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Omdahl: Was ignorance a problem in the primaries?

By Staff | Jul 29, 2016

Well, the presidential nominating conventions have been held. Nothing miraculous happened at either one, so millions of people will be voting for one of two choices about which neither party feels wholly enthusiastic.

As a substitute for enthusiasm, the candidates will give us the political bar fight of the Century as the world watches with fear and trembling.

The culprit is the primary election. Primaries were created to take nominations out of the hands of the smoke-filled rooms and give decisions to the people. At this juncture, many are feeling that a choice by party bosses would have been better than what has been produced by partisan primaries.

It will be the year of political compromise for voters. Most of us have already been compromising our principles by associating with our party of choice because both are flawed.

Most of our compromises in the past have been tolerable. At least, we have learned to live with them. But this year is different. The vast majority of voters will be holding noses harder and longer, knowing that voting will make them co-conspirators to wrecking the country.

Senior Editor David Harsanyi of Federalist, a conservative website, is fed up. He proposes that we should “weed out ignorant Americans from the electorate.”

“If you have no clue what the hell is going on, you also have a civic duty to avoid subjecting the rest of us to your ignorance,” he railed against primary voters.

For starters, he suggested that “the citizenship civic test will do just fine.” It isn’t that simple.

North Dakota high schools just went through the first round of administering the citizenship test. It was mandated by the Legislature with the assumption that a little information would make better citizens.

Toward the end of the last school year, I was invited to share thoughts with 40 social studies teachers about the civics test in which their students had done very well. But they sensed that something was missing.

The question floating in the room was “what’s next?” They knew that a simple literacy test would not result in the kind of understanding needed by today’s voters.

Caught up in the progressive “good government” movement around the 1900s, North Dakota provided for literacy tests but the provision was never implemented. It would have violated our cultural principles of individualism and equality.

So who are the ignorant that should be screened out of the electorate? Was it really ignorance that resulted in choices that have left so many voters unhappy?

The truth is that millions of well-educated partisans were involved in making the decisions. It had little to do with facts, understanding or cognitive capacity.

The electorates for primaries consist of true believers more than middle roaders, and primary elections consist of a disproportionate number of true believers.

In North Dakota, the true believers in the Democratic convention gave the lion’s share of votes to Bernie Sanders, even though the Sanders proposals were so far to the left of North Dakota thinking that they became irrelevant.

The Republicans did no better when they threw votes to a candidate who has no consistent conservative ideology. In fact, he has no ideology at all but simply improvises as he goes.

Many decisions in the primaries were driven by anger, suspicion, fear or hate, any of one of which will decimate sound judgment every time. It appears that even the well-educated will believe what they want to believe regardless of the facts.

So, if Harsanyi hopes to improve the decision-making of the voters, he has quite a problem. He has to weed out everyone driven by anger, suspicion, fear or hate but it is impossible to do psychoanalysis on so large a clientele.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former politcal science professor at UND.

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