John Avlon’s dubious conversion from the author of a best-selling book labeling politicians who disagreed with John Avlon as “wingnuts” to a “No Labels” champion reminded me that he was one of many commentators to draw great significance from a Harris poll last spring that revealed what he called “scary” beliefs held by Republicans. There were several such polls this year about Republicans, conservatives and Tea Partiers; expressing alarm at how ignorant right-leaning Americans are became something of a media fad. For a news media largely dominated by reporters, producers and editors desperate to stave off the erosion of support for Barack Obama, the polls were perfect ammunition: they were genuinely newsworthy; reporting them undermined the credibility of those “scary” Tea Party rallies; they created an opportunity for the news media to bolster its own credibility by explaining why, for instance, the President was not the Anti-Christ, and perhaps best of all, it reinforced the conviction of the majority of newsmedia reporters who self-identify as liberals that they belong to the smart side.
Perhaps it isn’t so strange, then, that only a few news outlets and even fewer commentators chose to feature the results of a recent Harris poll showing that 40% of the U.S. public thinks that Karl Marx’s signature phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” originates from one of the America’s founding documents. Contrast this with the overwhelming press and TV coverage that the various “conservatives are ignorant dolts” polls received this year. Yet I would argue that so many Americans believing that the key tenet of Communism is a foundation of American democracy is more disturbing than the conservative misconceptions that the media found so significant, and far more newsworthy. This mistaken belief must come from the left side of the political spectrum: I don’t think the Right would be banging the drum for fealty to the Constitution if it believed the sacred document was a Communist tract. So why is this jaw-dropping, “wingnut” fantasy not worth reporting? Is it because so many reporters believe this too? Is it because the media is only interested in making ignorant conservatives look bad, while wanting to protect the equally inexcusable liberal dummies?
I know I learned a lot from this poll. I learned that a disgracefully large proportion of the public has not fulfilled its ethical obligation to be civicly informed. I learned that indeed, despite all the propaganda about our hard-working, courageous, effective and underpaid teachers, an outrageously high proportion of students are never taught the basic philosophies underlying American democracy—quite possibly because their teachers don’t know what they are either—and thus are vulnerable to having their real rights—the ones they know nothing about—taken away from them and future generations. I learned why blatant class warfare of the sort routinely practiced by prominent Democrats to promote redistribution of income while demonizing the people who start businesses, take risks with investments and create jobs is tolerated to the extent that it is: a lot of Democratic party fans can’t distinguish Karl Marx from Thomas Jefferson.
I learned that although polls reflecting badly on the knowledge of conservative Americans were reported all over the web and cable news in 2010, the fact that 40% of the public (which, since more than 50% call themselves Republicans or independents, probably means a majority of liberals and Democrats) believe the Communist ideology is mandated by the Bill of Rights or endorsed in the Federalist Papers is not considered equally newsworthy by the same news media.
I learned that the news media tends to report the stories that support its own priorities, agendas and beliefs, and not a balanced selection that allows the public to make informed judgments about its neighbors, nation, politics, laws and fiscal policies.
Well, that’s not exactly true.
I already knew this.
25 thoughts on “America’s Ignorant Public: What’s Worth Reporting?”
the fact that 40% of the public (which, since more than 50% call themselves Republicans or independents, probably means a majority of liberals and Democrats) Really? You either don’t understand statistics and shouldn’t comment on them, or you are intentionally misleading. You can’t assume even split of the population. There’s a reason crosstabs exist for polls.
That said, I don’t think the partisan flavor is what made the difference on this story. I think the blowback from the previous sets of polls continued the trend (1st got a ton of press, and criticized. 2nd got less press, same criticism. 3rd gets even less press). Maybe the journalists figured out that these polls don’t really mean much.
I actually think more play would have made the story more partisan. Like you, Republicans would improperly claim that democrats think the nation was built on communist ideals. Democrats would counter by improperly claiming that all those originalists haven’t read the constitution or are fighting democratic party initiatives for partisan reasons, even though they admittedly support the underlying framework.
The press may have finally gotten this one right.
You’ll have to explain that first comment to me. Gallup found that 42% of Americans self- identify as conservative or very conservative. I think it is reasonable to assume that only a small percentage of conservative morons believe that Karl Marx spoke for the Founding Fathers, don’t you? If Harris’s 40% is all contained within Gallup’s 58% of the non-conservative public, the assumption that it is concentrated among the most liberal is completely logical. Or you can explain why it isn’t.
I didn’t say, by the way, that I necessarily believe the polls are accurate…any of them. I do think that if one is newsworthy, the other is. Your explanation is plausible, but awfully convenient. Somehow the media decided making a big deal over such polls was a bad idea when the polls making liberals look dumb came out. What a coinkydink, to quote John Travolta.
