“It’s the Propaganda, Stupid”

Biologists say ostriches are really stupid

Biologists say ostriches are really stupid

It’s easy and tempting to brand the American voter as “stupid,” and getting dumber all the time.  But, the accusers miss the real point and ignore the real perpetrators. All of us are only as smart as the information we receive; and when voters in America are (more than ever) receiving “news” and political” information in the form of propaganda and unabashed lies, what do you expect? It’s not stupid voters, “It’s the Propaganda, Stupid!”

The money behind the propaganda is also a big factor,  and getting worse; but we’ve been operating with gross mis-information well before Citzens United.

Whether you are a Democrat who thinks there were too many stupid voters in 2014, or a Republican who has the same view of the 2012 electorate, you are focusing on symptoms rather than root causes, and blaming the victims. Solving the propaganda (and money) issues is so daunting, we are more comfortable with scolding average people for not being better informed.

Charges of “stupidity” have been in the news a lot lately, and from some people who ought to know better, especially the usually level headed Fareed Zakaria.  Zakaria featured a new international survey on his last Sunday morning program. It says the American electorate is the second most ignorant among the fourteen nations studied.  The USA trailed only Italy. (Manifestly non democratic systems, like North Korea, were of course not surveyed).

Zakaria’s commentary surprisingly lacked perspective. I think he knows the information lifeblood of our democracy has been terribly degraded. Maybe he meant the whole segment to be whimsical? It was admittedly amusing, on top of shocking, to learn that French voters think 31 percent of their population is Muslim. (Its really 8 percent).

Zakaria wasn’t the only one talking about “stupidity.”  While economist Paul Krugman didn’t use the “S” word to express dismay about the November 4th outcomes, you could feel him chomping at the bit, as he called the election results “so wrong about so much.”

Republicans of course aren’t calling the 2014 decisions of the electorate “stupid.”  But they are still saying that about voters in 2012; loudly and explicitly.  I found that out driving eight hours north from San Diego to Monterrey recently, through areas of California where all I could get on the radio was Limbaugh and Limbaugh clones. Four hundred miles of unabashed propaganda drowning out anything resembling real news; literally clogging the “public” airways.

For some time now, the political and economic information used by most Americans hasn’t been much better than what Pravda fed to the poor Soviet masses.  Is that extreme or alarmist?  I would understand if you thought so. But all of the recent (non partisan) studies of voter information sources, such as a series by Pew Research, show that Americans are receiving more and more of their political information from polarized, “non traditional” sources – ones not even trying to be objective or fact based.

I concede that voters share some of the blame for liberally using bad sources of information. But I’ll bet propaganda helped move them there in the first place. I can’t blame average people, overwhelmed by daily life, looking to tweets, bumper stickers, and conversations on the Wal Mart check-out line, for political intelligence.

In Escondido (near San Diego), where I live, good political and economic information is scarce. One daily newspaper with significant circulation survives, but its coverage of Escondido is rare and superficial. The paper’s stated mission (from its still relatively new owner), is to promote a particular ideology in the region, not just through its editorials, but also in its “hard news.”  He doesn’t understand (or care) how shocking that sort of statement would have been from a metropolitan area newspaper owner even just a few years ago. A few good on-line news sources and “free” print news papers have emerged in San Diego County, but their reach is still very limited.

Most of the “information” about the local candidates in Escondido came in the form of mailers. The candidate I supported (and who lost by a big margin) couldn’t afford to send out nearly as many as her opponent. The information she did provide, which was (relatively) nice, honest, and substantive by today’s standards, was overwhelmed by an avalanche of propaganda, made-up economic data, sheer lies, sprinkled with some dog-whistle hate lines, arriving in the mail on an almost daily basis.

Yes, “turnout” was low, which hurt the loser a lot more than the winner. By my rough estimate, the winner received the votes of about 10 percent of the voting age population in Escondido. That’s deplorable, regardless of which candidate won. But stupidity certainly was not the reason for either low turnout or the outcomes of the election in Escondido. “It’s the Propaganda, Stupid.”


