Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.
This is an email interview I did with AMFM Magazine. It just went online.
Rick, is the American voter misinformed, and sadly lacking in knowledge of world affairs?
I guess you decided to start with an easy question. The answer is yes, of course. Studies going back half a century show that a majority of Americans know next to little about government, politics or history. A majority don’t know we have 3 branches of government. A majority don’t know there are 100 US senators. A majority don’t know that the only country to drop an atomic bomb in a war was their own, the United States. Most Americans can’t find Iraq on a map even though we’ve been bombing the country since the 1990s. So the answer is unquestionably yes.
Why are Americans so easily misled, given that there is so much technological advancement (social media, etc.)? Why don’t more people investigate what we are fed by the media?
Now, we are getting to a harder question. You would certainly think that because we have access to all the information we need that people would make good use of it. But most people don’t. Why is that? When the media ask this question they usually provide the lame excuse that people are busy and not preoccupied with politics. But that begs the question. Why aren’t they more preoccupied? If they want a democracy they have to be, don’t they?
In my book Political Animals I try to provide a deeper answer. In summary form it goes something like this. Voters don’t care about politics because our brain wasn’t designed to deal with the problems we confront as citizens in the 21st century. It was designed to deal with the problems we faced during the Stone Age, the two and a half million year long period during which we evolved as hunter gatherers. And those were far different. In the Stone Age we rarely needed to deal with abstract questions. The problems were concrete: Where should we hunt? How should we care for a sick relative? Who should lead us in a hunt? In our world nearly all the questions voters confront are abstract. Your approval of the president involves questions about the economy which can only be answered with a knowledge of the unemployment rate, trade policy, currency exchange rates, the Federal Reserve’s role, and the like. In short, the questions we face can’t be answered without deep knowledge, the kind of knowledge one acquires after long study. This in a nutshell is our dilemma. Our automatic responses, which are based on direct personal experience, are of little help[ addressing the questions we face as voters.
It is easy, of course, to find the facts we need on the Internet. But few people make the effort. Instead, they rely on biased sources that confirm their views. To the degree that this is a crime, social media is a co-conspirator. On social media we generally confine ourselves to information provided by friends and the friends of friends. This reinforced our biases.
You might think that evolution would have inclined us to seek out the truth. But actually, as Harvard Evolutionary Psychologist Steven Pinker has noted, what we want is not the truth but our version of the truth. It’s socially useful not to challenge the truth that’s convenient to our social group — and better for our physical health. Studies by Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert show that our psychological immune system weeds out information that is upsetting. When it does so our physical well-being improves. We don’t like dissonance and our body rewards us when we eliminate it.
Because most people are ill-informed, they are easily manipulated. Here’s a good example. Five years after the recession ended in 2009 a majority of Americans believed we were still in a recession. This convinced them that Barack Obama was doing a bad job as president and made them receptive to arguments by Republicans that he was a disaster, to use Donald Trump’s favorite word. Obama actually had done a pretty good job with the economy (to the extent that a president can affect the economy, which is less than most people assume). But most people didn’t realize it.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
How can the public work to be more informed about political issues?
It is always better to be informed rather than uninformed. But a higher priority, as I argue in Political Animals, is for voters to learn how their own brain works and how we make political decisions. That’s why I wrote Political Animals. It is a self-help book for voters who want to understand how we digest political information.
Once this is understood one can then go in search of political information with confidence.
So which sources should one trust? I always tell people to start by reading the sources the people in power rely on. That is primarily the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Then, to help you sort out the truth consult publications on both the left and the right so you can see what each side is leaving out. Read the Weekly Standard and National Review for conservative articles and Mother Jones and Talking Points Memo (TPM) for liberal articles.
Do all this and you’ll be among the most well-informed people on the planet.