Time and Effort
Members of Congress will be heading home soon, chastened by the lesson of the November election: that those who survived that upheaval need to listen more attentively to their constituents. The 2012 reelection of many congressional Democrats and more than a few newly elected Republicans may depend upon their ability to do so.
But before Congress turns itself into a populist megaphone, merely amplifying the kookiest opinions of the most ill-informed voters, it is time to remember that a successfully functioning democracy is a two-way street. To be sure, it requires responsive elected officials. But it also demands responsible citizens who take the time and the effort to inform themselves on the issues of the day.
Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that Americans are woefully ignorant of even the most basic public policies. Citizens in any democracy have a right to not pay attention. And Americans in other eras have been out of touch with current affairs. But this is scant solace at a time where the country’s ability to act with the informed consent of its governed is crucial for the future of both the economy and America’s place in the world.
Back in their districts this holiday season, members of Congress need to engage their constituents with a little tough love. They should ask voters to make a New Year’s resolution to spend more time in 2011 reading newspapers, visiting news websites, and listening to radio and TV that do not simply reflect their existing biases. In effect, members should challenge people to take more seriously the responsibilities of democratic citizenship. This is no less than the United States preaches abroad when it extols democracy.
“There is a saying in free societies,” reads the State Department publication Principles of Democracy, that “you get the government you deserve. For democracy to succeed, citizens must be active, not passive, because they know that the success or failure of the government is their responsibility, and no one else’s. Democratic citizens recognize that they not only have rights, they have responsibilities. They recognize that democracy requires an investment of time and hard work.”
Recent polling suggests Americans need to do a better job of staying informed.
The Pew Research Center conducted a postelection survey of 1,001 adults and found that, on average, they could answer correctly only five of 12 multiple-choice questions about current events. In anyone’s classroom that is a failing grade. And there is every reason to believe that such lack of knowledge both contributed to the outcome of the last election and will shape public debate and congressional action in 2011.
Exit polling on Election Day showed that a plurality of voters (48 percent) wanted the new Congress to repeal the Obama administration’s health care reform. There is evidence that such sentiments were partially based on misinformation.
An Associated Press survey of 1,251 adult Americans in September found that 81 percent thought that the Obama health care reform would increase the government’s debt, despite the fact that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office had concluded it will lower the debt. More than half of all Americans (52 percent) mistakenly believed that the reform raised their taxes this year. And 39 percent thought the new health law had created “death panels” that will review patients’ medical histories and decide whether they can get medical care paid for by the federal government. No such groups had ever been proposed, let alone enacted.
If all such concerns were true, it would hardly be surprising that voters want the health law changed. But they are false.
Moreover, a plurality of voters (39 percent) exiting the polls in November favored extending the Bush tax cuts for all Americans, including a whopping 87 percent of GOP voters. And 71 percent of Republican voters viewed tax cuts as the nation’s top priority.
Again, this should hardly come as a surprise, given that a Bloomberg poll of 1,000 likely voters in late October found that by more than 2-1 (52 percent to 19 percent) they thought that their taxes had gone up. In fact, 95 percent of working Americans had their taxes lowered by the 2009 stimulus legislation, by about $400 per person.
As the aphorism attributed to both the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and James Schlesinger reminds us: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.
In Washington, it is politically correct to blame voters’ loose command of current events on Fox News, MSNBC, conservative and liberal bloggers, and the multiplicity and cacophony of today’s “news sources.”
This narrative lets the public off too easily. In a democracy, citizens are personally accountable for staying informed, for separating the wheat of fact from the chaff of opinion. To claim, even implicitly, that people are victims of some vast left-wing or right-wing information conspiracy and incapable of resisting the blandishments of politicians who will say anything to get reelected is to deny that average Americans have a responsibility to invest time and effort in the democratic process.
So when members go back to their districts over Christmas and their constituents complain about the problems in Washington, members need to push back and tell voters that it starts with them getting their facts straight.
This article appeared in the Thursday, December 16, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily.