Trump, Ignorance and the Electorate: Why is the Public Unable to Intelligently Debate Election Issues?

Donald Trump is a buffoon, an egomaniac, a racist and appeals to the basest instincts of the electorate, and, might end up as our president.

Bernie Sanders is nipping at Hillary’s heels, Joe Biden, with the blessing of Elizabeth Warren is mulling a run, and in every poll Trump is leading the Republican cabal and is in the mix with Democratic contenders.

In 2008 talking heads proudly proclaimed we had entered a post-racial world, a world in which a black man can be elected president; surely the election of Barrack Obama symbolized the coming of a new age in which race no longer was perceived as a stigma.

Sadly Charleston and the seemingly endless examples of white police officers slaying unarmed blacks or mistreating people of color assail claims of a post-racial America. The “Black Lives Matter” movement on one hand has mobilized a dormant civil rights movement and on the other hand awakened racial antipathy hidden behind smiling faces.

In state after state Trump has tapped into the sentiments that sizzle beneath the surface, Trump says what voters fear to say outside of the confines of the four walls of their home.

In the fall of 1787 Madison, Hamilton and Jay began to write the Federalist Papers, eighty-four what we would call op eds arguing for votes to ratify the constitution. The Federalist Papers were printed in the major newspapers across the thirteen colonies. . In Federalist # 10 Madison warns against the dangers of faction, an issue we see day in and day out in our Congress,

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.

Would the average voter understand Madison? What has happened? Why have we moved from an electorate able to debate Federalist # 10 to an electorate that cheers for the rantings of Donald Trump, not only cheers but supports him in numbers to drive him to the top of the Republican pool of candidates.

A NY Times article discusses the study of ignorance, a field called agnotology,

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

Candidates spew simple answers to complex problems, if we drive out the eleven million undocumented immigrants unemployment will disappear and prosperity will reign. The Chinese are ruining our economy, controlling our debt and we should boycott Chinese products.

Answers are easy to find, just Goggle the Internet, read a blog, and listen to Fox or Bill O’Reilly, simple answers to complex ambiguous questions.

Even more troubling is the poorly educated, the ideologues are not the only citizens who refuse to analyze the complex problems. Paul Krugman worries about the nerds seeing themselves as above politics, and asks,

… why people who pride themselves on their ability to think things through slide into lazy clichés when it comes to politics. And that’s important: just lecturing Silicon Valley types on the need to get serious about politics won’t work if there are deeper reasons smart people get stupid when politics enters the picture.

Fourteen months before the presidential election, ignorance and apathy rule: when will candidates, if ever, debate issues on their merits?

Last week a widely read website sponsored an event entitled “On Education” at the New School University. Chancellor Farina outlined her plans for the upcoming school year. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch was on a panel with teachers and new State Commissioner Elia was interviewed one-on-one. After the event two “talking heads” discussed the event. The interviewers were unprepared, the talking heads prattled, and there was no serious discussion.

Complex issues are reduced to 140 characters on Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle has been reduced to the 24 second news cycle; “if it bleeds it leads” is the mantra of the NY Post and the NY Daily News.

Aside from Diane Ravitch and a handful of other commenters the educational issues of the day are misunderstand, or reduced to slogans.

Perhaps the CFE lawsuit definition of a “sound basic education” should be a precursor to voting,

In Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State (CFE I), the court provided what it called a template definition of a sound basic education for the parties and the trial court to explore on remand. The court, like courts in many other states, tied the standard to preparing students to exercise citizenship duties; it said, “Such an education should consist of the basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.” 86 N.Y.2d 307, 316 (1995).


3 responses to “Trump, Ignorance and the Electorate: Why is the Public Unable to Intelligently Debate Election Issues?

  1. “If it bleeds it leads,” is due to the need to sell the news. The NY Times may be the paper of record, but it is clear that the majority of the electorate does not read the lengthier articles or columns that explore the ambiguities and nuances of the issues. (It is sometimes not clear that the editors have read the articles before writing their editorials.)

    As long as our political system is a profit generator for those in the media and the political consultancy profession, we should not expect things to change. Some obvious solutions such as a shortened election season and Federal funding of elections cannot gain support because they would disrupt the income flow. When Lincoln and Douglass debated for hours at a time in front of crowds, no one was selling advertisements or paying political consultants. The transcripts of those debates demonstrate that they were focused on issues.

