Media

Dumb and Dumberer

Unreason and excess on all sides

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Are Americans who voted for George W. Bush dumb, ignorant, and reality-challenged, or does neither "red" nor "blue" America have a monopoly on smarts? My column last week, asserting that voters across the political spectrum are likely to harbor misconceptions that are favorable to their side and damaging to the other, elicited many responses.

Some claimed the likely Democratic misconceptions I listed—that Bush tried to allow more arsenic in drinking water, that Al Gore would have won the recount in Florida in 2000, and that one million African-Americans were disenfranchised—weren't misconceptions at all. Bush did initially suspend a new regulation issued by President Clinton lowering the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water; media organizations did find that a recount of all Florida ballots for which voter intent could be determined would have put Gore ahead; and an estimated one million votes cast by African-Americans went uncounted due to ballot spoilage.

The first two assertions are technically correct but misleading. Bush suspended all of Clinton's last-minute regulations for review, standard procedure when the White House changes political parties; the new arsenic standards were subsequently approved. In Florida, both the recount requested by Gore and the one authorized by the Florida Supreme Court would have given Bush the edge.

What about race and uncounted votes? Last week, I wrote that John Kerry claimed that one million African-American votes were uncounted in Florida; while his statement was made during a stump speech in Miami, he was apparently referring to a nationwide figure.

Aside from the fact that the racial breakdown of ballot spoilage is based on estimates and projections, what Kerry said was that one million African-Americans were "denied the right to exercise their vote." This presumes intentional disenfranchisement—something that even the US Civil Rights Commission, in a report harshly critical of the conduct of the 2000 election in Florida, did not conclude. So, if many Kerry supporters believe that minority voters were systematically disenfranchised, they are no less misguided than Bush voters who believe that evidence of weapons of mass destruction was found in Iraq.

Some of my correspondents have suggested that the Democratic errors are grounded in larger truths: e.g., that the Republicans are generally in favor of less environmental regulation or that Bush won a dubious victory in 2000. But couldn't the same be said of Republican errors? Bush voters may wrongly believe that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda, but they may be right about the "larger" fact of his support for terrorism.

Finally, a very thoughtful letter from Dr. Robin Colgrove of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics of the Harvard Medical School argues that the issue is "not really ignorance or lack of intelligence but rather the fundamentalist rejection of reason" by "red state" voters for whom political beliefs are a matter of "God-given truth."

I share the concern about the influence of the religious right in the Republican Party, and about its leaders' determination to legislate their values—though there is little if any evidence that religious fervor significantly motivates support for the war in Iraq. But secular ideologies, too, are hardly incompatible with dangerous fanaticism or with frightening delusions. In Germany, one third of voters under 30 believe the US government may have engineered the Sept. 11 attacks.

The American left has its own secular religions, from feminism to environmentalism, that can breed their own varieties of unreason. Some of the politically correct "multiculturalist" pap the left has foisted on the public schools is about as unsound academically as the attempts to teach "creation science" alongside evolution. Feminist extremism has led to court mandates to water down physical strength requirements for firefighters so more women can be hired. In 1991, Anita Hill's charges that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had engaged in raunchy sexual banter unleashed a wave of hysteria about sexual harassment—hysteria that spilled over into the 1992 election and led to a far-reaching, remarkably successful push to legislate morality.

In Election 2004, a number of Republican voters may have been driven by the conviction that Bush is God's pick to lead America; but a number of Democratic voters were driven by an equally irrational demonization and hatred of Bush. In the post-election climate, reason needs to be defended from the right-wing "moral values" zealots; but it also needs to be defended from the left-wing fearmongers who act as if we were one executive order away from a Taliban-like theocracy.