In the Land of the Blind…..

Yesterday’s New York Times had a story about efforts to register voters in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the tragic shooting of Michael Brown. This paragraph absolutely floored me:

“A lot of people just didn’t realize that the people who impact their lives every day are directly elected.” Said Shiron Hagens, 41, of St. Louis, who is not part of any formal group but has spent several days registering voters in Ferbuson with her mother and has pledged to come back here each Saturday. “The prosecutor—he’s elected. People didn’t know that. The City Council—they’re elected. These are the sorts of people who make decisions about hiring police chiefs. People didn’t know.”

The story also repeated the statistics we’ve seen before about Ferguson: a town that is two-thirds African-American with a virtually all-white power structure and a twelve percent voter turnout in the last municipal election. (And that was overall—black turnout was even lower.)

A few pages on, the Times had a report about the growing influence of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ vast organization. Taken together, these articles are a dramatic picture of what is wrong with our political system.

I know I sound like a broken record on the issue of civic knowledge. I quote the studies (only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government! People who are civically ignorant rarely vote!). I insist that our civic deficit is far more worrisome than our fiscal one.

These articles explain why it matters. Vividly.

We The People need to understand something about the disproportionate influence of money in politics: it requires civic ignorance. Whether it is intentionally misleading political messages or well-meaning but wrongheaded appeals to voters, these tactics are effective only when the people on the receiving end of the message don’t know any better.

The most basic civil right we Americans enjoy is the franchise. It would be great if we could reverse Citizens United and the other cases that have enabled the wealthy to buy our political system, but we actually have the power to neuter these people now.

The antidote to money in politics, ultimately, is an informed electorate.

In this day and age, it is absolutely unforgivable that American citizens don’t know who they elect—not that they don’t know the names of officeholders, but that they don’t know what offices they can vote to fill. This phenomenon is not limited to impoverished residents of Ferguson, Missouri; I regularly encounter middle-class college students who cannot define government, have no idea what a Constitution is or how it differs from a statute, and have only the haziest notion of what “rights” are.

Money is a huge advantage, and I am not minimizing its power. But the people who are all-too-often exercising undue influence in America are those who’ve figured out how to benefit from widespread civic ignorance.

What’s the old saying? In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.


  1. With my limited knowledge of civics I am aware that the three branches of government are the Executive, Legislative and Judicial. Even with that limited level I have seen these past few years how little power the Executive branch has been allowed to exert – it appears to be this specific Executive branch whose powers have been limited by privately owned Legislative and pseudo religious Judicial arms of government. Is it coincidental that these limitations are due to race and the power of the almighty dollar? All evidence, overt and covert, points to these two facts which cannot be ignored – by either party.

  2. I think you are incorrect in your assertion : “a twelve percent voter turnout in the last municipal election” — I’ve heard that figure was actually from the most recent primary elections in Missouri this spring. The next municipal elections in Ferguson are in April 2015 — I can guarantee you the turnout will be considerably higher than 12% !

  3. It makes you wonder how many people in general are ignorant of the importance of the election. I have always felt that my vote has more impact locally than in state or national elections where it tends to be diluted. Voter turn out is ridiculously low for non-national elections. Nevertheless, can you imagine the outcry we would hear if the country returned to the practice of only allowing male landowners to vote which was the practice early in our history. Maybe we ought to have one retro election year to wake everyone up.

  4. “All politics is local” is a cliche that is so true right now. Most people do not know who represents them at a local level. Whether it is the prosecutor, council members, sheriff, judges, township trustees, school board members, county clerk, county assessor, coroner, auditor, etc., those officeholders affect our daily lives in innumerable ways. We keep ourselves ignorant of the process of selection and election at our peril. Oligarchy is upon us. We are in denial if we think we are not responsible. Civic literacy is just the first step. We have to DO something to make change happen. It will be very difficult to alter the course of our slide. Cynicism and indifference are the grease that facilitates the downward trajectory.

  5. When history reports our times it will not say that the freedom of we the people was taken away by the 1%, because if it happens, they will write the history. That’s among the spoils to the victor. It will say that we, the people were not smart and/or responsible enough to maintain what we had been given. And it will be true.

    Democracy is as robust a government system as exists but does require effort and knowledge on the part of its benefactors. Freedom has never been free.

    Vote, consume, and invest like your grandchildren are depending it. We can only lose if we choose not to win.

  6. Pete, that great web site you mentioned in an earlier post ( and a lot of the research cited in this blog shows pretty clearly that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in a number of ways. If you are truly interested in how government works, realize that the future of your family depends on knowing and acting on that knowledge, you will look for it, act on it and share it with others. If you want your lust for provocative simple answers satisfied, you go to Fox where cognitive distortion abounds. In 2014, the unfortunate fact is that you can get glutted on what you want, rather than what you need, a phenomenon that we find true on a number of fronts. I believe that if Fox dedicated itself to your message and what it means for a week, it could change the world for good, but unless your insights are communicated by someone they trust, we are in trouble, and the civilization is done.

  7. I stand corrected on the Ferguson turnout percentage. For laughs and giggles, I checked the last Marion County municipal elections in 2011: Primary turnout was 12.55% and in the Fall it was 29.98%. In contrast, the fall turnout for the 2012 Presidential election was ​56.41% in Marion County.

  8. Wilson, although Marion County’s numbers sound better than Ferguson’s, 56 % in the presidential election is pitiful! I’ve often wondered what would happen if we told people who didn’t vote in the previous election that they couldn’t vote in the next one.

  9. The not so old saying is “In a generation of swine, the one-eyed pig is king.”

    Hunter Thompson in “Generation of Swine”

  10. Just FYI — and because I am a numbers geek
    from the St. Louis County government web site – turnout results for Ferguson Township
    August, 2014 – 25.82%
    April, 2014 – 11.98%
    April, 2013 – 11.76%
    November, 2012 – 76.37%
    November, 2010 – 52.24%

    This is similar to county wide results for St. Louis County and better than the turn out in the city of St. Louis.

  11. I’m just wondering what the research shows on civic intelligence – if behavior (ie, voting) can drive learning more than education can create behavior.

    To clarify, I wonder if just pushing everyone 18+ to vote, regardless of their level of civic ignorance, would lead to more interest and an gradual overall increase in civic knowledge. It seems like our usual solution is pushing civic education first, and hoping for voter turnout later. (Not that you can’t promote both at the same time!)

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