    The crowds who stood for two or more hours to listen to these men were invested in the electoral process. We need to be asking what it would take to ignite that kind of patriotic responsibility in the American public today.

    A first draft of an answer lies in getting the media to do its job; educate the public on the issues and refuse to repeat sound bites that represent zombie ideas (Since it is impossible to deport 11,000,000 people, candidates who repeat this as their position can be dismissed by saying that “Blank repeated his (meaningless, impractical, senseless, silly, or another dismissive adjective) immigration platform.” This would require candidates to be specific and sensible to get air time. It would also avoid giving these ideas credence through repetition. [Research has shown that repeating an untruth gives it credence, even when the repletion makes it clear that the idea is false.] Without the ability to use sound bites to repeat the big lies that are informing factionalism, factionalism itself might begin to disappear.


  2. There were a hundred things that I wanted to write, started yesterday and stopped, realizing that there wasn’t enough space or time to write them all. And then, just a few moments ago, my niece sent me a picture of the postcard that my great nephew’s school and first grade teacher sent welcoming him next week. That motivated me to at least write one of the things that I had wanted to convey.
    I think that some of us teachers were probably more guilty of encouraging the current trends away from public education than anyone else.
    Most of us were the products of rigid school and classroom regimes. We never let go of those regimes, even as the American and local cultures around us changed significantly. When kids failed, we said it was the parents’ and kids’ faults. Maybe so in some cases! But a lot of it was the product of poverty and we never argued or struck to fund the schools as well as our own pockets.
    Some of us dressed for school like we worked in a factory…some schools were factories, truth be told. But the sense of professionalism was lost and parents didn’t like it. We were unwilling to go the extra ten feet, forget the mile, and our rigidity about our rights defeated our own best interests. How many of us had our own sons and daughters in schools where teachers were so aloof?
    Randi talked about reaching out to parents, building better bridges to our clients, so to speak. It happened slowly and reluctantly and in not too many places. Only after the political attacks started and the money started to flow to charters did we fully understand what our recalcitrance was producing. That postcard to my niece’s son from his school was damned good public school public relations, probably all done by computer!
    Finally, to conclude my raving diatribe, the people who show up and poll for Trump and what he says were once students in our schools. What indeed did we do wrong to produce a significant number of American citizens who have no sense of American values, history and civics, who don’t critically think in making political choices?
    What was the Pogo carton saying: “We have met the enemy and he is us!”


    • Vince, The fact that there a hundred things you could have written about is emblematic of the problem and helps to explain Trump’s appeal. He speaks in sound bites that capture the public’s anger (Remember Network: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”) The press does not really challenge Trump (Jorge Ramos excepted, but he did it so badly in terms of form, that his questions were ultimately ignored.) with questions that probe the depth of his thinking. The press does not ask why we should “trust him,” as he so frequently asks us to do, nor are they looking closely at his history as a developed. The Megyn Kelly remarks are a distraction from the real issues,but as the profit seeking media always say, “If it bleeds (pun intended), it leads.” The more nuanced discussion of issues and wading through claims and counter-claims are pushed aside.

      Teaching as a profession has to change from what it was (The sage on the stage) when we started. We need to find new ways to engage students and to turn them into critical thinkers. As a friend wrote on facebook, we shouldn’t be talking about rigor when we talk about standards, but about vigor. We need to turn our students into vigorous learners who pursue their interests and we need to be vigorous teachers who expose them to new ideas and challenge them to think deeply.

      When I was young, in the midst of the Cold War, we studied propaganda techniques and had to watch TV or read newspapers and try to identify the use of these techniques in political reports and advertising. Why was this dropped from the curriculum? Why isn’t it a central part of the CCLS which are supposed to turn out critical thinkers?

      If we don’t help students become involved, don’t challenge them to think about what they are hearing, and don’t give them the tools to evaluate what they hear from politicians we will continue to have demagogues like Trump who can capture the zeitgeist of the time rise to the top of the polls, and possibly win office.

      Similarly, if we don’t challenge the media to do the job of the fourth estate and cover the issues, we will not have political discussions that enlighten the voters and voting will continue to decline as no one will see that their vote might mean something.


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