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"Dumb and Dumber": An American Political Trademark?

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The American Political Scene by Bernard Starr

Napoleon once quipped, "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." When it comes to America's current array of politicians Napoleon's observation couldn't be more apt.

While the Kurds-Quds gotcha question posed to Donald Trump unfairly tripped him up, his claim that he's a fast learner and will play catch-up tutored by his advisers when he is elected president is eyebrow-raising. However, the response--or lack of it--of other politicians to straightforward questions has also shocked us.

In 1999, presidential candidate George W. Bush could not name the leaders of hot-spot foreign nations---a "minor" deficiency that didn't stop him from proposing foreign policies and later implementing them. More recently, politicians have shown ignorance about Obamacare, Social Security, climate change, economics, and far-reaching legislation they were voting on. Legislators often don't read the text of bills they are voting on and rely instead on staff summaries.

It's frightening to ponder how our leaders and representatives might respond to factual questions about issues vital to America. They may be getting a pass on their ignorance from a public that may be as ignorant as them and doesn't place much value on knowledge. According to research at the University of Michigan, many politicians and the public cling to beliefs and dismiss contradicting facts as pesky nuisances.

Author Susan Jacoby says that a conversation in a bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan right after 9/11 prompted her to write her book The Age of American Unreason. Here is the dialogue she heard: First person: "9/11 was like the attack on Pearl Harbor." "What's Pearl Harbor?" asked the second person. First person: "That's when the Vietnamese bombed us and started the Vietnamese War."

A 2006 National Geographic poll of 18-24-year-olds found that "six in ten (63%) cannot find Iraq or Saudi Arabia on a map of the Middle East, while three-quarters (75%) cannot find Iran or Israel. In fact, 44 % cannot find even one of these four countries... Nine in ten (88%) cannot find Afghanistan on a map of Asia... Sizable percentages do not know that Sudan and Rwanda are in Africa." More alarming: 21% said it is not too important to know where countries in the news are located (and how many more believe that but would not admit it?). I wonder how politicians would respond to the National Geographic survey, which was more wide-ranging than the examples cited.

In 2009 Newsweek magazine gave 1,000 U.S. citizens America's official citizenship test. "Twenty-nine percent couldn't name the vice-president. Seventy-three percent couldn't correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn't even circle Independence Day on a calendar." The same article reported the findings of a survey of citizens in Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. on questions of international affairs: "The Europeans clobbered us."

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I first became interested in the issue of politicians and knowledge in 1999, when I heard distinguished medical ethicist Arthur Caplan give a keynote address at a national Gerontology Society meeting. Cloning was a hot issue at the time. On the heels of the success of Scottish scientists cloning Dolly the sheep, legislators, particularly conservative ones, were scrambling to pass restrictive legislation. Professor Caplan reported that he had been invited earlier that year to give a talk on bioethics to the legislature of "a small Northeastern State" (he would not say which one) that was preparing legislation on cloning and related issues. Just as he was about to speak he stopped and said to the lawmakers: "Before I begin, I would like to ask you a question: "Where are genes?"

One-third said "the gonads," another third thought genes are in "the head" (meaning brains), and the remaining third had no idea at all. Not one of these legislators knew that genes are in every cell of the body.

Whether or not legislators need to know the facts about genes to have opinions or pass legislation relating to genetics, the incident raises a troubling question: What else don't our elected officials know? And should we be concerned? More important, can we do anything to ensure that our representatives are informed on important issues?

The Constitution states no requirements for President other than age (35 or older), citizenship (born in the U.S.), and residency (14 years). The same for Vice President. Senators must be at least age 30, U.S. citizens for at least nine years, and residents of the states that elected them. House members must be at least 25, U.S. citizens for seven years, and residents of the states that sent them to Washington. State standards for elected offices vary but follow a similar pattern of setting age, citizenship and residency for state offices.

Frank Askin, Professor of Law and Director of the Constitutional Rights Clinic at Rutgers University Law School, says it is unlikely that states will attempt to impose personal standards for office since they would face lengthy and costly litigation that probably would not survive constitutional tests. He pointed out that Georgia once tried to impose drug testing on candidates. The U.S. Supreme Court struck that down. In 1978 Tennessee was challenged on their law barring clergy from serving in the State Legislature. That too was declared unconstitutional. Askin adds that in our democracy "we the people can elect whomever we want-- that includes incompetents, con artists, suspected rapists, or the brainless." A state, he notes, may bar a person convicted of a crime from running for state office but not for Congress.

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One effort to educate elected officials stands out. But is it too little too late? The Institute of Politics at Harvard University in association with Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government offers a three-day seminar to newly elected members of Congress right after each biennial Congressional election. Since its inception in 1972 over 600 members of Congress have attended the program. One hopes that they attend out of passion for learning and not to acquire an impressive resume item for the folks back home ("I went to Harvard"), or for a funded respite in New England in the fall.

A more important question: Are three days sufficient for addressing the knowledge gaps of representatives, considering the diversity of their educational backgrounds, abilities, interests, and ideologies? Subtract the opening dinner and closing afternoon reception, lunch, and coffee breaks over the three days, and the time could not possibly allow for in-depth coverage of the plethora of topics and issues addressed. Keep in mind too that in addition to providing guidance on procedures for introducing and managing bills, the program offers presentations on wide-ranging issues including the economy, healthcare, globalization, national security, the federal budget, and foreign policy, as well as advice on how to relate to the White House and the media--all delivered by a lineup of extraordinary experts from academia, journalism, business, and government service. A more frequent back-to-school program for all members of Congress modeled on the Harvard program would surely be in the public interest.

Note also that the Aspen Institute offers retreats for members of Congress, with high level discussions and presentations on policy issues. Since the program was founded in 1983, over 400 members of Congress, a relatively small number, have participated, even though invitations are extended to all members of Congress. In a telephone interview, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program, former House member Dan Glickman, told me that although the program doesn't reach eighty percent of the members of Congress, the twenty percent who do participate are positively and deeply impacted by the learning experiences and bi-partisan interactions. His remarks underscore the value of educational opportunities for our representatives.

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Bernard Starr, PhD, is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College) where he directed a graduate program in gerontology and taught developmental psychology in the School of Education. He is also the main United (more...)

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