As our nation continues its march to 2024, a year that will feature not only a presidential election but also potentially four criminal trials of the Republican front-runner, I’ve been thinking about the political and cultural power of leadership. How much do leaders matter, really? What role does corrupt political leadership play in degrading not just a government but the culture itself?
Let’s talk today about the specific way in which poor leadership transforms civic ignorance from a problem into a crisis — a crisis that can have catastrophic effects on the nation and, ultimately, the world.
Civic ignorance is a very old American problem. If you spend five seconds researching what Americans know about their own history and their own government, you’ll uncover an avalanche of troubling research, much of it dating back decades. As Samuel Goldman detailed two years ago, as far back as 1943, 77 percent of Americans knew essentially nothing about the Bill of Rights, and in 1952 only 19 percent could name the three branches of government.
That number rose to a still dispiriting 38 percent in 2011, a year in which almost twice as many Americans knew that Randy Jackson was a judge on “American Idol” as knew that John Roberts was the chief justice of the United States. A 2018 survey found that most Americans couldn’t pass the U.S. Citizenship Test. Among other failings, most respondents couldn’t identify which nations the United States fought in World War II and didn’t know how many justices sat on the Supreme Court.
Civic ignorance isn’t confined to U.S. history or the Constitution. Voters are also wildly ignorant about one another. A 2015 survey found that Democrats believe Republicans are far older, far wealthier and more Southern than they truly are. Republicans believe Democrats are far more atheist, Black and gay than the numbers indicate.
But I don’t share these statistics to write yet another story bemoaning public ignorance. Instead, I’m sharing these statistics to make a different argument: that the combination of civic ignorance, corrupt leadership and partisan animosity means that the chickens are finally coming home to roost. We’re finally truly feeling the consequences of having a public disconnected from political reality.
Simply put, civic ignorance was a serious but manageable problem, as long as our leader class and key institutions still broadly, if imperfectly, cared about truth and knowledge — and as long as our citizens cared about the opinions of that leader class and those institutions.
Consider, for example, one of the most consequential gaffes in presidential debate history. In October 1976, the Republican Gerald Ford, who was then the president, told a debate audience, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
The statement wasn’t just wrong, it was wildly wrong. Of course there was Soviet domination of Eastern Europe — a domination that was violently reaffirmed in the 1956 crackdown in Hungary and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The best defense that Ford’s team could muster was the national security adviser Brent Scowcroft’s argument that “I think what the president was trying to say is that we do not recognize Soviet domination of Europe.”
In a close election with Jimmy Carter, the gaffe was a big deal. As the political scientist Larry Sabato later wrote, the press “pounced” and “wrote of little else for days afterward.” As a result, “a public initially convinced that Ford had won the debate soon turned overwhelmingly against him.” Note the process: Ford made a mistake, even his own team recognized the mistake and tried to offer a plausible alternative meaning, and then press coverage of the mistake made an impression on the public.
Now let’s fast-forward to the present moment. Instead of offering a plausible explanation for their mistakes — much less apologizing — all too many politicians deny that they’ve made any mistakes at all. They double down. They triple down. They claim that the fact-checking process itself is biased, the press is against them and they are the real truth tellers.
I bring this up not just because of the obvious example of Donald Trump and many of his most devoted followers in Congress but also because of the surprising success of his cunning imitator Vivek Ramaswamy. If you watched the first Republican debate last week or if you’ve listened to more than five minutes of Ramaswamy’s commentary, you’ll immediately note that he is exceptionally articulate but also woefully ignorant, or feigning ignorance, about public affairs. Despite his confident delivery, a great deal of what he says makes no sense whatsoever.
As The Times has documented in detail, Ramaswamy is prone to denying his own words. But his problem is greater than simple dishonesty. Take his response to the question of whether Mike Pence did the right thing when he certified the presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021. Ramaswamy claims that in exchange for certification, he would have pushed for a new federal law to mandate single-day voting, paper ballots and voter identification. Hang on. Who would write the bill? How would it pass a Democratic House and a practically tied Senate? Who would be president during the intervening weeks or months?
It’s a crazy, illegal, unworkable idea on every level. But that kind of fantastical thinking is par for the course for Ramaswamy. This year, for instance, he told Don Lemon on CNN, “Black people secured their freedoms after the Civil War — it is a historical fact, Don, just study it — only after their Second Amendment rights were secured.”
