During the fourth season of The Simpsons, there was an episode where the residents of Springfield gathered in a contest to see who could kill the largest number of snakes on what is called Whacking Day. After Bart and Lisa (with the help of Barry White) show the townspeople the error of state-sanctioned snake slaughter, Springfield’s Kennedy-esque mayor arrives with an armload of pre-killed snakes, inciting boos and hisses from the now-enlightened crowd. Mayor Quimby hollers back, “You’re all a bunch of fickle mush heads,” to which the crowd responds, “He’s right. Give us hell, Quimby.”
The animated incident is a wonderfully realized crystallization of the problems discussed in Rick Shenkman’s book Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth about the American Voter. As everyone is rushing to assign blame for the current financial crisis in Washington and on Wall Street, there has been little mention of the role voters played. President George W. Bush’s approval ratings have sunk to subterranean lows, and, for all the hand wringing going on, no one has addressed the obvious question: why did a smidge over 50% of the voting public re-elect a president whose clearly-stated policies created such turmoil?
Shenkman’s answer is that we aren’t as smart as we like to think we are, and the evidence he presents is fairly damning. For example, in recent surveys, only 21 percent of Americans polled could name the current secretary of defense, only 35 percent knew that Congress can override a presidential veto, and, appallingly, 49 percent believe that the president can suspend the Constitution. “Why are we so deluded?” Shenkman asks.