Deception & Misdirection

Progressives and the “dumb” factor

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

Sometimes you can learn a lot about people from Facebook. I have a number of Facebook Friends who use the social network as a medium for political commentary, usually making brief comments on news stories or sharing those humorous or sardonic graphics-with-text that have come to be called “memes.” (Technically, a meme is an idea that spreads from one person to another in the manner of a virus.) My friends run the gamut ideologically from conservatism and libertarianism to Progressivism (or, as a founder of Progressivism, H.G. Wells, called it, “liberal fascism”).  If there’s one theme that runs through the political posts of my Progressive friends, it’s this: Progressives are smart, and conservatives/libertarians/Republicans/Tea Partiers and the like are stupid.

The idea that Progressives are intellectually superior is important for two reasons. First, people will tend to associate themselves with positions supposedly taken by smart people. Nobody likes to line up with the dummies. So Progressives spread the myth that 97 percent of scientists believe in Global Warming theory. They paint their leaders (JFK, Al Gore, John Kerry, Obama) as incredibly intelligent, sometimes disregarding the standard measures of intelligence such as test scores, academic performance, and skill at debate and extemporaneous speaking. (On that last score, JFK actually was good. But, of course, his Pulitzer Prize was for a book that, it is now commonly acknowledged, was written by others.)

Vice President Quayle’s misspelling of “potato” becomes the basis for countless late-night jokes and an entire episode of a popular sitcom and, to this day, is the one thing for which he is best known, while President Obama’s repeated pronunciation of “corpsman” as corpse-man goes unmentioned. George W. Bush’s pronunciation of NYOO-cu-lar gets lots of laughs, never mind that Jimmy Carter, Bob Woodward, Leslie Stahl, Joe Biden, and countless others have pronounced the word the same way. JFK mispronounced Cuba as Cuber, and his supporters took it as a sign of erudition, as when Obama calls Pakistan POCK-e-STON. Monday night, ABC’s Nightline scored Sarah Palin for having said that she could see Russia from her house (it wasn’t Palin, but SNL comic Tina Fey, who said that; what Palin said was that you can see Russia from Alaska, which, contrary to what many Progs think, is true).

Barack Obama won the 2008 election by seven points among all voters, but, according to exit polls, by 28 points among those with “some high school” (not graduates).  Obama won the 2012 election by four points, but carried those with only “some high school” by 29 points. There is not a direct connection between having only “some high school” and being stupid, of course. Education levels are sometimes more related to levels of wealth and privilege than to levels of intelligence. I cite these stats only because Obama partisans often cite, correctly, the fact that he did slightly better than average among people with a record of postgraduate study (which is often in ideologically polarized fields such as education and social work, and even pseudo-academic fields such as so-called women’s studies). In their effort to make it appear that being pro-Obama = being smart, Progressives ignore the fact that better-educated people overall were more likely than average voters to oppose Obama.

The other reason that it’s important for progressives to establish themselves as the smart folks is that Progressivism is rooted in the idea of a well-credentialed elite making decisions for the rest of us. If, for example, I choose not to pay extra for health insurance in order to cover abortifacients, there are unelected bureaucrats who can overrule my decision and force me to pay. Progressives see this sort of bullying as a good thing, and seek to apply the principle of bullying to almost every aspect of life.

Yet it appears that people on the Left are less knowledgeable about politics than others.


One clear, objective measure of a person’s political knowledge is the knowledge of which party controls Congress (or, in times of split control, which party controls the House and which party controls the Senate). On that score, Obama voters are particularly weak. In fact, it appears that, if the 2008 vote has been limited to people who knew which party controls Congress—or could guess the answer correctly, given a choice of two parties—the outcome would have been very different. The McCain-Palin ticket would have done 20 points better, and would have won by 13 points.

A 2008 study by the polling firm Wilson Research Strategies had these results (as summarized by the firm):

  • McCain voters knew which party controls congress by a 63-27 margin.
  • Obama voters got the “congressional control” question wrong by 43-41.
  • Those that got “congressional control” correct voted 56-43 for McCain.
  • Those that got “congressional control” wrong voted 65-35 for Obama.
  • The poll also asked voters to name all the media sources from which they got information.
  • Those “exposed” to Fox News got “congressional control” correct 64-25 (+39)
  • Those “exposed” to CNN got “congressional control” correct 48-38 (+10)
  • Those “exposed” to Network news got “congressional control” correct 48-39 (+9)
  • Those “exposed” to print media got “congressional control” correct 52-37 (+15)
  • Those “exposed” to MSNBC got “congressional control” correct 55-35 (+20)
  • Those “exposed” to talk radio got “congressional control” correct 61-29 (+32)
  • Voters in the “South” had the best response rate on “congressional control” (+22)
  • Voters in the “Northeast” had the worst response rate on “congressional control” (+9)

