Debunking political stereotypes
AS THE FUROR over the election dies down, with more unseemly whining from sore losers and some unseemly gloating from sore winners, certain stereotypes of Bush voters continue to have a lot of currency among disgruntled liberals. One of them is that Bush supporters, and conservatives in general, are dumb, ignorant, and out of touch with reality.
This notion has been bandied about with quite a bit of smugness. Some on the left have humbly taken to calling themselves "the reality-based community."
The idea that Bush voters are reality-challenged is based partly on surveys showing that a large percentage of Bush supporters believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or a program to develop them. Many also persist in the belief that Iraq had substantial ties to the Al Qaeda. Other Republicans who support tougher environmental and labor standards incorrectly assume that Bush favors these positions as well.
Is this a damning indictment of Bush voters and conservatives? George Mason University law professor David Bernstein, a libertarian who was highly critical of both candidates in the past election, points out on the Volokh Conspiracy blog that in other surveys, Republicans have on average scored higher than Democrats on knowledge of political issues than Democrats -- though voters across the board tend to be woefully ill-informed. Bernstein speculates that in the more recent polls, ignorant Bush supporters were likely to pick answers flattering to Bush, while ignorant Kerry voters did the opposite.
Furthermore, on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda, the evidence leaves room for some ambiguity. I know intelligent and well-informed people who believe it is quite likely that Hussein managed to get his stockpiles out of the country before the invasion. As for collaboration between Hussein's regime and terrorist groups, it clearly did exist; the only question is how substantial it was.
Is it possible that Republican voters are likely to fall for the administration's spin on these issues? Of course. But is there any evidence that Democratic voters are less likely to fall for their own side's spin or to buy into their own side's myths? Not really. I'm willing to bet that if you asked people whether it's true or false that President Bush wanted to allow higher levels of arsenic in drinking water after he took office (a charge made in a MoveOn.org ad), a lot more Kerry supporters than Bush supporters would have said it was true. Yet this claim has been conclusively debunked as a lie by New Republic writer Greg Easterbrook, who is no conservative and no Bush supporter.
Democrats, I suspect, would also be much more likely to believe that if the Florida recount in 2000 had not been halted by the Supreme Court, Al Gore would have won the state and the election. In fact, a 2001 review of the Florida ballots by a media consortium concluded that both the recount in several Democratic counties that Gore had requested and the statewide recount of undervotes that was actually underway would have given a victory to Bush (though Gore could have won under some other recount scenarios). And, no doubt, far more Kerry supporters than Bush supporters believed Kerry's groundless claim in a campaign stump speech that one million African-American votes weren't counted in Florida.
A particularly amusing instance of the "Americans voted for Bush because they're so dumb" trope occurred in a post-election discussion at the online magazine Slate.com. Laura Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University, noted that "The United States ranks 14th out of 15 industrialized countries in per capita education spending."
In fact, comparisons conducted by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have found that only four countries -- Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, and Norway -- spend more per pupil on primary and secondary education than the United States. We also spend a higher percentage of our gross domestic product on education than most other industrialized nations. But Kipnis's statistic (for which she was unable to provide a source, saying that she used it in her last book but currently had no access to her notes) fits neatly into the stereotypes of American stupidity and greed.
In other news, a poll conducted on Nov. 3 showed that 13 percent of all voters believed Bush had stolen the election. (That adds up to about a quarter of Kerry voters.) Another 10 percent believed he had won it "on a technicality." After
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.