The challenge of overcoming ignorance

THE CHALLENGE OF OVERCOMING IGNORANCE…. In a democracy, the system breaks down and produces counter-productive results when those in charge — the voters — are uninformed. And the fact is, a whole lot of Americans are deeply confused about the facts.

The Obama administration cut taxes for middle-class Americans, expects to make a profit on the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to rescue Wall Street banks and has overseen an economy that has grown for the past four quarters.

Most voters don’t believe it.

A Bloomberg National Poll conducted Oct. 24-26 finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the Nov. 2 midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered.

Public perceptions aren’t even close to reality — by a 52% to 19% margin, for example, likely voters think their federal tax burden has gone up over the last couple of years, even though it hasn’t. Indeed, Democrats approved one of the largest middle-class tax cuts in American history, and the public has no idea that it even happened.

The same is true of the strength of the economy in general — the economy stopped shrinking and started growing more than a year ago, but 61% of respondents in this poll said the economy continued to shrink in 2010, even though it hasn’t.

In general, I’ve long considered one of President Obama’s better qualities is his reluctance to talk down to voters. But it’s possible his assumptions about maturity and the public discourse are simply too generous — leaders can’t assume the electorate has the wisdom to ignore nonsense when the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.

Worse, this rewards Republicans, not just at the ballot box, but for lying uncontrollably for nearly two years. GOP leaders no doubt see polls like this and realize that the more nonsense they pump into the national discourse, the more anxiety-ridden Americans will believe things that aren’t true.

I’ll gladly leave it to others to explain how one overcomes such systemic ignorance, because I honestly don’t have the foggiest idea. It’s one thing for policymakers to adopt policies that make things better; it’s something else for much of the public to simply ignore those policies and reject reality altogether.

To be sure, folks are busy. They have jobs and families, and it’s not easy keeping up on the details of current events. I don’t expect the typical middle-class household, struggling with bills and worried about the future, to start reading CBO reports in their spare time.

But it’s worth realizing that uninformed voters make unwise decisions. The public has enormous responsibilities in our political system, and right now, far too many aren’t prepared to act on those responsibilities in an effective way.

Ignorance spreads like a cancer, and right about now, it’s making our body politic pretty sick.