I used to believe in the common sense of the American people. Nowadays, I’m not so sure. This election season, I’ve been disillusioned by the supposedly innate wisdom of the people.
During primary season, every fringe idea from every fringe group can be a target for a large field of candidates to seek support. You will find that 20 or 30 or 40 percent of the American people believe any nutty, preposterous idea. Normally, they aren’t politically significant. But during low-turnout primary season with lots of candidates, fringe voters or fringe beliefs can actually have an impact, pushing fringe candidates to the front of the pack, and a previously fringe idea is accepted by the mainstream. A candidate can actually win a primary, if the field is crowded, with just 25% of the vote. During this election cycle, presidential primary candidates seem to be gaining traction by wooing the fringes.
- Nearly one out of three Americans, 30%, think religious liberty is not important for Jews and Mormons, and 40% think it’s not important for Muslims. Drill deeper and you would probably find Baptists think religious liberty is more important for themselves than for Catholics. And Catholics think it’s more important for themselves than Pentecostals. They forget, or never knew, that the purpose of the First Amendment guaranteeing religious freedom to all is to prevent the centuries of religious warfare and discrimination that Europe endured, and that other parts of the world still endure. It’s very disturbing that a substantial number of Americans would abandon universal religious freedom.
- More than one out of four Americans believe all 11 million undocumented immigrants must be deported immediately, as if that were possible. How? By authorizing law enforcement to go on house searches in Hispanic neighborhoods, knocking on doors and demanding that people show their papers? Rounding up anyone of Hispanic descent or with an Hispanic name and placing them in boxcars and shipping them back over the border?
- Nearly one in five believe government should censor “politically damaging news“ (in violation of the First Amendment). Among millennials (aged 18 to 24 in 2015), 40 percent believe government should censor statements that minorities find offensive.
- Nearly one in three, or “29% of Americans could imagine a situation in which they would support the military seizing control of the federal government, while 41% could not imagine such a situation…43% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats say that they could conceive of a situation in which they would support a military coup in the United States,” according to a YouGov poll. “More to the point, only 32 percent of Republicans state unequivocally that they would not conceive of a situation in which they would support a military coup.” (See “The patriotic treason of the Republican base,” in Salon).
- One in four Americans in a 2014 Reuters poll stated that their state should secede (or “peacefully withdraw”) from the United States of America and the federal government.” (This view is most popular in the Southwest, 34% support the idea. I wonder if this percentage is greater than during the Civil War?)
- One in five believe the moon landing never happened.
- One in five believe 9/11 was an inside job by the U.S. government and/or Israel,
- One in four believe local communities should be able to prohibit construction of mosques if they do not want them (25 percent believed this in 2010, whereas 62 percent of Americans believed Muslims should have the same rights as other groups to build houses of worship in local communities). In North Carolina, one 2015 poll of likely Republican primary voters found that 40 percent said Islam should be illegal in the U.S. and 72 percent said that a Muslim should not be allowed to become president.
- Nearly one in three believe Obama is a Kenyan Muslim (actually 29 percent believe this in 2015), Separately, in 2014, “a Rasmussen survey shows that 23 percent of Americans still believe Obama is not an American, while an additional 17 percent are not sure. Forty percent of Americans! This is no longer a fringe view,” reported political analyst Norm Ormstein.
- Nearly one in three Americans, or 29% “think that the U.S. stands above all other countries in the world,” exceptional in its greatness and especially blessed by God. The number has declined from 38% in 2011. It depends somewhat on how this question is asked. Nearly 80 percent believe America is the greatest country in the world because of its Constitution and unique character.
Then there are the issues where a considerable minority of Americans support ideas contrary to science:
- “More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades,” Gallup reports. “Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guided the evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved is rising.”
- About one in three Americans believe global warming or climate change are not things that we need to worry about in our lifetimes, if ever. About 33 percent of Americans believe this, and 40 percent of conservative Republicans believe global warming will never happen.
- Nearly two in ten Americans say getting children vaccinated is not important. (Click.)
Then there are the issues where a clear majority of Americans choose fear over compassion. Sixty percent of Americans do not think the country should take in just 10,000 Syrian refugees. This is consistent with public opinion during previous refugee crises, going back to the 1940s, when 72 percent of Americans opposed taking in Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
A majority of Republicans and self-identified conservatives support sending ground troops to the Middle East to fight the Islamic State, but a clear majority of Americans — 53% — oppose sending ground troops.
One in three or nearly one in two Americans currently support legalizing discrimination against individuals, or do not have any friends of other races.
