by Michael A. Maynard
October 10, 2014

“A good Government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of Government, which is the happiness of the People; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.”

James Madison, The Federalist Papers

In Part I, we discussed Professor Samuel Popkin’s theory of “the low information voter”, the citizen who knows little about the policies and voting records of the political candidates, but votes based upon heuristics, advertisements and discussions with other low information voters.  They vote for the candidate “I’d most like to have a beer with”.  Unfortunately, this usually means that they vote for the candidate who appeals to  their worst instincts and will back policies and programs that are not in their best interests.

While the ideas of James Madison and the Founding Fathers were prescient about the role and establishment of government, they could not and did not foresee a major current problem: What if the citizenry chooses not to be informed about what government does?

A study done by the National Constitutional Center (NCC) in 2007 found that Americans did not know about the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the law. And the survey says ….

Here are the percentage of Americans who do not know:

67%  – all three branches of the U.S. Government

67% –  the name of one Supreme Court justice

91% –  the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

50% –  only knew free speech as one of their First Amendment rights

33% –  one of the First Amendment rights

43% –  English is not the official language of the United States

25% –  the Constitution does not state that Christianity is the official national religion

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s polling confirms these results:

“A majority of Americans from all backgrounds struggled to come up with the correct answers in a quiz about American history by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI’s basic 33 question test on civic literacy and 71% of them received an average score of 49% or an “F.”

The quiz reveals that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The study finds that only half of U.S. adults can name all three branches of government, and just 54% know that the power to declare war belongs to Congress. Almost 40% incorrectly said that it belongs to the president. Only 40% know that there are 100 Senators.

Those who have held elected office lack civic knowledge; 43% do not know the Electoral College is a constitutionally mandated assembly that elects the president. One in five thinks it “trains those aspiring for higher office” or “was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates.”

“The optimists point to surveys indicating that about half the country can describe some differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties. But if they do not know the difference between liberals and conservatives, as surveys indicate, how can they possibly say in any meaningful way how the parties differ? And if they do not know this, what else do they not know?”

It would have been staggering to Madison how little most Americans know about government and how many do not care that they do not know. 1 out of 10 Americans have no interest in politics. Pew Research calls them bystanders.  Not surprisingly, 2/3 of these bystanders have a high school or less education.

Pew Research "Bystanders"

Pew Research “Bystanders”

Even scarier – the groups who potentially gain the most from government programs are the ones who do not care.

Bystanders are young (38% are under 30), and nearly a third (32%) are Hispanic. A third of Bystanders are foreign born, a higher share than any of the other typology groups, including 29% total who are not citizens.

Asked about their interest in a number of topics, 73% of Bystanders say they have no interest in government and politics, and two-thirds (66%) say they are not interested in business and finance. So what topics do interest them? Health, science and celebrities: 64% of Bystanders are interested in celebrities and entertainment (vs. 46% of the public). And, in a sign of their youth, they are drawn to video games: 35% call themselves a “video or computer gamer” (vs. 21% of the public).

So we have a citizenry which does not know how government works and most don’t really care to know. What are the results? Low voter turnout and divisive partisan politics.

The Gallup organization reports that enthusiasm to vote in the 2014 midterm elections is low.

Turnout in the midterm elections this fall could be lower than in the past two midterm elections, based on current voter engagement. On each of three indicators of voter engagement in midterm elections — how much thought Americans have given to them, their expressed motivation to vote, and their enthusiasm about voting compared with past elections — 2014 looks more like lower-turnout years 1998 and 2002 than higher-turnout years 2006 and 2010.


Gallup Poll - Midterm Election Turnout

Gallup Poll – Midterm Election Turnout

Those who do vote are more extremely liberal and more conservative.

Pew Research Typology Chart

Pew Research Typology Chart

According to University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek:

“Reality is complicated and messy…Ideologies get rid of the messiness and impose a simpler solution. So, it may not be surprising that people with less cognitive capacity will be attracted to simplifying ideologies.

