According to pundits and pols: "The American people are pretty sharp!"
It's a standardized, deeply treasured portrait of us—of our one impressive national group among all the "rational animals." Pols and pundits understand that they must state this view if they hope to be respected, even well liked, by the very sharp people in question.
For one example among several, let's return to the fall of 2009—to the time of an earlier potential trade war with China.
Lansing mayor Virg Bernero was then, and remains today, a well-regarded progressive. He appeared on CNN to discuss the "Cash for Clunkers" program, which was first proposed under President Bush but enacted by President Obama.
Bernero spoke with CNN anchor John Roberts. In short order, he executed the "pretty sharp" hat trick:
ROBERTS (9/16/09): Mayor, a lot of people are concerned that we may also be looking into trade war with China. Mr. Mayor, between this time and the last time we talked to you, the whole "Cash for Clunkers" program took place.Former mayor Bernero is highly regarded. As far as we know, he should be. (In 2010, he was the Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan.)
A real boom for dealers. General Motors sales were up some 30 percent. I know that some people have come back to work there in Lansing as a result of that.
Are you seeing any further ripple effects? Is that something you can build on? Or is that just going to be a temporary bump in the economy?
BERNERO: John, I got to share with you—a woman from south Lansing just told me last night, she said she walked by the dealerships. She walked by a Hyundai dealership and she walked by a Chevy dealership and she saw a lot more clunkers sitting in the back of the Hyundai dealership.
And she is right on. Because middle American—the American citizens are smart. They want to know, why are we subsidizing the purchase of foreign vehicles? They said, why wasn't it just American vehicles that were subsidized with this?
Why would we promote people buying foreign vehicles? See, they get it. The American people are pretty sharp.
That said, Bernero went for the hat trick that day. He said "the American people are pretty sharp"—and he also specifically said that "the American people are smart."
Completing the hat trick, he tied these claims to a single, anecdotal survey of the relative prevalence of clunkers—to a single, utterly useless survey he, or his source, imaginably could have made up.
There you see the perfect execution of the prevailing "pretty sharp" dogma. In a variant of this play, Nicolle Wallace tells us rubes, every day, that her copy-cat panel of professional pundits are "some of our favorite reporters and friends."
At the end of her hour, she sometimes says that she could talk to "these friends" all day. In signing off, she often throws to "my friend, Chuck Todd," thus completing the marketing ploy.
We Americans never seem to tire of being talked down to in such ways. The fact that we swallow such Grade A guff suggests the possibility that we aren't quite as smart, or even as sharp, as we constantly hear.
How might we describe the mental states of us, the American people? Our president seems to be a sociopath, two major analysts told us last Friday. If that helps describe his mental state, what can we say about ours?
Is it true that we, the American people, are actually "pretty sharp?" Every so often, surveys and polls suggest that this may be a tiny overstatement of sorts.
Uh-oh! However sharp we the people may be, surveys constantly show that a significant percentage of us don't know our American constitution from our apocryphal keisters.
In other arenas, disputes break out as to whether the earth is flat. Meanwhile, who's the sitting vice president? Many people can't answer the question, even when the answer is "Quayle."
(In 1989, only 74% were able to name Vice President Quayle, who was then the a leading figure in news and comedy programming. In 2007, even fewer were able to name Vice President Cheney, who was then in his seventh year.)
We the people aren't always quite as sharp as we're told. In fairness, it can't always be said that our professional pundit corps is all that much sharper.
Sometimes, our lack of maximum sharpness seems remarkably hard to ignore. As late as August 2016, NBC News was reporting these survey results concerning the place of Barack Obama's birth:
CLINTON AND ROUSH (8/10/16): Seventy-two percent of registered Republican voters still doubt President Obama’s citizenship, according to a recent NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll conducted in late June and early July of more than 1,700 registered voters. And this skepticism even exists among Republicans high in political knowledge.In the final year of his presidency, only 27 percent of Republicans responded to that survey question by saying that Obama had been born in this country.
To see whether voters believe that Obama was not born in the United States, we asked them about their agreement with this statement: “Barack Obama was born in the United States.”
While more than eight in 10 Democrats agreed with the claim, far more Republicans disagreed with the statement (41 percent) than agreed with it (27 percent). An additional 31 percent of Republicans expressed some doubts about whether Obama is a native U.S. citizen (i.e. indicating that they neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement). Only slightly more than one in four Republican voters agreed that the president was born in the United States.
This remarkable survey result had been recurring for years at that point. But we never saw a major news org make any kind of attempt to interview Republican voters to explore their belief about this matter in more detail.
Obama wasn't born here! This has been one of the most remarkable stated beliefs in American political history. That said, it triggered a remarkable lack of curiosity among our press corps elite—among the people who are constantly telling us how amazingly sharp we are.
These amazing, persistent survey results raised the most obvious questions about the overall mental state of us the very sharp American people—indeed, about our species, Homo sapiens, an allegedly "rational" group.
That said, this particular apparent lack of sharpness mainly occurred among the very sharp Republican people. In fairness, there are also occasional lapses which occur within our own liberal tribe.
On July 31, we sat in an undisclosed location in an undisclosed part of Maine. We were watching the second night of the second Democratic debate through a purloined cable hookup from across the state line in New Hampshire.
At one point, CNN's Dana Bash offered the question shown below. After Candidate Yang gave his reply, we were surprised, but not surprised, by the answer from Candidate Harris:
BASH (7/31/19): Mr. Yang, women on average earn 80 cents, about 80 cents, for every dollar earned by men.Yang said the government should give everyone $1000 per month. After he'd finished this standard reply, Candidate Harris said this:
Senator Harris wants to fine companies that don't close their gender pay gaps. As an entrepreneur, do you think a stiff fine will change how companies pay their female employees?
HARRIS: I think that's support of my proposal, which is this:Rather plainly, Candidate Harris seemed to say that women are paid 80 cents on the dollar, as compared to men, for doing equal work.
Since 1963, when we passed the Equal Pay Act, we have been talking about the fact women are not paid equally for equal work. Fast forward to the year of our lord 2019, and women are paid 80 cents on the dollar. Black women 61 cents, Native American woman 58 cents, Latinas 53 cents.
I'm done with the conversation. So yes, I am proposing in order to deal with this, one, I'm going to require corporations to post on their website whether they are paying women equally for equal work. Two, they will be fined for every 1 percent differential between what they're paying men and women, they will be fined 1 percent of their previous year's profit. That will get everybody's attention.
BASH: Thank you, Senator.
Everyone knows that this familiar claim is bogus. Not too long ago, Harris' campaign apparently said as much, saying that she had "misspoken" when she made a similar claim.
Everyone knows it isn't true, but Candidate Harris continues to say it, and journalists like Bash don't object. In fact, our liberal and mainstream tribes loves that familiar statement. We make it all the time.
The American people are pretty sharp! It isn't always entirely clear that this familiar claim is true, especially in such tribalized times as these. That said, it's always easier to spot the problems when the problems are found Over There—when the very sharp American people are saying that Obama was born on the moon.
Barack Obama was born in Kenya? The fact that so many people apparently came to believe this claim is one of the most remarkable facts about the mental states which help define our time.
That said, we liberals also adopt all sorts of bogus beliefs. Tomorrow, we'll briefly revisit that treasured wage gap, then move on from there.
Tomorrow: Candidate Trump stalked Candidate Clinton and other treasured beliefs