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Why Negative Political Attack Ads Work: 5 in 10 Americans Can’t Read, 8 in 10 Can’t Process

Negative political ads work. A majority of Americans form political opinions from ads in their entertainment programming. 51% of the adult population of the United States is barely functionally literate. 94% have varying degrees of difficulty “synthesizing” complicated concepts.

We are devolving rapidly into America, the Ignorant.

How does Democracy thrive in a nation of 344 million Americans when only 2 in 10 of us read a newspaper, electronic news, or watch television news?

Another 2 in 10 listen to Right Wing Talk as their primary news source.

The remainder? They’re at the mercy of every special interest from Americans for Prosperity to the DCCC.

In a nation with a 99% literacy rate, voting-age American adults have been conditioned over the last thirty-five years to tune out information vital to their making informed choices that protect their rights, health and welfare.

Consider the effects:

  • In the last election, 38% of Wisconsin union members, many affiliated with the National Rifle Association as well, voted against their own self interest for Scott Walker in the recall election.[1] MSNBC commentator Ed Schultz noted that a large number told exit pollsters that NRA propaganda that a Democratic governor would take their guns away influenced their opinion.[2]
  • A California ballot initiative to raise the tobacco tax favored by 73% in March, 2012 went down to narrow defeat after Big Tobacco spent more than $43M to kill it with hours of TV propaganda.
  • A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll on health care reform found that while a majority of Americans were against “Obamacare,” when polled separately about the provisions of the law, they were strongly in favor of all of them save the mandate, which has been the focus of Right-Wing attack advertising. Even a majority of Republicans favored the individual points of the law when they weren’t labeled “Obamacare,” suggesting that the millions spent in attack branding worked to get Americans to again support opposition to something of which they were overwhelmingly in favor by playing with the labeling.

Even with a 99% literacy rate in America, the kind of “literacy” we have is staggeringly poor. The National Center for Education Statistics conducted a comprehensive survey of Adult literacy. It found that:

  • 21-23% of adult Americans demonstrated the lowest level of skills, performing simple, routine tasks involving brief and uncomplicated texts and documents. They could total an entry on a deposit slip, locate the time or place of a meeting on a form, and identify a piece of specific information in a brief news article. Many in this level of the survey were unable to perform most or all of the tasks, and some had such limited skills that they were unable to respond to much of the survey.
  • 25-28% of adult Americans demonstrated skills in the next higher level of proficiency (Level 2) although their ability to grasp complex information was still quite limited. They were generally able to locate information in text, to make low-level inferences using printed materials, and to integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.
  • Individuals in Levels 1 and 2 were much less likely to respond correctly to the more challenging literacy tasks in the assessment, those requiring higher level reading and problem-solving skills. They experienced considerable difficulty in performing tasks that required them to integrate or synthesize information from complex or lengthy texts or to perform quantitative tasks that involved two or more sequential operations and in which the individual had to set up the problem.
  • The approximately 90 million American adults who performed in Levels 1 and 2 did not necessarily perceive themselves as being nearly functionally illiterate.
  • 32% of the survey participants, or about 61 million adults nationwide, demonstrated performance in Level 3 on each of the literacy
    scales. They could perform all basic tasks and had varying degrees of success at synthesizing materials into more complex ideas.
  • 18 to 21% of the respondents, or 34 to 40 million adults, performed well in the two highest levels of prose, document, and quantitative literacy (Levels 4 and 5). These adults demonstrated proficiencies associated with the most challenging tasks in this assessment

So only 2 in 10 Americans is truly literate enough to read and understand the nuances of political journalism. 51% of Americans have difficulty synthesizing the complex information that comes out of political news well enough to digest it. The majority of Americans, 8 in 10 though, don’t really even seek out political news, taking most of their information from TV, or conversations with friends and co-workers.

The Founding Fathers were always aware of putting power into the hands of a populace with little or no literacy.  We have a Senate because they wanted more calm, educated, deliberative minds to control the passions of the body politic.

They had no concept of a mass media that can hold powerful sway over voters who are so low functioning, or of a Senate that has been brought to the level of the House, whose rules have been changed to lessen its power as a gateway.

What is more troubling, though, is that those who are well educated are becoming increasingly more ignorant, ignoring their civic life in favor of solely profitable or pleasurable pursuits.

About 19% of voters narrow-bands their interest in public life to a single issue like abortion, gun rights, LGBT rights to the point that they do not engage in broader public issues, according to ABC News.

