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Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter [Bargain Price] [Hardcover]

by Rick Shenkman
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 9, 2008 0465077714
Politicians tell us constantly that they trust the wisdom of "The American People." New York Times best-selling author Rick Shenkman explains why we shouldn't--at least when it comes to politics.

Levees break in New Orleans. Iraq descends into chaos. The housing market teeters on the brink of collapse. Americans of all political stripes are heading into the 2008 election with the sense that something has gone terribly wrong with American politics. But what exactly?

Democrats blame Republicans and Republicans blame Democrats. Greedy corporate executives, rogue journalists, faulty voting machines, irresponsible defense contractors--we blame them, too. The only thing everyone seems to agree on, in fact, is that the American people are entirely blameless.

In Just How Stupid Are We?, best-selling historian and renowned myth-buster Rick Shenkman takes aim at our great national piety: the wisdom of the American people. The hard truth is that American democracy is more direct than ever--but voters are misusing, abusing, and abdicating their political power. Americans are paying less and less attention to politics at a time when they need to pay much more: Television has dumbed politics down to the basest possible level, while the real workings of politics have become vastly more complicated.

Shenkman offers concrete proposals for reforming our institutions--the government, the media, civic organizations, political parties--to make them work better for the American people. But first, Shenkman argues, we must reform ourselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Shenkman (Presidential Ambition) makes the provocative argument that as American voters have gained political power in the last 50 years, they have become increasingly ignorant of politics and world affairs—and dangerously susceptible to manipulation. The book provides a litany of depressing statistics—most Americans cannot name their representatives in Congress, only 20% hold a passport, 30% cannot identify the Holocaust—as Shenkman inquires whether Americans are capable of voting in the nation's or even their own best interests. Although Shenkman clearly derives some pleasure in pointing out the stupidity and irrationality of the American public, his concern is genuine and heartfelt. In lucid, playful prose, he illustrates how politicians have repeatedly misled voters and analyzes the dumbing down of American politics via marketing, spin machines and misinformation. Shenkman initiates an important conversation in this book and makes welcome suggestions to reinvigorate civic responsibility and provide people with the knowledge and tools necessary to efficaciously participate in the political process. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"New York Observer"
"Slender, lively and highly accessible ....it tackles one of the weightiest problems troubling American public life"

Michael Beschloss
“At a moment when Americans are choosing leaders, Rick Shenkman’s brisk, provocative and vigorously argued book implores us to rethink our roles as citizens and improve our political environment. There could not be a better time for this important message.”

Bernard A. Weisberger, author of America Afire
“With wit, passion and devastating evidence, Shenkman compels us, the praised and petted ‘American people,’ to look in the mirror for an explanation of why our elections are travesties of informed, intelligent debate. Lively and crucial, the book reminds us, however we vote, that there's no such animal as ‘democracy for dummies.’”

Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus
“A smart, stylish, and witty wrestling match with the most difficult problem a democracy can face.”

Jon Wiener, Professor of History at University of California at Irvine and author of Historians in Trouble
“The bad news is that Americans are ignorant, shortsighted, and swayed by meaningless phrases; the good news is that things could get better—if we start speaking honestly about the problem. Rick Shenkman's book is a crucial starting point in that process.”

Ruth Rosen, Professor Emerita of History, University of California, Davis
"Are manipulative politicians and an intimidated media the only reasons we've had to suffer through the Bush years? What about the American people? Why don't they stop, pay attention, and think for themselves? In his candid and hard-hitting history of American political culture, Shenkman offers a compelling and disturbing analysis of the American people and why we get the government we deserve."

New York Observer
"Slender, lively and highly accessible ....it tackles one of the weightiest problems troubling American public life"

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (June 9, 2008)
  • ISBN-10: 0465077714
  • ASIN: B00263J6HM
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,542,099 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Rick Shenkman is the editor and founder of George Mason University's History News Network, a website that features articles by historians on current events. An associate professor of history at George Mason University, he can regularly be seen on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. He is a New York Times best-selling author of six history books, including Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History and Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things Done (HarperCollins, 1999). His latest book is Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter (Basic Books, June 2008). He blogs at: http://howstupidblog.com

Educated at Vassar and Harvard, Mr. Shenkman is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and the former managing editor of KIRO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Seattle. In 1997 he was the host, writer and producer of a prime time series for The Learning Channel inspired by his books on myths. He gives lectures at colleges around the country on several topics, including American myths and presidential politics.

Mr. Shenkman can be reached by email at RickShenkman@gmail.com.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
178 of 188 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The dumbing of the American electorate June 12, 2008
Many of us probably have suspected for a long time that our soundbit, infotainmented, and MTVed and Gameboyed culture is eroding our critical skills. As individuals, many of us simply may not care too much. After all, a man's entertainment center is his castle. But as citizens of a democracy, we ought to be concerned. As John Stuart Mill said in the 19th century, the democratic premise rests on the presence of an educated citizenry. Ideas and policies can neither be examined nor tested in the marketplace in the absence of an informed and critical public.

Rick Shenkman's Just How Stupid Are We? not only wholeheartedly embraces Mill's observation, but also eliminates any remaining doubt about the growing inadequacy of the American electorate to participate responsibly in democracy. A few of the chilling facts with which the book is crammed:

--half of us can name 4 characters from "The Simpsons," but less than a quarter can name more than one of the guaranteed rights in the First Amendment.