10 thoughts on ““It’s the Propaganda, Stupid”

  1. Russ Lehman

    Thanks Irv. You are, of course right about the pernicious effects of the propoganda masquerading as news. At the same time, and even though you made a passing nod to holding the public responsible, I think one should be careful when letting the public off the hook so easily. Yes, there is a plethora of information available and yes still most people still have the confirmation bias and get their news ( to the extent they do at all) from places they already agree with, we must hold ourselves responsible. The information is available. Yes we are busy but do we really want to say it’s ok that many voters (the few left) choose to watch TV, be on their computers or otherwise partake in self focused activities rather than fulfill their public/civic responsibilities?


    1. Irv Lefberg Post author

      Russ, thank for very thoughtful comment!!! I think all three comments – from you, Alex, and Kurt — seem to agree that I wasn’t hard enough on the people in terms of their responsibility to hold up the public’s end of the democracy bargain. Yes, as long as the public rewards propagandist news with high ratings, and toxic politicians with votes, we’re going to remain in this mess; and it will get worse (if that’s possible). My fear is that we have passed a tipping point. My reluctance to be more demanding of the people is probably because I see a lot of good folks (like in my extended family) who are so overwhelmed with just making ends meet, that I find it hard to scold them for not being more discerning. (That’s a whole other, related vicious cycle). Other “advanced democracies” have tried addressing this with new and different versions of the Fairness Doctrine. But of course the Catch 22 is that the climate fostered by propagandist news is virulently opposed to more regulation. Thanks again for great comment. Irv


  2. Kurt

    Thanks Irv for developing this dialog.

    Much of the coverage of the “ignorance” problem raised by the research piece did distinguish more clearly between ignorance (not knowing, not having access, not paying attention) and stupidity (not intellectually capable of knowing/understanding regardless of access).

    You brought up the problem of motivated reasoning, bias, etc. I’d like to see more emphasis on that.

    The problem of “motivated reasoning”/”confirmation bias” is fed by the disappearance of the Fairness Doctrine and created a distinct, accessible market for the angry bigots like Rush Limbaugh et al. America is uglier for it — for that structural change. The structure of “new media” piled on, but I don’t think it’s a 1st order cause because people can find good information if they seek it. In a Marshall McLuhan “The Medium Is The Message” sense, the message is “feed their bias”.

    Thanks again for walking us between the silos.


  3. Irv Lefberg Post author

    Kurt, thanks for reminding us again about the Fairness Doctrine. There were lots of things wrong with it, which is why liberals aided and abetted its demise. BUT, it could and should have been reformed rather than trashed. Huge mistake. How do we teach people , or how are they incentivized, to seek out good information? The mainstream networks’ refusal to air the Obama speech last night (they also did some of that to Reagan, Bush I, Bush II and Clinton) was horrible. So, what happened? Whomever wanted to hear it tuned into their favorite partisan cable station, and got a severe spin.


    1. kURT

      Thanks, Irv.

      I think the media structure has changed such that cable is the real-time responsive environment, and the legacy ABC/CBS/NBC outlets are more attuned to not interfering with their planned programing.

      The basic concept of the “Fairness Doctrine” is non-partisan (it’s inherently poly-sided), so I don’t think it’s reasonable to spin it as “liberal” or “left”.

      In general I prefer Steve Jobs’ wisdom, “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is conservative-destructive, and you’ve [Murdoch/Fox News] cast your lot with the destructive people,” the book quotes Jobs as saying. “Fox has become an incredibly destructive force force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.” “Jobs also said he did not believe Murdoch liked the network’s direction.”


      Cheers, Kurt


  4. Irv Lefberg Post author

    I think Jobs’ view of Aisles and FOX is right on. Going back to Alex’ useful distintinction between soft propoganda and hard propaganda, I think the division here in our society is between follks who think soft propaganda is more destructive and incidious than hard propaganda, and those who think the opposite. I think the hard variety is more destructive than the soft. We can argue about that for days or years. The Fairness Doctrine was a serious and sophisticated effort to deal with all of that. Trivia question: who was (arguably) the first (the original) Limbaugh? Father Conklin doesn;t count. It was Bob Grant on radio in NYC — yes, NYC! Circa 1964. Grant was a shock to radio audiences in those days, He was a lot smarter than Limbaugh . Grant had fabulous ratings in liberal NYC.


    1. alex maclachlan

      I’ve heard Hannity mention Grant before and his acerbic ways. I think Grant gave him his first big break. Anyway, loved the merlot take. It had an edgier tone, like the ones you used to slap me with when I got too confident in my opinions.



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