Many, particularly young adults, that do read news, lack the attention span to even read through an article of any length.

The USA TODAY syndrome of “dumbing down” the news to appeal to readers with nano-second attention spans has further catered to our political and social devolution.

America’s poor reading habits belie its passion for entertainment and self-gratification, with no care for civics or how the world around them is being reshaped.

  • Of the top 25 magazines in this country the only news magazine in the list is TIME at number 12 or 13 most months.
  • The top 25 news websites in the U.S. recorded 342 million average unique monthly visitors in 2011 – up 17% over the prior year, according to Nielson Online. While that might sound like good news, unique visitors aren’t unique, because, as media watcher Thomas Baekdal points out, many are one person on multiple browsers on the web, phone, etc, false page jumps are counted, and people who don’t read the articles are also registered as having looked. That only equates to 123.1M actual readers, most of whom are already factored into the readership estimates of newspapers in their online editions. HuffPo’s 35.5M unique visitors is more likely an estimated 12.7M people who actually read the articles. Drudge Report’s 13.3M uniques is an estimated 4.8M readers.
  • Only 12.5 million people read the top 25 newspapers in this country [4]. Of them, Rupert Murdoch’s Right-Wing Wall Street Journal is No. 1, The Daily News and the Post are 5th and 7th respectively. The Post and the News are Right-Wing spin rags hardly qualifying as newspapers with 2.35M readers between them. [5]

It isn’t surprising, then that Americans have a staggeringly low understanding of civics, and how our government, which actually is US, not the enemy, works. A National Civic Literacy study by Xavier University found:

  • One in three native-born citizens fail the civics portion of the naturalization test, in stark contrast to the 97.5% pass rate among immigrants applying for citizenship.* (Based on 6 of 10 questions answered correctly.) If the pass rate were 7 out of 10, one half of all native-born citizens would fail.
  • While native-born citizens do well on basic questions related to history and geography, the results reveal a low level of knowledge concerning the principles and features of American government that underlie our civic life. Gaps in familiarity and awareness are in two primary areas:
    • The U.S. constitution and the governmental, legal and political structure of American democracy;
    • Basic facts related to current political life and identification of key political decision-makers. In fact, in straight rank order, these questions elicited the highest incorrect scores.

Democracy was not built to survive a nation of reality TV watchers who have listened to 35 years of propaganda that “both sides” are to blame and have tuned out. Our television news, which could counter that and educate the American body politic, has been reduced to infotainment, and faces a shrinking viewership.

Democracy can’t function without an educated populace that understands its role in civic life. Civics are taught in less than a third of American public schools, but they have a big impact, according to a Harvard University study.

“[S]tudents who complete a year of coursework in American Government/Civics are 3-6 percentage points more likely to vote in an election following high school than those without exposure to civic education. Further, this e ect is magni ed among students whose parents are not highly politicized. Among students who report not discussing politics with their parents, additional coursework is associated with a 7-11 percentage point increase in the probability of voting. This result suggests that civic education compensates for a relative lack of political socialization at home, and thereby enhances participatory equality.”

The slide into a corporatocracy, controlled through easily digestible propaganda, is all but guaranteed. Progressives are armed with the pop-guns of optimism and grass-roots communication against a behemoth of hundreds of millions of dollars, and decades of systemic changes to the fabric of this country from its educational system to its mass media.

I fear for this nation. You should too.

My shiny two.

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About Brian Ross

Brian Ross is a writer, screenwriter, political satirist, documentarian and short filmmaker who blogs for Truth2Power, the Huffington Post, and the Daily KOS, among others.

3 comments on “Why Negative Political Attack Ads Work: 5 in 10 Americans Can’t Read, 8 in 10 Can’t Process

  1. Pingback: Blackwater Watch » Blog Archive » Why Negative Political Attack Ads Work: 5 in 10 Americans Can't …

  2. Pingback: Washington Liberals - Why Negative Political Attack Ads Work: 5 in 10 Americans Can’t Read, 8 in 10 Can’t Process

  3. Progressive Jones
    July 4, 2012

    There is a reason women weren’t permitted to be educated for so many thousands of years, along with slaves. Now, though, we don’t really need laws to prohibit us from being educated. We volunteer — by watching reality TV shows and letting ALEC decree what our laws should be. I’m sure the following is one of them: a proposed law against critical thinking: http://tinyurl.com/c8gywh8

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