Contrary to popular belief, millions of Americans can be wrong, and often are
By Barry Gordon 04/07/2011
Last night I sat down to watch the “results” show of “American Idol” only to find that the voters had booted off a contestant who was clearly one of the favorites of the three professional judges. I don’t know whether Casey Abrams deserved to go all the way to the top — it’s an exceptionally talented field this year — but more than 50 years of experience in show business does tell me that he should have clearly gotten into the top 10. Apparently, the judges agreed, because they chose to use their one “save” of the season and keep him on the show for another week.
This brings me, as always, to politics.
In this era of 24-hour cable news networks, instant polling and opinion journalism, we are constantly being told that our collective opinion — what the American people “think” — is always right. If 94 percent of people who text message “The Ed Schultz Show” think that public unions should have collective bargaining rights, they must be right. If 94 percent of respondents on FOX News think the opposite, then they must be right. Politicians cite the desires of “the American people” every five minutes in Congress, no matter what side of the aisle they’re on.
As I pointed out in my last article, sometimes the American people are wrong about facts that can be empirically proven. I would argue that much of our misinformation is the result of a failure by the media to distinguish fact from opinion. Everything is presented as a debate between two sides. Facts are constantly assessed through the prism of ideology and we struggle to find any standard of objective truth to hold on to. So we can hardly be blamed if we get some of the facts wrong. After all, there is little time in our busy lives to research every detail so that we can burrow down to one indisputable truth.
Sharing opinions, on the other hand, is easy. It takes little time to answer the question “What do you think?” We all have opinions on just about everything. That’s why it’s rare to see more than 10 percent or so of respondents answer “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” to most polling questions. I don’t question anyone’s right to have opinions — even ones I may think are stupid — any more than I would question anyone’s right to vote for the candidate of her choice. That’s democracy.
But I have a huge problem with the tendency to glorify our own opinions. I don’t share the view that a majority of Americans must always be right on every subject from Libyan intervention to judging singing talent. Much of the time our opinions reveal that we are misinformed, inconsistent and entirely lacking in the most basic understanding of issues.
We have a low tolerance for nuance and ambiguity, preferring to put things in simple terms that are easily absorbed and emotionally resonant. Capitalism vs. socialism. Rights vs. a lack of rights. Freedom vs. tyranny. Good vs. evil. Right vs. wrong. And we get frustrated or downright angry when we discover that the world simply doesn’t work that way.
We are also guilty of what some may call “magical thinking.” Getting rid of the deficit is a good example. Huge majorities of the American people indicate through polling that they want their government to cut the deficit, reduce the national debt and decrease the size of government. But what is our No. 1 solution? Reducing foreign aid, which wouldn’t even make a dent in the problem. Even a surtax on millionaires — a solution favored by a “majority” — is nowhere near enough to bring our budget into balance by itself. If we truly wanted the deficit reduced, we would have to acknowledge that the biggest problem areas are Medicare and Medicaid. Yet, when asked, we resist any significant changes to our favorite entitlement programs.
We want to remove tyrants around the world, but we don’t want to shed one drop of American blood to do so. We want to strengthen American manufacturing and end the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries like China, but we still want to be able to walk into Wal-Mart and buy cheap products — cheap only because they are made with low-wage labor in places like China. We want better schools but don’t want to pay for them with taxes. We want to end our dependence on oil, but we don’t want to pay a dime more for gasoline. I’m sure by now you get the picture.
In 1927, there was a hit song called “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.” The suggestion in the title is that if a great number of people think the same way, they must somehow be right. The cold, hard truth is that 50 million Frenchmen, or 100 million Americans, or 30 million “American Idol” voters can be wrong — frequently. I just wish we could acknowledge that once in a while.
Barry Gordon, a former Screen Actors Guild president, is the co-host of “City Beat” and teaches political science at
Cal State LA.