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Unfortunately, voters' ignorance is hardly restricted to this new monumental law.
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A recent CNBC poll found more Americans oppose ObamaCare than oppose the Affordable Care Act. But more Americans support ObamaCare than the Affordable Care Act.
That would be understandable given that these are two names for the same law. CNBC polled two different groups, using “ObamaCare” for one and “Affordable Care Act” for the other. Forty-six percent of the group asked about “ObamaCare” opposed it. But only 37% of those asked about the health law opposed it.
Conversely, ObamaCare had higher support than the law. As CNBC put it, Obama’s name “raises the positives and the negatives.”
As a rational matter, this is nuts. An informed person should have the same opinions — positive or negative — about a piece of legislation regardless of what it’s called. But because politics is so often driven by our attitudes toward specific personalities, for many Americans, their attitudes toward a monumentally significant piece of legislation are driven by something as petty as whether “Obama” is in the title.
But it’s worse than that. The same poll found that 30% of respondents didn’t know what the Affordable Care Act is — while “only” 12% didn’t know what ObamaCare is.
This after years of relentless debate, and both a midterm and presidential election in which ObamaCare was one of the central issues.
Unfortunately, public ignorance is hardly specific to ObamaCare, nor is it merely the stuff of Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” interviews, in which he finds people who think that America declared our independence from Greece and that Winston Churchill was the commander of the Revolutionary Army.
A Harris Poll for the American Bar Association in 2005 found that 22% of respondents thought the three branches of government were “Republican, Democrat and Independent.” Two-thirds of Americans couldn’t name a single sitting Supreme Court justice in 2003, and fewer than 1% could name all nine. In 1987, about half of Americans thought Karl Marx’s dictum “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” was in the U.S. Constitution. In 1964, only 38% of the American people were certain the Soviet Union wasn’t in NATO.
Regardless of partisan agendas, this is a huge problem, but we don’t hear much about it because one of the drawbacks of democracy is that politicians will never insult the customers. Worse, virtually all the conventional wisdom, not to mention academic and media gasbaggery, is that the biggest problem with our political system is that not enough Americans are participating, even though it’s a good bet that if you don’t know anything about politics or current events, you’re less likely to vote.
On the other hand, it’s important to recognize that ignorance and stupidity are not the same thing. I am deeply ignorant about the mysteriously dull game of cricket. That probably means I shouldn’t vote on who should be inducted to the cricket hall of fame (assuming such a thing exists). But that doesn’t mean I’m ignorant about other things.
Voting and knowledge
Personally, I think that before you vote, you have an obligation to become knowledgeable about the issues. But I also think there’s nothing wrong, in principle, with not voting at all. Indeed, for much of U.S. history, people could live deeply enriching and productive lives without knowing or caring much about politics, particularly at the national level.
However, over the course of the 20th — and now 21st — century, the state, and therefore politics, has encroached deeper and deeper into every nook and cranny of American life.
Many on the right say “low-information voters” are a bigger problem for Republicans because ignorant voters tend to go with emotion, and Democrats and the news media have grown adept at manipulating the public to think that the only good vote is a vote for more government. There’s a lot of truth to that.
But public ignorance is a problem for Democrats, as well. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll last week, a whopping 64% of Americans didn’t know that ObamaCare goes into effect Tuesday. This is despite huge news coverage and massive efforts to educate the public. If people don’t sign up for the program — and soon — it will fall apart.
It turns out that whipping up emotions around election time is a lot easier than holding the public’s attention after the elections are over.
Jonah Goldberg, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and National Review contributing editor, is author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now out in paperback. He is also a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
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