I don’t think many would say that Democrats would conclude that the nation was built on Communist ideals. I would say that the poll shows that a lot of Americans don’t see anything wrong with Marx’s statement, because they haven’t thought about it very much. I think conservatives tend to be hyper-sensitive to Communist rhetoric, while others could easily mistake Marx for a benign endorsement of charity from the rich to the poor.
I forgot to mention that the press has no business factoring in how a particular story will be “used” by Republicans or anyone else. This isn’t like court, where a judge can declare evidence unduly prejudicial, even if it is relevant. The newsmedia is supposed to report what is going on, and let us decide how to “use” it. I had no problem with the press publicizing the previous polls at all, though a lot of the analysis was shoddy. I do have a problem with the media suddenly deciding such polls have no value at this point.
I don’t have a problem with the media realizing certain types of stories are not useful, and then not covering later ones. It’s all in your assumptions. The neutral poll has gotten less press than the liberals are idiots poll. It’s a strike against your theory and for mine.
1) You’re making invalid assumptions. You’re assuming people know what that phrase means. You’re assuming that they know it was said by Karl Marx. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was dead even among liberals and conservatives. I wouldn’t be surprised if the conservatives were a larger percentage. What we’ve learned from these Harris polls is that most people don’t know most things, and then guess or make up stuff.
2) I agree that if one poll is newsworthy, they all should be. The pattern I put forth did occur, and did occur in that order. I find it just as logical as your bias theory.
I like #3.
I think the phrase is self-explanatory. I didn’t think that those who attribute it to Jefferson or Madison know it was written by Marx. It IS a justification for radical wealth redistribution, and it implies force and coercion. I very much doubt that conservatives would think such a phrases was in any founding documents, but I take your point.
I don’t see an implication of force. I see a credo of good behavior. Something that would be ethical to attain. While taking it as fact could be used for radical wealth redistribution, the basic idea encompassed in the statement does necessitate such.
3) I would say that the poll shows that a lot of Americans don’t see anything wrong with Marx’s statement, because they haven’t thought about it very much. I think conservatives tend to be hyper-sensitive to Communist rhetoric, while others could easily mistake Marx for a benign endorsement of charity from the rich to the poor. You do realize that the second you don’t use the word Marx, it does become a benign statement that describes social justice, a conservative Catholic ideal very well. You take from the poll that people haven’t thought about it much, while then noting that the statement is something that people do understand the meaning of.
It’s your bias (connecting it to big bad evil communism) that tilts the meaning of the poll. Thank you for proving my point.
The thing that’s a problem is taking the statment as a communist idea in general. Most people don’t know what most famous people have said. Without the linkage to Marx (which people rationally don’t know)
Not only do I realize that…it was originally part of the article. But “social justice” is liberal cant: its suggests government enforcement of someone’s idea of what is “fair” distribution of wealth.
I don’t think one has to think about it much to understand that it is essentially unAmerican, unless one has a warped view of what American values are. I would like to see Harris poll self-identified liberal and conservatives on whether the phrase is in the founding documents. I’ll buy you a steak if the results don’t show most of the unwitting Marxists from the liberal camp.
Communism was big and bad. I don’t think the scare quotes are appropriate at all.
Social Justice is liberal cant? I mainly see it stemming out of not so liberal religions. Suggestions for what we should do to help others, not what the government should enforce, but I can see how it could be used that way. I don’t see the redistribution implication at all, unless it’s being used as a far-right boogie man.
I 100% disagree that social justice is unamerican. Lower case c communism isn’t even unamerican in principle. Working together to build a nation? Taking care of family and neighbors that fall ill? Thanksgiving? Christmas? All of those are clearly unamerican.
I’m not sure of this specific Harris poll, but they do tend to ask party affiliation or political grouping as part of their background information. It should be in the cross tabs, which I believe you have to pay for.
If anyone who agrees with that line is a Marxist, then all good Catholics are Marxists. That’s fun.
Capital C Communism was big and bad. Lower case communism is not. Democracy and capitalism do not have to be linked.
There is no lower case communism, at least on a national, large scale basis, because it is a fantasy. It’s not worth talking about. It can only be attempted through Communism, which requires authoritarian measures. Catholics advocate every human being having their needs supplied to them, forever and without qualification or limitation? I can honestly say I have never known a single Catholic who advocated that. The Catholic Church certainly doesn’t practice that. Of course the principle is unAmerican: it makes working citizens the slaves of non-working citizens. It is discourages individual initiative and rejects the principles of self-sufficiency and persoanl responsibility. Maybe you thought I was talking about SOUTH America?
There is no lower case communism, at least on a national, large scale basis, because it is a fantasy. It’s not worth talking about. It can only be attempted through Communism, which requires authoritarian measures.
You do seem to enjoy twisting things. The point I was making was that communist ideals are not evil. Whether communism exists in the large scale doesn’t really matter.
