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Too stupid to vote

The beauty of democracy?

Power resides in the governed rather than the governors.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

We the people.

We pick the leaders. We vote on issues. We select Boards of Education and Attorneys General, higher or lower property taxes and whether or not to fix the roads. That’s the cool part of democracy.

The scary piece of democracy?

We’re too stupid to do it very well.

Several days ago, I talked about “productive stupidity,” the idea that we as teachers need to intentionally explore things that we don’t understand – that it’s okay to be “stupid” when actively looking for answers.

I’m not talking about that kind of stupid. I’m talking about stupid stupid. As in . . . too stupid to actively participate in democracy because complex issues and differences in leadership skills are so confusing that a reasoned decision is impossible.

Research seems to support the scary piece. David Dunning, from Cornell University, says:

Very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognise how good an idea is.

Dunning suggests that we often have gaps in our knowledge, making it very difficult for us to see the gaps in the knowledge of others.The problem is that we don’t see our own knowledge gaps. We don’t know what we don’t know. This then makes it very difficult to be reflective citizens. When Dunning’s theories are simulated in mathematical election models, the really good leaders never win. And while average leaders usually won, really bad leaders also were elected.I’m not one to judge but I only have to look as far today’s Super Tuesday primary to see plenty of anecdotal evidence to support Dunning’s research.

Here’s the cool thing. There’s a fix.

I’ll let my good friend Thomas Jefferson say a few words here:

. . . wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.

No one more sincerely wishes the spread of information among mankind than I do, and none has greater confidence in its effect towards supporting free and good government.

I know no safer depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.

The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.

The answer is simple. You.

I will argue that history and government teachers are perhaps the most important people in the country. Without appropriate and quality instruction, the citizens of these United States will be, to put it bluntly, too stupid to vote.

We need to spend time on sharing democratic philosophy, ideas, and practices. We need to train our kids to analyze primary sources, to view information with a critical eye, to ask good questions, to look for facts rather than rely on “truthiness.” Kids need to walk out of our classrooms with the ability to think critically and make reasoned decisions.

Some resources to help?

I like democracy. Churchill once said that it’s the worst form of government except for all the others. I’d kinda like it to hang around for a while.

You need to realize that what you’re doing right now in your classroom makes a difference. What you’re doing right now is important.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Charlie Robinson #

    Good read.
    Cannot wait to read your spiel on how to disenfranchise the masses from the voting process.

    March 8, 2012
  2. Greg Davidson #

    And if things are working well in our Republic, protections against stupid voters are held in check by the Supreme Court adhering to the Constitution. I believe there are serious threats to our Republic from both stupid voters and leaders who think they can openly violate our basic rights recognized in the Bill of Rights. When the government can force me to buy a product (insurance) against my will, a government carrying out illegal activities to threaten my right to self defense (2nd amendment) as evident by fast and furious program, and detain me without legal representation (Defense Authorization Bill), you can see why I fear where this Republic is heading. It is not just stupid voters – it is also leaders with very little respect for individual freedoms.

    March 8, 2012
    • glennw #


      I agree with concerns about government leaders. Republicans in several southern states are attempting to pass legislation that severely limits the right to legally assemble and protest. Other states are working very hard to curtail the rights of unions and teachers. Still others have already passed laws making it much harder through the use of questionable voter ID programs (Wisconsin just had their program ruled unconstitutional) for those who want to vote to actually vote.

      But I still blame the voters. Voters are the ones who elected all of these leaders. We listen to emotional rhetoric and negative campaigning rather than asking good questions, doing research, reading party platform statements, and deciding based on facts rather than “truthiness.”

      My point is that school systems and social studies teachers are part of the solution. We need to be much more proactive in preparing our students to be effective, active citizens rather than people who will jump from one candidate to the next depending on how that candidate makes them feel.

      Thanks for the comment!


      March 8, 2012
  3. James Wiens #

    The biggest flaw of system is the influence money has in elections and politics in general. Not so much that people are stupid, but more often that elections are bought and influenced by super PACs and orginizations bank rolled by the exceptionally wealthiest like Charles Koch. They are able purchase huge amounts marketing that misinform, spin, and sway voters into voting for people and campaigns that in the end are not in the best interest of the vast majority of Americans. They influence politics in this way at national, state, and sometimes even local levels. This cycle perpetuates itself and makes our republic more and more difficult to function as a government that serves the best interest of it’s population. The recent financial crisis for example has done far more damage to average Americans then it ever has to the wealthy elite. Big money affects politics far more than the intelligence of the voters.
    James Wiens

    March 9, 2012
    • glennw #


      I would agree that big money / corporations / Super PACs have tremendous influence on elections. But would argue that one of the reason they’re so influential is that the voters are too easy to manipulate. If we the voters have better “citizenship” skills, if we ask better questions, evaluate statements and claims, research and read critically, if we’re driven more by facts than emotion, then the attempts by big money to manipulate us would be less effective.

      Better civic education would help voters resist the attempts by Koch’s AFP and other organizations like it. That’s my main point – social studies teachers have a tremendous responsibility to train our kids to be effective citizens.

      Thanks for the comment!


      March 9, 2012

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