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America’s ill-informed electorate

The front door of the Comet Ping Pong pizza shop in Washington.Jose Luis Magana/AP

Digital reams have been written about the media’s failures in covering election 2016, so today let’s widen the focus to include a touchier topic: What of the voters’ shortcomings? To function well, after all, democracy needs an informed citizenry — and here, the evidence is dispiriting.

Granted, in some instances, the media’s failure to put a story in proper perspective certainly added to the confusion. Far too much, for example, was made over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server during her time as secretary of state. It was always unlikely that this controversy would go anywhere legally. But the breathless coverage that this supposed scandal got helped create the impression in Americans’ minds that something truly serious had happened.

Now, obviously the Trump troops and GOP convention-goers who engaged in the dopey “lock her up” chants were never inclined to look carefully at the issue. But if reporters had devoted more time and energy to explaining the legal principles and precedents that guide prosecutions for mishandling classified information, other voters might well have had a better sense of perspective.


In other matters, however, the responsibility lies with the citizenry. How, for example, could anyone who has followed the issue at all believe that the number of people with health insurance had declined as a result of Obamacare? And yet, at least according to a mid-December survey, 37 percent of Trump voters thought so, with an equal percentage saying the number of Americans with health insurance had remained the same. The facts there were readily available to anyone willing to invest a little effort. For example, they might simply have Googled “Obamacare, percentage uninsured.” They’d have found some dispute over how many millions more had health care coverage, but not over the basic truth that more now do. (They might even have turned up a clip of Chris Wallace of Fox News taking Ted Cruz to task for spreading misinformation about the ACA.)

And when it comes to getting the basics wrong, how about this? According to post-election surveys, somewhere between 32 percent and 52 percent of Republican voters seem to think Donald Trump won the national popular vote. That’s a stunning level of confusion.

What, meanwhile, can one say about the people who took seriously the cross-eyed-crazy conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her campaign were involved with a child-sex ring conducted from beneath a Washington pizza parlor? It’s lunacy on horseback. And yet, if the mid-December Economist/YouGov poll is to be believed, almost half of registered Republicans thought Clinton staffers’ leaked e-mails “contained code words for pedophilia, human trafficking and satanic ritual abuse — what some people refer to as ‘Pizzagate.’ ” That susceptibility to conspiracy theories positively boggles the mind.

Back in the late 1980s, a revisionist would-be historian alleged that Dwight Eisenhower had maneuvered to lower the rations for German POWs held by Americans after World War II in order to starve them to death. After a conference of experts examined the charge and found it baseless, Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose explained what had actually happened: In a time of severe food shortages, the allied high command had decided the German prisoners would be fed at the same level as the civilian population in Germany, which was close to a subsistence diet.


Ambrose offered a simple answer to the question of how a layperson can assess allegations like the one made against Ike. Trust common sense. One test he posed: “Is this . . . consistent with our picture of Eisenhower’s character as we know it from innumerable other sources?”

Regardless of their political inclinations, the common-sense test alone should have left Republicans immensely skeptical about Internet allegations that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were involved in a child-sex-ring. That it didn’t is deeply depressing for the state of our democracy.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.