While there are certainly Black Americans who used weapons to defend themselves in isolated instances, the movement that finally ended Jim Crow rested on a philosophy of nonviolence, not the exercise of Second Amendment rights. The notion is utterly absurd. If anything, armed Black protesters such as the Black Panthers triggered cries for stronger gun control laws, not looser ones. Indeed, there is such a long record of racist gun laws that it’s far more accurate to say that Black Americans secured greater freedom in spite of a racist Second Amendment consensus, not because of gun rights.
Ramaswamy’s rhetoric is littered with these moments. He’s a very smart man, blessed with superior communication skills, yet he constantly exposes his ignorance, his cynicism or both. He says he’ll “freeze” the lines of control in the Ukraine war (permitting Russia to keep the ground it’s captured), refuse to admit Ukraine to NATO and persuade Russia to end its alliance with China. He says he’ll agree to defend Taiwan only until 2028, when there is more domestic chip manufacturing capacity here in the States. He says he’ll likely fire at least half the federal work force and will get away with it because he believes civil service protections are unconstitutional.
The questions almost ask themselves. How will he ensure that Russia severs its relationship with China? How will he maintain stability with a weakened Ukraine and a NATO alliance that just watched its most powerful partner capitulate to Russia? How will Taiwan respond during its countdown to inevitable invasion? And putting aside for a moment the constitutional questions, his pledge to terminate half the federal work force carries massive, obvious perils, beginning with the question of what to do with more than a million largely middle- and high-income workers who are now suddenly unemployed. How will they be taken care of? What will this gargantuan job dislocation do to the economy?
Ramaswamy’s bizarre solutions angered his debate opponents in Milwaukee, leading Nikki Haley to dismantle him on live television in an exchange that would have ended previous presidential campaigns. But the modern G.O.P. deemed him one of the night’s winners. A Washington Post/FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll found that 26 percent of respondents believed Ramaswamy won, compared with just 15 percent who believed Haley won.
The bottom line is this: When a political class still broadly believes in policing dishonesty, the nation can manage the negative effects of widespread civic ignorance. When the political class corrects itself, the people will tend to follow. But when key members of the political class abandon any pretense of knowledge or truth, a poorly informed public is simply unequipped to hold them to account.
And when you combine ignorance with unrelenting partisan hostility, the challenge grows all the greater. After all, it’s not as though members of the political class didn’t try to challenge Trump. But since that challenge came mostly from people Trump supporters loathe, such as Democratic politicians, members of the media and a few Trump-skeptical or Never Trump writers and politicians, their minds were closed. Because of the enormous amount of public ignorance, voters often didn’t know that Trump was lying or making fantastically unrealistic promises, and they shut out every voice that could tell them the truth.
In hindsight, I should have seen all this coming. I can remember feeling a sense of disquiet during the Tea Party revolution. Republican candidates were pledging to do things they simply could not do, such as repealing Obamacare without holding the presidency and Congress or, alternatively, veto-proof congressional majorities. Then, when they failed to do the thing they could never do in the first place, their voters felt betrayed.
There is always a problem of politicians overpromising. Matthew Yglesias recently reminded me of the frustrating way in which the 2020 Democratic primary contest was sidetracked by a series of arguments over phenomenally ambitious and frankly unrealistic policy proposals on taxes and health care. But there is a difference between this kind of routine political overpromising and the systematic mendacity of the Trump years.
A democracy needs an informed public and a basically honest political class. It can muddle through without one or the other, but when it loses both, the democratic experiment is in peril. A public that knows little except that it despises its opponents will be vulnerable to even the most bizarre conspiracy theories, as we saw after the 2020 election. And when leaders ruthlessly exploit that ignorance and animosity, the Republic can fracture. How long can we endure the consequences of millions of Americans believing the most fantastical lies?
A note on reader mail
I want to end this newsletter with a note of thanks. I deeply appreciate your emails. Every week I receive an avalanche of thoughtful responses, some encouraging, some critical. I want you to know that while I can’t respond to them all, I do read every single email. If you care enough to take the time to write, the least I can do is take the time to read. Thank you, truly, for your thoughts.