Back in the “good old days”, a lot of states had “literacy tests” for voters. If you didn’t pass them, you couldn’t vote.

Of course, it was a scam: the real reason for the testing was to eliminate black voters, and the fight to remove the laws was part of the civil rights movement to allow Blacks an equal say in the government.

So now, a contributor to CNN, whose only claim to fame is to be known as a gay sports writer,  proposes “Don’t let ignorant people vote”.

If I were to ask you to ingest an unknown medicine from someone who knew nothing about the medical field, you probably wouldn’t do it. And I doubt many of us would feel comfortable as a shareholder in a company that asked people who knew nothing about business to hire its next CEO?

Yet we all know people who gleefully admit they know nothing about politics, don’t have time to find out what the current issues are or even know how the government works, but go out and vote. Want to know why it seems Washington is run by a bunch of idiots?

This type of argument is called a “non sequitor”, because the writer is assuming that if a voter doesn’t know a lot of trivia about the issues, then he should have no influence on government.

Problem one: “we all know people” who vote while saying they don’t know anything about the issues, but if you talk to them awhile, you find they really have an opinion but don’t want to argue politics. So where did the writer get his data? He cites folks who get trivial answers wrong on polls to prove his point.

So most Americans don’t know “only” 19 percent of the budget goes to pay for Defense or that only 0.1 percent of the budget goes to NPR.

Ah, but not knowing the percentage of government spent on the military doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion that a war is unjust. Nor does overestimating the money paid to “public radio” mean that taxpayers shouldn’t have a say if they want to fund a “public” radio station with a political bias.

What kind of trivia would be in the test if Mr. G had his way?

I’m not suggesting someone needs to be a Rhodes scholar to vote.

But voters should at least be able to name the three branches of government. Voters should understand what a “trade deficit” is and how laws are made.

Uh, such things used to be taught in school. If they aren’t being taught, maybe you need to run for the school board.

But I’m only a doc, and I don’t understand the “trade deficit”, so I guess I wouldn’t be allowed to vote.

But trivial knowledge is not really “knowledge”. Trivial knowledge lacks the ability to put things into context.

That is why in the USA, except for “voter initiatives”, Americans don’t vote on trivial details.

We vote for someone whose judgment we trust, and only secondly do we vote for those whose opinions we support. We are supposed to figure out these things by checking their past record , but often it means relying on the party representatives, who knows us and who also knows the candidate, to advise us who is the best candidate.

Usually folks rely more on the opinions of those they know and trust than on the opinion of experts.

This is not only in politics: usually folks chose the doc their neighbors say is good, not the one with the highest grades in medical school.

In the past, folks also relied on the press, but this monopoly on knowledge is no longer true, thanks to the internet.

Yet despite all the hot political rhetoric in the media, most Americans know that usually either party’s candidate will do a good job, so there is a lot of voter apathy. In most elections, most folks don’t vote, because they figure it doesn’t matter.

Ah, but there are exceptions to this.

When the party system breaks down and no longer represents what we ordinary folk think should be done, you see voters switching parties. You also might see a grass roots revolt, such as the tea party or the election campaign of Ross Perot, to alert the party leaders that they are out of touch.

That is why the editorial writer’s bias in favor of the “elites” doesn’t hold water. Often the best educated folks are educated to think in only one way, and completely out of touch with what the average voter thinks should be done.

One of the more counterproductive byproducts of having our political system hijacked by campaigns obsessed with ignorant voters is that the word “elite” has been saddled with terrible PR…

The Founding Fathers were not a bunch of average Joes with gripes about England; they were elite thinkers and philosophers. James Madison attended what is now Princeton. John Hancock went to Harvard. Thomas Jefferson enrolled at the College of William and Mary when he was 16.

Yes, and because they were so highly educated, they didn’t bother to represent those black slaves whose work without pay made them rich enough to attend college. They opposed slavery in theory, but realized that the gentlemen of their own class needed slaves to stay financially wealthy, and they were educated enough to compromise on the issue.

In contrast, Benjamin Franklin, who never went to school, changed his mind on slavery based not on his being educated in philosophy but because he owned a business and saw with his own eyes that slaves were humans and should have the full benefits of freedom. So instead of a gentlemanly compromise with slave owners, Ben worked hard to end this terrible practice.

Now, one could argue that there is a real danger that a political party might receive the vote of 90 percent of one group due to demagogury, especially in the cities where votes are bought in exchange for jobs or benefits, but the founding fathers were aware of this problem, and instituted checks and balances in the government.

That is why the US government has a Senate, where each state, including small rural states that otherwise would be overwhelmed by the voters in the cities, has a stronger representation in the government than would be allowed by pure votes. Similarly, the Senate, by facing reelection in six years, would have some immunity to the sways of popular opinion.

Another way to stop mob manipulation by demagogues was the Supreme Court, who is appointed for life and able to stop destruction of the rule of law or the imposition of unjust laws that could be passed in the heat of passion.

But of course this editorial is not about stopping “ignorant” voters from voting: like the Jim Crow laws, it is about stopping the wrong people from voting:

But at this crucial juncture with at least two wars, a budding energy crisis, a growing trade deficit, etc., do we really have the luxury of hand-holding?

Ah yes. Let’s get rid of representative government because we have two wars? Actually the US is only fighting one small war, in Afghanistan (Americans are in Iraq but not fighting and the raids on Libya are a lot short of what anyone would call a war).

Yet even in the midst of World War II  Roosevelt didn’t use the war to try to disenfranchise American citizens…. As for that “budding energy crisis”, well, I’m old enough to remember the gas lines of Jimmy Carter…

And then if we’re really lucky, maybe the ignorant politicians will go away as well.

Well, most of those “ignorant” politicians in Washington are lawyers, and have more education than you do.

The heated discussion in Washington are not due to ignorance, but because in a democracy, all sorts of different points of view are discussed. When our cable in the US got C Span, I was amazed at how nuanced and intelligent some of our representatives actually were, compared to what I had read in the press. Now, even though I no longer have acces to C span, I can still find the entire speech in print or on Youtube.

Before CNN allows an editorial calling American voters and their representatives ignorant, maybe they should check out their own reporting.

‘Tis the press that too often distorts the arguments to make the politicians look stupid.

Take for example Joe Biden, who is commonly ridiculed in the press for his inane quotes and verbal gaffes.

Biden is a lawyer. True, he was probably more famous in college for his football playing skills, but the ability to play team sports does train one to get along with other folks. And it was not his marks in college and law school but his skill with identifying with ordinary folk that enabled him to overcome a party hack with a lot more money to be elected to the Senate.

As for Biden’s verbal gaffes: like George VI, Demosthenes, and Moses, he had to practice hard to overcome stuttering. That fact alone shows he has more grit and skills than many of those who see him him as stupid.

But Biden is only one example of how a biased and often clueless mainstream press  “misunderestimates” the intelligence of those elected to the American government.

Now, if we can only figure out who at CNN was so wise to let a sportswriter assail the ignorance of the American voter and propose a reintroduction of Jim Crow voting laws…


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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