As Brian Nosek states reality is messy, so campaigning as ideologues, like the Tea Party candidates do, means not dealing with reality, but promoting the fantasy of eliminating or greatly reducing the federal government. What we have is an unhealthy mix of many Americans being not interested in politics and being more interested in entertainment. In order for a politician running for office, especially running for statewide office for the first time, to get attention he/she has to say and do things to gain attention, being an entertainer. This also means that they have a greater reliance on campaign advertisements and an effective “ground game”, the retail politics to get people to vote and to the polls. More advertising + more effective ground game = $$$$$, which means a greater reliance on large campaign contributions.

A prime example of this is the Iowa Senate race, one of the nine key Senate races in the 2014 midterm election. Five term liberal Democrat  Senator Tom Harkin is retiring. Current Iowa Congressman Bruce Braley and Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst are running to replace him. Gallup considers Iowa split down the middle politically. considers Braley’s voting record to be consistent with that of  Senator Harkin – a traditional liberal Democrat.

Based on analysis of multiple outside rankings, Braley is an average Democratic member of Congress, meaning he will vote with the Democratic Party on the majority of bills.

It also means that Braley is primarily running on the issues affecting Iowans.

And is relying on an effective ground game.

It’s almost conceivable that the deluge of political ads would more likely inspire Iowans to take a shower than rouse them to vote.

And that’s where volunteers like Yankey come in.

“You need to meet your neighbors face to face because the political ads are so horrible, and you don’t know who to believe,” she said as she sought to get her bearings in the working-class neighborhood that organizers assigned to her this particular evening. “The thing is, in general, people don’t get excited about the midterms. I think it’s so sad. … Old, white, rural, conservative voters come out, but the people who live here stand to lose the most, so we have to get them to the polls.”

Actually, Yankey doesn’t have to get them to the polls. She just has to get them to fill out a form to request an absentee ballot, which they can then mail in.

In completing this task on a large scale, Democrats are relying on their well-documented edge in the ground game, which they have exploited to great effect since President Obama’s 2008 Iowa caucus campaign set a new standard for organizational excellence.

“Our field operation in Iowa is enormous and far bigger than anything the Republicans are doing or anything any statewide race has ever done,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Justin Barasky.”

Joni Ernst is currently a member of the Iowa state senate. Ernst is a typical  Tea Party right-wing conservative and is getting the endorsements of the typical right-wing conservatives and conservatice organizations.  In a Facebook post, half-term, half-wit former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin endorsed Ernst.

“If Nebraska’s Deb Fischer can see through the bull in Washington, then Iowa’s Joni Ernst can help her cut through the pork. Growing up on a hog farm in Southwest Iowa, Joni has taken her ‘pork cutting’ skills to the Iowa State Senate where she has been a champion for life, small government, and lower taxes – voting for the largest tax cut in Iowa history. In Washington, she has pledged to defund Obamacare, limit the size of government, and protect life. As a concealed weapon license holder, she will fight to defend our Second Amendment rights – the NRA has given her an A rating.”

Joni Ernst did get the attention of Iowans and the national media with her initial campaign commercial, the infamous pig castration ad. It also means Ernst is basing her campaign on  emotional appeals to the low information voters.

Joni Ernst calls for elimination of Internal Revenue Service, Department of Education and Environmental Protection Agency, which is straight from the Koch Brothers/American Legislative Exchange Council play book. She also opposes a national minimum wage – also from the ALEC play book.

The campaign contributions for this race are typical of the current liberal vs. conservative divide in the post Citizens United political era  – a flood of “dark money” contributions involved.

Braley has Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action political action committee, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and League of Conservation Voters backing him. Ernst has the multiple Koch Brothers’ action committees, the National Rifle Association and National Republican Senatorial Committee backing her. I’m sure that James Madison never foresaw this pernicious state of United States politics.

Leaving out the partisan polling, the Braley-Ernst race is extremely close with either Braley or Ernst even or ahead by 1%.

Joni Ernst represents the worst in current national politics – appealing to the curse of the low information voter. Iowa, the Show Me state, does have a proud tradition of having an informed electorate cognizant of the role of government.  It’s up to the Hawkeye state to be sharp and show us, the rest of the country and itself, that this tradition still applies.

Columnist/Journalist/Writer/Book Editor Co-Founder/CEO of Azimuth Partners, high tech consulting firm for 30+ years. Former columnist for the Washington Post/Newsweek syndicate.

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