and more. This is a very difficult issue to attempt to take on.
    Apologies for the digression earlier, I have my own tired worn-out fears of another four years of Trump or Trump like politico worming their way into the oval office to further defile our beautiful republic.

  3. Dennis MmcGuire on May 10, 2022 at 6:52 pm

    I suspect one of the reasons why so many people overestimate the percentages of minorities and LBGT is because your comrades on the far right keep obsessing about them and persecuting them through ill-conceived laws. I do like your proposal of a constitutional knowledge test to be able to vote. It should be applied to candidates as well. It would have saved us from four years of ignorance and falsehoods under Trump

    • Cal Thomas on May 11, 2022 at 1:03 pm

      Just the opposite I think. It is their activism that is pushing the agenda

  4. Anne McKnew on May 13, 2022 at 5:23 pm

    I suggest:
    Push back against polls that predict the winner of an election. These polls have probably surveyed only a small percentage of the population and can be used to manipulate others. We never know what questions were asked, or how they were phrased. They only tell us what some people think. Why should anyone base their vote on what others think?
    Push back against the myth that we waste our vote when we have voted for someone who doesn’t win. As long as we vote for the person we think is the best for the job, taking into consideration our own priorities, we have not wasted our vote. Rather, we waste our vote when we vote the way someone else wants us to vote. Our relatives, friends, and the people fortunate enough to have been polled have their own votes. Voting the way they want us to, is like giving them our ballot. Why should we do that?
    Encourage researching the candidates. There are voting guides which give the candidates views on the issues. the candidates websites, and a website called Vote Smart that gives information on the candidates. An average voter does not have time to do extensive research, but can do enough to get an idea what the candidates stand for.

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