The Dumbed Down Democracy
September 13, 2016, 11:19am

By Timothy Egan

Donald J. Trump supporters in Tampa, Fla. on Wednesday. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times


Are you smarter than an immigrant? Can you name, say, all three branches of government or a single Supreme Court justice? Most Americans, those born here, those about to make the most momentous decision in civic life this November, cannot. And most cannot pass the simple test aced by 90 percent of new citizens.

Well, then: Who controlled the Senate during the 2014 election, when control of the upper chamber was at stake? If you answered Dunno at the time, you were with a majority of Americans in the clueless category.

But surely now, when election news saturation is thicker than the humidity around Lady Liberty’s lip, we’ve become a bit more clue-full. I give you Texas. A recent survey of Donald Trump supporters there found that 40 percent of them believe that Acorn will steal the upcoming election.

Acorn? News flash: That community-organizing group has been out of existence for six years. Acorn is gone, disbanded, dead. It can no more steal an election than Donald Trump can pole vault over his Mexican wall.

We know that at least 30 million American adults cannot read. But the current presidential election may yet prove that an even bigger part of the citizenry is politically illiterate — and functional. Which is to say, they will vote despite being unable to accept basic facts needed to process this American life.

“There’s got to be a reckoning on all this,” said Charlie Sykes, the influential conservative radio host, in a soul-searching interview with Business Insider. “We’ve created this monster.”

Trump, who says he doesn’t read much at all, is both a product of the epidemic of ignorance and a main producer of it. He can litter the campaign trail with hundreds of easily debunked falsehoods because conservative media has spent more than two decades tearing down the idea of objective fact.

If Trump supporters knew that illegal immigration peaked in 2007, or that violent crime has been on a steady downward spiral nationwide for more than 20 years, they would scoff when Trump says Mexican rapists are surging across the border and crime is out of control.

If more than 16 percent of Americans could locate Ukraine on a map, it would have been a Really Big Deal when Trump said that Russia was not going to invade it — two years after they had, in fact, invaded it.

If basic civics was still taught, and required, for high school graduation, Trump could not claim that judges “sign bills.”

The dumbing down of this democracy has been gradual, and then — this year — all at once. The Princeton Review found that the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were engaged at roughly a high school senior level. A century later, the presidential debate of 1960 was a notch below, at a 10th grade level. By the year 2000, the two contenders were speaking like sixth graders. And in the upcoming debates — “Crooked Hillary” against “Don the Con” — we’ll be lucky to get beyond preschool potty talk.

How did this happen, when the populace was so less educated in the days when most families didn’t even have an indoor potty to talk about? You can look at one calculated loop of misinformation over the last two weeks to find some of the answer.

A big political lie often starts on the Drudge Report, home of Obama-as-Muslim stories. He jump-started a recent smear with pictures of Hillary Clinton losing her balance — proof that something was very wrong with her. Fox News then went big with it, using the Trump adviser and free-media enabler Sean Hannity as the village gossip. Then Rudy Giuliani, the internet diagnostician, urged people to Google “Hillary Clinton illness” for evidence of her malady. This forced Clinton to prove her stamina, in an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, by opening a jar of pickles.

The only good thing to come out of this is that now, when you Google “Hillary Clinton illness” what pops up are scathing stories about a skeletal-faced rumormonger named Rudy Giuliani, and a terrific Stephen Colbert takedown of this awful man.

But what you don’t know really can hurt you. Last year was the hottest on record. And the July just passed was earth’s warmest month in the modern era. Still, Gallup found that 45 percent of Republicans don’t believe the temperature. We’re not talking about doubt over whether the latest spike was human-caused — they don’t accept the numbers, from all those lying meteorologists.

Of late, almost half of Floridians have done something to protect themselves from the Zika virus, heeding government warnings. But the other half cannot wish it away, as the anti-vaccine crowd on the far left does for serious and preventable illnesses.

I’m sorry that my once-surging Seattle Mariners dropped two out of three games to the Yankees this week. I just prefer not to believe it. And look — now my guys are in first place, no matter what the skewed “standings” show. In my own universe, surrounded by junk fact and junk conclusions, I feel better already.