--only 2 out of 5 voters can name all three branches of the federal government.

--only 1 in 5 know that there are 100 federal senators.

--only 1 in 7 can find Iraq on a map.

--only one-fifth of Americans between ages 18-34 bother to keep up with current events.

How to account for this frightening state of ignorance? And just as importantly, what to do about it?

In answer to the first question, Shenkman suggests that the steady erosion of party and labor bosses, who despite their frequent misuse of power at least tended to keep their followers politically informed, has thrown the average voter to the mercy of shallow network commentary (if that) and corporate manipulation.
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76 of 84 people found the following review helpful
I should state at the outset that I agree with the author's core thesis. I think he's on to something when he argues that democracy is only as good as the quality and wisdom of "The People" who are by definition the source of legitimacy under democracy. I think he is absolutely correct that we too often focus our discussion of what ails us on the rotten politicians, the misleading media, and other nefarious forces that are out to bamboozle the voters. While these other factors certainly do merit criticism, Shenkman correctly contends that The People lose the right to complain about the state of their political system when they refuse to follow the news and stay informed on the issues.

Nevertheless, beyond agreeing with this essential point, I didn't find this book as compelling as I thought I would. Basically this short book amounts to a sort of jeremiad against our citizens' lack of political knowledge. It reads quite fast, as I got through it in a few hours, but I didn't feel it brought anything new to the table.

My main problem is that, while Shenkman does succeed in providing further evidence that, yes, Americans aren't terribly bright when it comes to politics, history, and foreign affairs, he doesn't seem to engage in a sustained analysis of WHY. He provides some evidence that the problem has become worse over time. Why? I wish he would have undertaken a more thorough analysis of the educational system. He hardly talks about the internet, except in the last chapter, where he briefly states he believes it holds promise to elevate political discourse (which actually flies in the face of some recent analyses). He reserves most of his criticism for television, to which he devotes a full chapter.
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48 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ignorance Is Not Bliss June 23, 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The "Sage of Baltimore", H.L. Menken, an early 20th Century newspaper man and social critic, once observed that nobody ever went broke by underestimating the taste of the American people. The theme of this book might well be that no politician ever lost an election by underestimating the ignorance of the American voter. In spite of its title this book actually does not argue that the American Voter is stupid. Rather Shenkman contends that the American People are ignorant especially of basic geography and history. Further he argues that they suffer from a terminal attention deficit syndrome. Together these shortcomings routinely prevent the American Public from being able to understand complex thoughts and issues that cannot be reduced to thirty second sound bits. As the book makes clear this is exacerbated by the modern phenomenon of public polling and then treating the results as actual news. As any rational examination demonstrates, most polls are virtually meaningless and even if well conducted the average poll respondent is incapable of understanding or indifferent to what is really being asked. These are harsh judgments, but Shenkman supports them with a good deal antidotal evidence. And he is not alone in his conclusion that the American People may lack the sagacity so often attributed to them by politicians seeking their votes. Any serious reading of the Federalist Papers or indeed the U.S. Constitution will reveal that far from having a faith in the abiding wisdom of the people our founding fathers considered them inflammatory dolts and tried to limit their influence in government. This book suggests that they may have been correct.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Regrettably, the title is not misleading
Excellent book, explains just how stupid the collective "we" are as voters. Very scary to ponder, regardless of party or slant.
Published 2 months ago by William Kaberlein
5.0 out of 5 stars Self destruction
Nobody can be this dumb or stupid. America is a deep hypocrisy. Americans are in a deep trance. Americans are grotesque liars who will believe absurd nonsense. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Stephen A Miller
5.0 out of 5 stars Shenkman Goes Political
I've said it about his other books, but Shenkman is a bathroom book genius. Quick, funny, interesting tidbits for a quick bathroom break. Read more
Published 3 months ago by JS
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Truly an insightful book about why the poor and uneducated support politicians and policies that are really against their own best interests.
Published 3 months ago by Falconlady
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed
I have to confess that I only got through half of this. It just was not compelling enough a narrative and I really though the authors fixated too much on politics. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Alexander E. Paulsen
5.0 out of 5 stars Think outside the box: update democracy
This is a rather nice summary of democracy's imperfections. I have long suspected that in its present form it may not become the ultimate evolutionary structure of governance. Read more
Published 5 months ago by H. Peter Nennhaus
5.0 out of 5 stars Good
Very interesting. I got this book for my political science class. The cover is smooth and matte. No complains. Great.
Published 6 months ago by Natalia
5.0 out of 5 stars Truth revealed
There are so many things identified in this book that I realize are true but I never thought of before.
Published 7 months ago by Stephen Wineteer
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written, great points/ideas
Easy read, and lots of valuable info gained. Sherman laid down facts rather than flooding with bias opinions, have fun y'all!
Published 8 months ago by yeah, I'm her
2.0 out of 5 stars Middle of the Road
Interesting but somewhat rehashed. Prose from good to middling. I would not recommend to others. Take authors advice and subscribe to the NYT and WSJ; read them, and get on with... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Amazon Customer
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Topic From this Discussion
Book claims no wmd in Iraq---a google located webpage called "Saddam's...
You believe that buried, old munitions used against Iran constitute WMD worth the lives of 4,000+ Amercian soldiers and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians? If you are anything representative of the US public's ability to assess reality as opposed to regurgitating party lines, than... Read more
Jun 10, 2008 by C. Tighe |  See all 6 posts
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