On “Stupid Voters,” and Professor Franklin’s Redemption

Wisconsin, in the wake of popular liberal Senator Russ Feingold’s defeat by Republican Ron Johnson, gives us two engaging insights: (1) the condescension of America’s liberal elite toward the “stupid” American electorate (when they vote Republican); and (2) the decency of a liberal to say “my bad” about indulging in that kind of condescension.

University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin seems like a sensible man.  He labored, for example, to inject empirical data during the 2008 presidential campaign into the politically charged racial issue — which is relevant to the contradictory claim that voters who gave Barack Obama the Presidency of the United States would thereafter dislike his policies because he is black.  Franklin’s analyses regularly appear in the nation’s leading newspapers and political websites.  And he’s the co-founder of the website Pollster.com (which has moved to the Huffington Post, with uncertain ideological results).

How sad, then, to read this description of Professor Franklin’s appearance at a Society for Professional Journalists discussion:

At a recent discussion on the Nov. 2 election hosted by the local Society for Professional Journalists, UW-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin was expounding on why Republicans emerged triumphant, in Wisconsin and throughout the land.

In my questions to Franklin, I noted that the public seemed to vote against its own interests and stated desires, for instance by electing candidates who’ll drive up the deficit with fiscally reckless giveaways to the rich.

Franklin, perhaps a bit too candidly, conceded the point. “I’m not endorsing the American voter,” he answered. “They’re pretty damn stupid.”

“Thank you, professor,” I responded. “That’s the answer I was looking for.”

Frankly, it’s an answer embraced by many people I know.

One of the reasons I am a Republican is because of this kind of condescension, which correlates intelligence and Democratic Party affiliation, though the science is otherwise, and even knowledge of current affairs narrowly favors Republicans.

I made it a point with my son in his early years to forbid the descriptive “stupid” about any human being.  Acts, decisions, utterances, behavior, ideas, ideologies, notions, all can be stupid.  A human being is never categorically stupid, even if a pattern of stupid behavior develops.  Moreover, labeling a human being, or a group of human beings stupid, betrays both self-aggrandizing delusion and incivility in the labeler.

Franklin, then, seemed both delusional and manifestly uncivil — in that way we have come to expect of some liberal Democrats.

Being human, as it happens, Franklin simply misspoke.  This post would have been all about liberal condescension and I’d have had a field day — I’m no stranger to excoriating America’s delicate-fingered, life-experience-deficient professoriate.  President Obama shines by comparison.  But Professor Franklin honorably back-tracked.  Here is his comment to the post above:

From Charles Franklin on 11/21/10 at 9:55 am

Sigh. Bill’s Lueder’s quote is exactly accurate. I said exactly what he says I said. Normally I would just let it go at that since once such a quote is out it will spread no matter what.  The only complaint I have is that Lueder’s subsequent conclusions from that quote are his own and not mine.

The context was the Senate race and the point I was making, which I’ve made numerous times before, was that voters embraced Ron Johnson before they knew much about him. In a June 26-27 poll by Public Policy Polling, Johnson trailed Feingold by just 2 points, yet in the poll 62% said they had neither a favorable nor an unfavorable opinion of Johnson. I’ve used that poll frequently to illustrate the fact that voters were ready to embrace a Republican they knew almost nothing about over a three term incumbent Democrat. The race wasn’t about specific details of Johnson vs Feingold, it was a rejection of Democrats more or less regardless of what voters knew about the GOP candidate.

That was the context in which I said voters are “pretty damn stupid”. Too hyperbolic indeed, but I said it and have no complaint that it was quoted when I knew I was speaking to journalists.

But I wish what I said next had also been quoted. I went on to say that despite not knowing the details of Johnson’s policy positions, the voters did NOT make a mistake in choosing Johnson as the more conservative candidate and certain to be more favorable to cutting government. That was indeed the correct connection by an angry electorate, even if the details were quite vague.

Voter’s often act on little information and can be astonishingly unaware of things one might consider “facts.” A post-election Pew poll finds less than half (46%) know the GOP won only the House but not the Senate. And at times voters appear to vote for candidates who are likely to take positions at odds with the voter’s interests.

But in the Johnson-Feingold race, I think despite lack of details about Johnson, a majority of Wisconsin voter’s picked the guy they wanted, and for basically the right reason. Dems may be astonished at the rejection of a favorite son, but in making this choice I think voter’s properly expressed their preferences and matched them to the right candidate.

So I wish I had phrased this differently but that’s my bad, no one else’s. But I do not agree with the conclusion that voter’s were “stupid” to pick Johnson over Feingold. In fact I believe a majority got the Senator they wanted, and that is always good for a republic.

Well done Professor Franklin.  Not exactly an apology — but I respect anyone who says something stupid, takes it back, and labors in earnest to get the dialogue back on the right track.  That is honorable accountability.  I would have dismissed and actively discounted Professor Franklin forevermore, but now I will not.  He did something I wish could become a model for American political discourse.  He owned up to using words he regretted, and made a sincere effort to restore civil dialogue.


UPDATE 12/3/2010: Professor Franklin kindly provided a link that more fully sets forth his apology and explanation.  A very decent man indeed.


One Response to On “Stupid Voters,” and Professor Franklin’s Redemption

  1. Pingback: On Political Disagreement « The Prince and The Little Prince

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