During the presidential debate this week and the upcoming third gathering, it is almost a certainty that Mr. Romney and President Obama will engage in a political discussion which utilizes what they think are pretty mainstream political ideas, just as they did in the first debate, and as the vice-presidential contenders also did last Thursday evening.
The problem is that a large portion of the viewing audience will have only a vague sense of the meaning of some of the terms used to describe those ideas. For example, the 10th Amendment and states’ authority to handle much of their own business, or interstate compacts, both used during two of the get-togethers, fell on many deaf ears.
Most Americans, sad to say, are political illiterates. They participate in an electoral democracy that many of them do not understand beyond a surface level.
This is a multi-ethnic problem. This means that those campaigns that master the ability to keep-it-simple-stupid (kiss) will win the favorability rating on style and showmanship.
Substance will hardly make an appearance. This partially explains why the persistent lying and misinformation put out particularly by the Republican challengers has not earned them the expected punishment of infamy and discredit to their overall efforts. Their aim is to look good and sound smart, and to let that be enough.
Americans are living through an epidemic of political illiteracy. The civics lessons in the public schools have not been effective in grounding most of us in the vocabulary, syntax and grammar of American politics. Somewhere, somehow and some time in the very near future, some public officials need to institute some political immersion studies for young Americans. We need a political studies Rosetta Stone course.
This is not just limited to most Americans not knowing who their federal, state, county, municipal and district representatives are. (How are you being represented if you don’t know those in office in your name?) That’s so common an occurrence that many political science instructors no longer even ask that question of their students to keep from embarrassing them.
Thus, when President Obama, tried to keep to the high road of substance and political soundness in the first debate, the effect was a distinct thud. He forgot that it was not what one said, but how one said it, that mattered most. So having the fact-checkers agree mainly with him in the debate’s aftermath was barely noticed by the large crowd of viewers. Most of them had a low political IQ anyway. They wanted political showmanship and theater, not political intellect.
American democracy is steadily atrophying right before our eyes. We are not spending enough educational capital on nurturing our young in the words and meaning of our political system. The rate of our political acumen is in rapid decline, with no sense of bottoming out without a drastic intervention. Clearly, we cannot export democracy well when we, as its primary exponents, are still so unfamiliar with its operations.
Many of those voting on Nov. 6 or in early voting will not comprehend the winner-take-all process that will occur, so that the candidate receiving the most votes, whether one, two, or thousands more, will generally take that state’s electoral vote in the race for 270. Many will not know that those sitting in county jails can still legitimately cast their ballots in this election, as long as they have not yet been convicted of a felony. Simply being accused, as much hassle as that can be, including arrest and detention, does not take away one’s right to vote.
It is almost a guarantee that most people voting will not get it that their provisional ballots, while legal, will probably be ignored and counted later than everyone else’s, and that the instant polling of the results will be nothing more than predictions and prognostications rather than real-time tallies. Each voting district has a designated time in which to count and report ballots, and that will usually not be finished before the voting night is over. Yet, we will have the probable results tallied and announced in spite of that to satisfy our demand for instant outcomes.
America, we need to unwack our political acts and our expertise about our own democratic system. Until we have upped our political literacy, this wonderful system we have become so accustomed to will surely collapse before our eyes. Already, we are trying to deal with those who believe that it is legitimate and correct to deny increasing numbers of citizens their right to vote–voter suppression–in total disregard to democracy’s primary mantra to expand the inclusion and participation of the most citizens in order to get the best possible representational government.
Wake up, ya’ll. Democracy is not the kind of thing that can be taken for granted.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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