Keep in mind that the raw numbers understate the level of people’s ignorance on the matter of partisan control. If each respondent had simply guessed, 50% would have answered correctly. That means that Obama voters were so ignorant that their scores were lower than what they would have received if they had flipped a coin to pick an answer. Even if we exclude those who refused to answer the question, only 51 percent of Obama voters got the right answer (that is, 43 percent out of the 84 percent who tried to answer). That 51 percent compares to 50 percent who would have gotten it by a coin flip. In other words, the share of Obama voters who knew the correct answer is too small to detect in the poll.


Now comes a study released June 26 by the Pew Research Center that splits the electorate in various political types, and rates each one by how many people in each group knew that Democrats control the senate and Republicans control the House.

The study splits the electorate into seven categories such as “Business Conservatives” and “Solid Liberals,” and analyzes how each group responded to various questions.

If you combine the two most conservative categories, you find that 60.6 percent of people in those categories were able to correctly answer the questions of which party controls the House and which party controls the Senate.

For the two most liberal categories, the result was 43.5 percent. As noted, that raw greatly overstates the number who knew the answer, because a mere guess has a 25 percent chance of success. If, say, 16 percent didn’t answer one or both of the questions of congressional control, and 30 percent actually knew the correct answers, and 25 percent of the remaining 54 percent hazarded a guess (with 13.5 percent out of that 54 percent getting it right by chance), the figure would be 43.5 percent.

In other words, the share of people in the most liberal categories who actually knew the correct answers – who knew which party controls each house of Congress – could be as low as 30 percent. Again, wow.


In other news on the “how dumb are we?” front, from the Pew study:

►The Pew study also indicates that only 12 percent of respondents could name the month in which Congressional primary elections are held in their home state. (Of course, 8.3 percent would have gotten the correct answer by picking a month at random. That means that the number of people who actually knew the correct answer could be as low as four percent, although it’s probably a little higher.)

►Asked which party is “more in favor of raising taxes on higher income people,” 70 percent picked the Democrats (the correct answer) and 21 percent the Republicans, and nine percent had no answer. Again, given that 50 percent would have gotten the answer by coin flip, we have to recalculate the results to get an idea of how many people actually knew the answer. Incredibly, that figure could be as low as 50 percent.  (If 50 percent knew the answer, nine percent declined to answer, and 41 percent guessed, the result would have been approximately 70-21-9, which is what Pew got on that question.)

►Respondents were asked for their opinions – favorable, very favorable, unfavorable, or very unfavorable – of various prominent politicians. Only 68 percent even had an opinion of Paul Ryan, who came within four points of becoming vice president. Only 50 percent had an opinion of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; 76 percent had an opinion of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was second-in-line for the presidency for four years; and only 73 percent had an opinion of Jeb Bush, who served as governor of Florida and is the son and brother of former presidents. Other totals: 44 percent had an opinion of Elizabeth Warren, 63 percent of Rand Paul, 55 percent of Ted Cruz, 55 percent of Marco Rubio, 73 percent of Chris Christie, and 95 percent of Hillary Clinton.

Note that the number of people who claim to have an opinion of a politician is probably significantly larger than the number who are actually familiar with that politician. People don’t like admitting that they’re ignorant. (For evidence of this, see the hilarious man-on-the-street interviews on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night comedy show, in which people boldly offer their opinions in response to questions about news events that never really took place.)



If you’re reading this, you’re probably among the most well-informed people in the country with regard to political knowledge. It probably never occurs to you that there’s a whole world of people who don’t know who Paul Ryan is or who Nancy Pelosi is, or who can’t say when local and state party primaries are held. Because of your assumption that people know such things, you fall for surveys that are obviously fake – for example, surveys that claim that 90 percent of Americans have an opinion on fracking or some other complex issue.

Now you know the basis for one of Allen’s Rules, that any poll question longer than 12 words or so, 18 at the most, is a poll question that measures response to the wording of the question, not respondents’ opinions on the issue itself.  A joke is not funny if you have to explain it, and a polling question that explains the issue (some questions are more than 100 words long) is never a valid measure of public opinion. There are some public opinions that can’t be measured because public opinion on the issue simply doesn’t exist.

Plus, Progressives are kinda dumb. But that you probably knew already.

Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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