I had an interesting experience late last week. It taught me some things about where the “average voter” might stand.
Those who frequent Logarchism pay attention to this stuff all the time. Some of us seem to have intravenous feeds of CNN and CSPAN while we sleep. We assume the rest of the electorate is plugged in, too — maybe not to the extent we are, but enough to know the players and the issues, the names and the costs.
Maybe that’s not true.
When we read polls, we assume people are making judgements based on their knowledge of facts, their awareness of history, their concern for the possible effects of policy, and of what the politicians are saying about all that. In point of fact, polls may be telling us something altogether different.
I recently had some work done on my house. The building is older than I am, and that’s saying something. I do most of the repairs myself, but this time, we hired a contracting company to replace the soffits and fascia. (If you don’t know what that means, consider yourself fortunate.)
The two guys doing it were very pleasant young men in their early thirties. They’d been there for most of a week, and I frequently chatted with them after I got home from work and while they were packing up for the day. On the last day of their project, we took a walk around the house for an inspection, then completed the paperwork while standing by their truck.
I think one of them noticed the “Obama 2012″ bumper stickers my wife and I have on the backs of our cars. He asked, “So, do you think Romney or Obama is going to win?”
I didn’t know where these young guys stood in a political sense, and I’d been extremely happy with their work, so I didn’t want to get into a potential argument. I diplomatically said that I didn’t think Romney was a very good campaigner, and that he hadn’t been responding effectively to some of the ads Obama had been putting out. So, I concluded, I thought it was likely Obama would get reëlected.
The two of them looked at each other. One said, “Well, I haven’t been paying much attention yet. Still a while ’till the election, right?”
I nodded. “Not until November.”
“Plenty of time to worry about it then.” He looked thoughtful. “Hey, didn’t Hillary take Obama’s old seat in Chicago? Obama used to be a senator there, right?”
I was confused for a moment. “No, Hillary is now Secretary of State.”
I couldn’t be sure, but I’m not certain either of them knew what “Secretary of State” means. Now, these are very bright guys. I’d spoken with them before. I’d seen them work out some really challenging aspects of the repair job they did around my home. It’s a strange old house, with some odd corners and unusual landscaping. These are really smart guys.
He answered, “I’m sure someone went to Chicago.”
A light dawned. He wasn’t talking about Hillary, and he wasn’t talking about Obama’s senate seat. “Oh! You mean Rahm Emmanuel.”
I elaborated. “He used to be Obama’s Chief of Staff.” Still no recognition. I tried again. “Now he’s Mayor of Chicago.”
One of them brightened. “Yeah, like I said. I knew someone took Obama’s old seat. Obama used to be a senator there, right?”
I’m not certain, but he seemed to see no real difference between Senator from Illinois and Mayor of Chicago. After all, Chicago has something to do with Illinois. Right?
So we started joking about Chicago. A few days before, I’d told them that I grew up there. One of them had a stopover at O’Hare field a few years back, and he wanted to visit the city again some day. He asked if I knew any good restaurants. I advised him check out the observation deck at the top of Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower).
They’d heard of Rod Blagojevich and knew he’d given Obama’s old seat to someone. They’d thought it had been Hillary. I suspect, thanks to me, they now understand it was Rahm. We agreed we all missed seeing Rod on the news. He’d been great fun.
Why am I telling this story? Those of us here who write articles, and those of us who comment on them, and our Gentle Readers who lurk and seldom (if ever) comment — we’re all political wonks. We love this stuff, and we pay attention all the time. We’ve read the Constitution, and I bet most of us could quote passages from it. We (most of us, I bet) know what the Federalist Papers are, and the Articles of Confederation. If we can’t name the first thirteen states when asked, we’d at least have the good sense to be embarrassed by it.
More: We can find Syria on a map. China, too. We at least know the order of magnitude of annual federal spending, the national debt, probably the GDP. We know what “NASA” stands for, and that more American soldiers were killed in Iraq than the number of civilians who died in the attack on the World Trade Center. We can probably name the last six presidents (probably the last ten or fifteen), in order, backwards, without even thinking about it. I admitted to these two pleasant young men that I’d been born while Eisenhower was president, and proceeded to name all the American heads of state since then — and it was quite a while before I chanced on a name they knew. They certainly couldn’t name the guys who’d held that office since their births. They didn’t even know for sure who’d held the office in the early 1980s when they were born.
I suspect most Americans don’t care all that much about any of this. It’s not that they’re uneducated, or stupid. I don’t want to give a false impression. These two guys were really bright. Really, really smart. I’d chatted with them about a whole range of things. They are funny, clever, sharp, and — it must be said — pretty damn good looking, too (and I don’t even swing that way).
They just were a lot more interested in football than in politics. (Since I’d grown up in Chicago, one of them went on about wanting to visit Soldier Field some day.) I would have been in a comparable position if they’d started talking about, say, hockey, or nearly anything connected with horseracing. Not my area, and I’m not really all that interested in it.
They didn’t really seem to care much about the upcoming election. Plenty of time to think about it later. If a pollster had asked them who they were going to vote for, their preference clearly would not have been based on any in-depth knowledge of the issues. It would have been like asking my opinion on the upcoming curling tourney. (Does curling have tourneys?)
I suspect, for most people, an opinion on, say, Obamacare is not based on any knowledge of what’s in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but only on a distant awareness of the term “Obamacare” having been been used as a swear word. They follow current events no more closely than they follow a TV show they don’t watch. We who follow this stuff think that polls for or against something mean that Americans have an opinion about what’s in the thing, an opinion about the issues and the politics and the arguments and facts that have been presented for and against.
It isn’t that Americans are unintelligent. They are uninformed. And, increasingly, they are disinformed. They don’t much care about politics, because they don’t see how it affects their daily lives.
Okay, I know that a single encounter with one pair of construction contractors can’t — or at least, shouldn’t — be generalized to America at large. But it brought me up short. People tend to hang with other people who have similar interests, if not similar opinions. We who care about politics might think that others who vote are also at least marginally informed concerning the issues.
I’m not sure that’s true. If I suddenly was asked to vote for a finalist on American Idol, and if I felt it was kind of my civic duty to do so, I might pick a name I’d heard. Or imagined I’d heard. Or one that sounded sexy. Or one the guys at work mentioned. I don’t know anything about American Idol. I suspect a lot of voters don’t know anything more about Afghanistan or the economy or the debt ceiling or tax rates or health care.
Do politicians count on this lack of interest and lack of information? If you were a political strategist, what would you do with this apathy? Would you try to inform people — or try to simply build an image that would make Your Guy look good, and The Other Guy look bad? Do any actual facts matter, given that a significant percentage of your consumers neither know nor care about facts?
I recall hearing Everett Dirksen when I saw him in person, running for re-election to the Senate back in the 1960s — “I don’t talk about issues. Voters don’t understand issues.” (He had a thick accent. It wasn’t “issues”. It was ishahs. It was also unnerrstan’.)
I’m voting Ashton Kirtchly off the Island. Wait — didn’t she go to Chicago?
- Rahm Emanuel to Mitt Romney: ‘Stop Whining’ (abcnews.go.com)
- Where is Penny Pritzker? Too much of an embarrassment for Obama but not for Rahm. (preaprez.wordpress.com)
- Never let a crisis go to waste: Obama makes Aurora pit stop on West Coast fund-raising swing (twitchy.com)
- Hollywood Producer: Obama Campaign Threatened To Murder Clintons (judgementofamerica.wordpress.com)
About dcpetterson (187 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson