This election will not only settle the question of who next gets to sit behind the large desk in the Oval Office. It will also settle another question, formerly of interest mainly to scholars, but now, for obvious reasons, of concern to a broad audience: How gullible voters are in the 21st century.
There are two broad schools of thought about this. One school, best represented most recently by historian David Greenberg in his book, A Republic of Spin, argues that voters are plenty savvy. Greenberg goes so far as to discount claims that the Bush administration manipulated public opinion in support of its decision to invade Iraq. After 9-11, he says, polls showed the voters were anxious to go to war. They were blood thirsty. In deciding on war, therefore, Bush merely gave the voters what they wanted.
For decades social scientists churned out books echoing this line with titles like The Rational Voter. For a time the belief that voters are indeed rational constituted the consensus view among social scientists. Even if voters lack hard facts, they can use heuristics (shortcuts) to compensate. The most obvious heuristic and the one most people use is voting their party. Even voters who know next to nothing about politics can still cast a rational vote in an election featuring the names of people they don’t know by voting a straight party ticket.
These scholars had the advantage in the debates that took place for the main reason that their claims were consistent with what everybody wants to believe is true. Like V.O. Key, the dean of political scientists in the twentieth century, we want to believe “voters are not fools.”
The other school held that voters in the main are grossly ignorant about public issues that come before them. The social scientists who held this position had a raft of disturbing statistics to point to. Studies undertaken at the University of Michigan beginning in the 1940s showed that a majority of voters cannot name the three branches of government, have no idea how much is spent on foreign aid (a majority think it’s north of half the budget; it’s actually less than 1 percent), and don’t know that the Senate must confirm any president’s nominee to the Supreme Court. In one study by the social scientists Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter it was revealed that about half the American people don’t realize that the only country that has ever dropped an atomic bomb in wartime is their own.
Like the social scientists who believe the voters are rational, these social scientists also acknowledge that voters use heuristics. Alas, they don’t take solace from this. While most political scientists like to point to the shortcuts voters use as evidence of their enlightenment, psychologists take exactly the opposite position. Heuristics aren’t good, they’re bad, reflecting a garden variety of biases: Voters pick candidates whose names are familiar; they favor people with square faces in wartime and round faces in peacetime; and worst yet, they let extraneous factors like the outcome of a football game influence their choices. (When their team wins they are more likely to stick with the incumbent.) Even the weather affects voter choices. Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen found that bad weather (floods and droughts) turned 2.8 million voters against Al Gore in the election of 2000. Bartels and Achen even discovered that shark attacks can affect voting.
These debates largely took place out of public view on college campuses and in scholarly journals and books with small sales. But this year the questions scholars debated in private have suddenly become an inescapable subject of public conversation.
Just how on earth, both pundits and even some leaders of the GOP, have wondered did we get where we are? While it’s as yet unknown who will take the presidency, Donald Trump’s success in winning the Republican Party nomination suggests that democracy failed during this election. Voters in the Republican primaries and caucuses cast a ballot for a man who seems on the face of it to be wholly unqualified to be president, not to mention that he regularly is caught lying and regularly makes bigoted, racist and sexist statements.
Voters might be forgiven for nominating Trump given the high level of dissatisfaction with the political establishment, but the evidence that something more disturbing is going on is abundant. Exhibit A is that his supporters have told pollsters they believe only Trump can be trusted to give them the truth. This is so laughably misguided it’s hard to know what to make of it. Every time he opens his mouth the fact checkers catch him lying.
Why can’t his voters see that? They don’t want to see it. Once he had won them over by various means (anger, fear, xenophobia) they refused to revise their commitments. Like he said: His voters would stand by him even if he killed someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue. To Trump this was evidence of their loyalty. But it’s actually a clear sign that they were easily bamboozled by his histrionic appeals. Angry themselves, they felt a powerful bond with Trump when he expressed anger. Trump feels authentic to these voters because he traffics in emotions that are real. It’s no wonder his voters say they can trust him. He seems authentic. And as one social scientists has argued, politicians like Trump who are unscripted lead many to think they are truthful.
I have been one of those who for years has complained that voters by and large are too ill-informed to fulfill their democratic responsibilities. For people like me Trump’s nomination has been proof that skepticism about the public’s capacity for intelligent debate is warranted. But so few voters participated in the primaries and caucuses that it can be argued that his selection didn’t reflect the views of a majority. This wouldn’t be the case were he to be elected in November. His election would be proof positive that I was right. Given what is at stake, I’d much rather be denied this one victory.
It appears from the polls that Trump is going to lose, perhaps in a landslide. That would be gratifying. But little consolation can be taken from these surveys. Most show that more than 40 percent of the country’s voters are willing to cast a ballot for Trump despite his shameful history of nasty comments about Mexican Americans, blacks, and women. That’s worries me.
Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).
This article was originally published at History News Network