Catholics advocate every human being having their needs supplied to them, forever and without qualification or limitation? I can honestly say I have never known a single Catholic who advocated that. The Catholic Church certainly doesn’t practice that.
The Catholic Church does advocate giving all that you don’t need to charity, where it will be dispersed to all those who do need. Sounds a whole lot like that quote. That pretty much nobody actually does this is simply more ammunition against religion.
Of course the principle is unAmerican: it makes working citizens the slaves of non-working citizens. It is discourages individual initiative and rejects the principles of self-sufficiency and persoanl responsibility.
I 100% disagree. It doesn’t discourage anything on it’s own and it doesn’t touch personal responsibility. You are still responsible for doing everything you can do. Read the statement on it’s own. Take communism on its own. My examples still prove my point.
No, it is not remotely the same thing, because the individual, not the State, defines what the individual “needs.” That’s what makes it charity, rather than robbery.
Your last statement makes me wonder if you have the same contempt for psychology that you do for religion.
No, it is not remotely the same thing, because the individual, not the State, defines what the individual “needs.”
Where do I say anything about government defining needs? You’re the one bringing that up. You can’t respond to my points, so you make up stuff. It’s not working.
Your last statement makes me wonder if you have the same contempt for psychology that you do for religion.
I have contempt for psychology that’s not based on fact and evidence, like your defense of some nebulous “they” needing religion. I’m not sure how we got into psychology here, unless you jumped again into previous implementations of Communism instead of what I was actually talking about.
Marx’s slogan requires an authority defining “need” and “ability.” It is implied. In practice, it is always the government. You know that.
Oh, please. The comforting, psychologically healthy applications of religion are not a matter of debate; they are observable. There’s nothing nebulous about them: I obseved them at a funeral this weekend. The daughters of a my dead friend, who died after a long bout with Parkinson’s, stated that they were happy that he was finally in a place when he could be free of the encumbrance that his body had become. And it helped them deal with his death, and move on.
This: “It doesn’t discourage anything on it’s own and it doesn’t touch personal responsibility. You are still responsible for doing everything you can do” is a statement that is ignorant or contemptuous of psychology. Human beings tend not to work hard for rewards that will be taken away from them. Animal experiments prove the same thing.
1) Marx’s slogan requires an authority defining “need” and “ability.” It is implied. In practice, it is always the government. You know that.
The slogan requires no such thing on its face. As a political philosophy? Of course it does. As an ideal to aspire towards? No. My point has been that standing on it’s own, there is nothing wrong with the statement. It is only the context we put it in that gives it negativity.
2) The second part came out of right field. When did we start talking about the psychology of religion? I agree, there are parts of religion that are comforting to people. They are falsehoods that also lead to bad and contradictory behavior, but that’s neither here nor there. What does that have to do with my take on psychology?
3) Back on topic. Bringing in human psychology didn’t apply. I was right, you did jump into Communism, or at least the statement as a basis for governing. Without the outside hand, it is simply an ideal that individuals can aspire to. An ethical idea at that.
Don’t confuse religious generosity for government tax. They are very different. A tax is forced and charity is voluntary.
And I think most people, including those advocating the tax, get the difference.
Someone clearly doesn’t understand how religion works.
That’s very amusing, coming from someone who wants to wipe it from the face of the earth. Doesn’t it ring some arrogance bells when you hear yourself say that you, who detest religion, understand it, whereas those who embrace it don’t? I think the reverse argument is more persuasive: fearing and reviling religion creates a prima facie case that the individual with such sentiments doesn’t understand it.
Your prima facie case gets booted pretty quickly. It’s contradictory to the evidence at hand. Polls of religious knowledge put atheists and jews at the top.
It is sad that athiests know more about religion than the religious, but it really should be expected. Religion is built on faith, not knowledge. Once you get knowledge, religion loses it’s power.
Knowledge and understanding are often related , but are not the same thing. People who live with animals understand them better than zoologists. The prima facie point stands. I had a racist room mate in law school that knew more about race relations and the history of blacks in American than any African American I have ever met. Did he understand blacks? Absolutely not. Same here.
Are religious people religion? No. Try again.
I have no idea what you mean. I suppose you are requiring an exact conformity between the subject being understood in my analogy–African Americans—and the topic you don’t understand despite knowledge—religion. [Full disclosure: I don’t really understand it either, but I think I do better than you do.] THAT indicates a misunderstanding of analogies.
A knows a great deal about X but doesn’t understand X. The statement is accurate whether X is a race or a belief system held by people. You want a different X? OK…people who live under Communism understand it better than American scholars who study Communism.
You still don’t have an apt metaphor, and yes, you need agreement.
An actual appropriate metaphor would be: “people with communist beliefs understand communism better than people who fear and hate it.”
See how dumb that is?