Stupid Voters Are People, Too
And the journalists who report on them don’t need to apologize for it.
Photograph by Digital Vision.
If you don’t hate Alexandra Pelosi, you hate America. A week ago, Pelosi delivered a micro-documentary to Real Time With Bill Maher about angry, dentally challenged Mississippi Republicans who mistook Barack Obama for Satan. Maher’s audience, which offers up Pavlovian applause to any joke about Republicans, ate it up. The pundit class reached for the sick bag. Pelosi, obviously taken aback, filmed a new documentary about arrogant, lazy black people outside a New York welfare office. That made people even sicker. “I thought liberals were against the dehumanization of the powerless,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates, the sharpest of the anti-Pelosis. “Since when did shitting on poor and working people become worthy of self-congratulation?”
Since last week. After Pelosi and Maher’s silly video came a much more serious study of the same question: a Politico article about, basically, voter stupidity. According to reporter Alexander Burns, voters believed in a “litany of contradictory, irrational or simply silly opinions,” and were “wandering, confused and Forrest Gump-like” through a campaign that was too complex for their tiny brain pans. “A lot of times,” explained Politico editor-in-chief John Harris, introducing and defending the piece, “stories generate from the editors’ rants.” Mea maxima culpa; they were angry, and they forgot to hold their breath and count to 10.
Pelosi should probably say some rosaries for the idiotic fiddle music that played over her original video, an attempt to make the footage more Deliverance-ready. But she doesn’t have much else to apologize for, and Burns has nothing to apologize for. Few or none of the Alexandra/Alexander critics have spent time in primary states, talking to voters. If they did, they would have to choose: Print what voters actually say, or edit out the ones who say stupid things. Because stupid voters exist. Stupid Democrats exist. Stupid Republicans exist. Go ahead, point it out! If you draw it out and study the whole electorate, the stupidity is—thankfully—not the kind of problem that distorts an election.
We arrived at this current round of stupidity-skepticism because of where the Republican primary ended up. Last week’s big contests were in Alabama, Mississippi, and Hawaii. The candidates, for unselfish reasons, opted to skip the last state and campaign in the Deep South. Pollsters and reporters, dutifully covering the race, discovered voters who believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim and that he was born in some foreign terrorist hotbed.
Nobody should have been surprised. Mississippi’s primary voters, some of the most conservative in the lower 48, are also some of the poorest. That wasn’t new. Sixty-three years ago, in Southern Politics in State and Nation, V.O. Key observed that “every other southern state finds some reason to fall back on the soul-satisfying exclamation, ‘Thank God for Mississippi.’ ” Public Policy Polling didn’t goose its results. It pointed out that most Mississippi Republicans believed untrue things that confirmed their suspicions about Barack Obama.
I trekked to Mississippi and Alabama last weekend for a few stories about the primaries. The only way I could have avoided hearing some confirmation biases was by locking myself in a leftover sensory depravation chamber from the Altered States set. While they were waiting for Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum or Jeff Foxworthy to start talking, I asked why they thought Barack Obama had won in 2008. Sometimes a voter would go on a tangent and talk about the president’s unfamiliarity with John 3:16; sometimes they’d riff on how Mormonism wasn’t really Christianity. Some of what they said wound up in a slide show. The rest of it informed how I read Tuesday’s election results—Mitt Romney, who’d outspent everyone in both states, coming in third place.
Voters aren’t saints. When primaries get to certain parts of the country, they get disturbing, fast. In 2008, anybody with a digital camera could interview white Democrats who feared Barack Obama for the wrong reasons. One of the videos that went viral pitted a shocked reporter from the Real News against West Virginians who would have none of his logic.
“Why do you think he’s Muslim?” asked the reporter in one scene. “He wasn’t raised Muslim.”
“I don’t agree with that,” shrugged his subject.
What are you supposed to do with quotes like that? Well, why not report them? There’s a big difference between these random voter interviews and “nutpicking,” when only the craziest, most bigoted clowns at some event are photographed and quoted. Maybe Pelosi plays some tricks with editing that makes her subjects look stupider. Surely, the video gave Maher and his viewers some clip-and-save proof that “Southerners” are as bad as they think they are. We shouldn’t read too much into what she found. But she found it.
The question then becomes, “How much should we worry about it?” We’re in luck: Worrying about it is futile. In his story, which was much better-reasoned than the critics admitted, Politico’s Burns asked Republican strategists if voter ignorance actually mattered. He summarized their wisdom: “As voters take stock of public events, there’s often tension between their feelings about granular policy topics and the overarching principles that encompass those issues.”
And there is. When I’ve dug in with voters who are convinced that Barack Obama is a Muslim, they respond in one of two ways. They might know that an Indonesian school form listed his religion as Muslim. (True, just not something you’d use to extrapolate the next 40 years of his life.) More often, they offer evidence of him doing something that they think a Muslim would do, like scolding Israel, or pulling out of Afghanistan too quickly. If we climb a little deeper, we inevitably get to a discussion of how, at heart, Obama hates America and wants to destroy it.
It’s not healthy for voters to think those things. It’s just not new, either. Most voter ignorance, if it was cured by logic and reason and long sessions of NPR, would be replaced by the same voter preferences, justified in different ways. There are Mississippi Republicans who hate Obama because they think he’s a Muslim. Take that away, and they’ll hate him because they’re conservatives and he isn’t. Only 11 percent of Mississippi whites voted for Barack Obama, but only 14 percent voted for John Kerry. These aren’t people who’ll change their minds if they fully grokked the president’s bio.
That is why ignorant voters don’t get to swing a presidential election. The conservative who rules out all new information, who has “silo’ed” himself with talk radio news, has a party he can vote for reliably. The Bill Maher TiVo-er has a party he can vote for, too. Voter ignorance, like a cold, can be controlled without being cured. There’s no shame, no journalistic crime, in finding the ignorance and pointing it out.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.