- 49 percent of Americans say that elected officials with religious objections to gay marriage should be able to defy the law and should be able to refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, according to a poll conducted in July 2015. At that time, “42 percent support same-sex marriage and 40 percent oppose it…Asked specifically about the Supreme Court ruling, 39 percent said they approve and 41 percent said they disapprove…59 percent of the poll respondents said wedding-related businesses with religious objections should be allowed to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples….Also, 46 percent said businesses more generally should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples, while 51 percent said that should not be allowed.” (Click for details.) Of course how people answer the question might depend on how the question is asked. If the phrase “defy the law” is included, fewer might say they should have that right.
- “40 percent of white Americans have no friends of other races, and 25 percent of non-whites surround themselves solely with people of their own race…Overall, 30 percent of Americans do not have friends of other races,” according to an ongoing Reuters/Ipsos poll released in 2013.
Americans are deeply divided on gun control, which might explain why Congress takes no action:
- 32 percent of Americans would ban the possession of handguns “except by the police and other authorized persons,” while two-thirds (65%) said no, they would not support such a ban.
- 51 percent of Americans would like to see stricter gun laws in the U.S, meaning that 49 percent would not like to see stricter gun laws.
My friend Bruce Johnson poses a question:
“John Milton and John Stuart Mills based the notion of the marketplace of ideas on the certainty that people would choose the most convincing arguments. Is this true in a redneck nation where bumper stickers say, ‘I don’t believe the liberal media’? In defiance of facts accepted even by conservatives everywhere else in the world, our right wing denies the science supporting global warming and for that matter, also evolution and vaccination?
“In defense of their advocacy of opinions rejected by 96% of humanity, they claim an American Exceptionalism that guarantees that in spite of its constitutional legacy of secularism, the United States is really a divinely anointed nation, not destined merely to dominate the 20th century as Britain did the 19th and China will the 21st but for all time? That America is to be the sole arbiter of truth?
“I admire Obama for trying to buck that tide. I think the attitude I decry is typical of nations that lose their imperial dominance but refuse to face reality. Like Great Britain in the early sixties.”
My response: “I teach the ideas of Milton and Mill and Voltaire to my students as passionately as I can. Many of them don’t get it. Maybe there is a reason why. Often the real world doesn’t seem to comply with the great thinkers’ optimistic theory of human nature in the Enlightenment/Age of Reason. They believed that the people will choose the truth or the most convincing arguments in the end. Nowadays the people are only half-listening, distracted by their latest text message or what some celebrity is doing, with an attention span of only a few minutes.
Milton was thinking that an educated elite of readers would be able to fully consider an argument. But in a nation where only 23.1 percent of Americans 25 and older have college degrees, and about 11 percent don’t have high school degrees, is it any wonder that 20 percent will agree to any nutty idea?
And yet close-mindedness isn’t a majority view of most Americans, and bigotry seems to be declining. Almost a majority (47%) could support a self-described socialist candidate (nearly 60 percent of Democrats say they could). Conservatives no doubt see this as evidence of America’s decline.
Overwhelming majorities could support a presidential candidate who is atheist, Muslim, evangelical Christian, gay or lesbian, Mormon, Jewish, Hispanic, black, a woman, or Catholic, according to Gallup. Even so, stereotyped prejudices remain:
- 40% could not support an atheist candidate; 38% could not support a Muslim candidate; 25% could not support an evangelical Christian; 24% could not support a gay or lesbian candidate; 18% could not support a Morman candidate; 7% could not support a Jewish candidate; 8% could not support a Hispanic candidate; 7% could not support a black candidate, 8% could not support a woman candidate; and 6% could not support a Catholic candidate. (See Gallup Poll, June 2015.)
- Americans are becoming more tolerant, Gallup reports. Fewer than half would support a Jewish presidential candidate in the 1930s; only 60 percent would vote for a Catholic president; and only 33 percent would vote for a woman president. In 1958, only 37% would vote for a black president.
- By comparison, 78% said they could vote for a black president after Barack Obama clinched enough delegates to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, according to Rasmussen. The same poll noted that in 2008 nearly 20 percent admitted they would not be willing to vote for an African American president. The same year, 17% admitted they would not be willing to vote for a woman president.
- Other surveys suggest Americans aren’t quite as tolerant as Gallup reports. A Rasmussen survey in September 2015 reported that a majority, 51%, would not be willing to vote for a Muslim president, and just 28% said they would be willing to vote for a Muslim president.