But the rascals are us!

Bob Somerby

October 24, 1990|By Bob Somerby

SOCIETIES in hard times need a scapegoat. And as Americans conduct the Capricorn Search of 1990, Congress is clearly the winner.

Seldom has a public body behaved so irresponsibly, if the philosophers of the talk show circuit are to be believed.

The mounting deficit, the budget impasse, the threat of government shutdown or of Gramm-Rudman sequestration -- all these have convinced Joe Sixpack that something is wrong, and the finger points directly at Congress. There's even a national movement to vote the entire body out of office.

I do not believe this "analysis" of our problem, but there is one group of Americans which has clearly failed in its obligation to our democratic process. It comprises those who fail to vote -- two-third of those registered in the September Maryland primary -- and those who are ignorant of what is happening in their country. In short, it's us.

Poll after poll by reputable polling organizations makes clear that the typical American is woefully uninformed about the workings of government -- and is therefore unable to execute the responsible oversight of government that is necessary in a democracy.

For example, consider a national poll taken by the Los Angeles Times over the weekend of Oct. 6 through Oct. 8, three days after President Bush's nationally televised speech urging adoption of the budget hammered out at the joint budget "summit." This was a period when coverage of the budget impasse had pushed virtually all other news off the front pages and a shutdown of all federal operations was a distinct possibility.

Nevertheless, only 11 percent of American adults contacted in the poll were able to identify Medicare cuts as one of the provisions of the proposed budget plan (and arguably the primary factor in Congress' rejection of it).

What this means is that the vast majority of American adults lacked the most basic information about one of the most hotly debated issues of the day.

But it does not, of course, keep many of these same people from offering sweeping explanations -- invariably blaming others -- for what is wring with politics today.

Nor is this figure from the Times poll an isolated story. Polling throughout the past decade has shown that Americans know precious little about their own government or how it functions.

For example, a major national poll in 1989 found that 91 percent of American adults could not name the chief justice of the Supreme Court. By contrast, 54 percent were able to name the judge of the syndicated TV show, "The People's Court."

People whose tastes have been trivialized so pervasively have no one but themselves to blame for the failure of government.

And politicians will take advantage of this astounding public ignorance. For example, could Bush have made his fatuous "no new taxes" pledge to any but an uninformed and unsophisticated electorate? At the time he made the pledge, economists and informed watchers of government predicted he would not be able to keep it. What percentage of the electorate was listening?

In times of trouble, and we have troubles in spades, it is always emotionally satisfying to find someone else to blame. Surely, members of Congress can correctly be blamed for some of the problems we face. But the taxpayer-voter plays a crucial role in our government, and it is a role that is being grievously played.

Public ignorance is one of the glaring weaknesses of our democracy, and those who want to restore democracy must start by healing themselves.

Bob Somerby is a Baltimore comedian.


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