“The public sucks, fuck hope.” The late George Carlin made this statement back in 1996 during his HBO special, “Back in Town.” Carlin was hilariously redirecting America’s collective frustrations over the failings of our politicians back onto the public who elected them. In 2020, we have no shortage of reasons for outrage towards our elected leaders, but more importantly, towards the public who have enabled them. While I don’t agree with Carlin’s second portion of the above mentioned segment (where he states that voting is meaningless), I do agree that there needs to be a higher level of accountability among those who willingly choose to ignore reality, further enabling our elected leaders to push our country into a more dangerous and vulnerable place.
Recent examples depicting how politicians “suck” can be illustrated by the handling and response of the novel coronavirus by state governors, those publicly elected individuals tasked with making sure the states they represent are managed effectively and that their constituents best interests (like safety) are upheld. Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia, recently filed a lawsuit against the mayor of Atlanta and the Atlanta City Council over the mayor’s mandate for Atlanta residents to wear masks in public to help stem the spread of coronavirus infections. Texas governor Greg Abbott has continued to downplay and resist new data showing an increase in infections and hospitalizations in his state, holding firm on his intentions to avoid a second shutdown and to reopen Texas. Donald Trump, his administration, and Betsy Devos have continued to perpetuate an anti-science agenda to push for the reopening of schools in the fall. White house press secretary Kayleigh McEnany shamelessly parroted the president’s dangerous narrative during a recent press briefing by saying, “science should not stand in the way of schools fully reopening for the upcoming academic year.”
These are but a few examples of how our elected leaders willfully ignore the advice of professional and double down on political stances aimed at fulfilling their base’s agendas, while putting the people who elected them to office in personal danger. While those elected officials are to blame for their intentional incompetence, the blame for such dutiful neglect also rests on the public who elected and enabled those officials in the first place. We are all complicit in some way or another.
Carlin precedes his earlier quoted statement with, “if you have selfish ignorant citizens, you’re going to get selfish ignorant leaders.” Our elected leaders embody the values we collectively hold within our society. The fact that many of our elected officials, and those appointed by them, blatantly demonstrate their intentions to pursue economic outcomes over the health and well-being of those they represent is abhorrent, but it is also a reflection of what our society has evolved to value as important within our capitalistic culture. While we place the responsibility upon elected leaders to make difficult and appropriate decisions to protect us, we need to also have higher expectations and accountability among the public who choose to delegate such personal responsibilities to those who have continued to demonstrate their propensity to take advantage.
In this regard the public does indeed suck, but there is good reason to not give up on hope. The public does disappoint to a degree, but to an inspiring lesser degree than what we see on the news and on social media. According to the Pew Research Center, around three-in-ten Americans believe in the conspiracy theory that covid-19 was developed in a laboratory. Those lacking an education above a high school diploma and who were younger in age showed higher rates of belief in such conspiracies among those surveyed. Those whose political leanings were more republican in nature, believed that covid-19 was created in a lab at higher rates than those with leaning more democrat. A recent report from the CDC displayed more encouraging information regarding support for measures aimed at curbing the spread of covid-19 with over 80% of those surveyed agreeing with measures pertaining to social distancing, stay-at-home mandates, and limiting group get-togethers.
While these recent reports are encouraging, there is an underlying and looming issue that is propelling the small percentage of those who oppose social mandates related to this pandemic and who are more susceptible to toxic conspiracy theories. This involves many factors, but education and political affiliation tended to emerge across the board.
One poll from the Pew Research Center provided additional information pertaining to gaps in beliefs held by the scientific community and the general public pertaining to social issues such as required childhood vaccinations, human evolution, global warming, and safety of consuming genetically modified foods. Identified factors that influenced the level of agreement the public had with the consensus of those polled within the scientific community included level of education and political affiliation. Those with an education higher than a high school degree or whose political leanings were democratic agreed with the scientific community regarding the above mentioned issues at higher rates than those with lower levels of education or those with more conservative leanings.
Another Pew Research Center poll pertaining to political party affiliation showed factors related to more republican beliefs strongly associated with religious affiliations, gender (male), education (some college or less), and race (Caucasian). Likewise, those factors more associated with democratic leanings included post-graduate level of education, gender (women), race (minorities), age (millennials), and those religiously unaffiliated.
Of course individuals across all demographics may vary in political ideology and level of education, however, it is worth noting that states opposing to adhere to recommendations or issue official mandates, based on what has been recommended by the scientific community regarding the coronavirus, are primarily conservative and led by a republican governor. The governors of Oklahoma and Georgia are notable regarding their public opposition to issuing mandates for masks, even after the governor of Oklahoma tested positive for the virus himself.
Education and party affiliation are key factors in whether the public will accept information provided by the scientific community regarding social issues. The politicization of fundamental social necessities such as education has impacted the public’s ability to believe in and trust institutions of science. While some elected leaders choose to pander to the lower percentile of their constituents, those more susceptible to conspiracy theories and mistruths, there is still a larger population who believe in science (and reality) but continue to elect those same leaders based on party lines. This outcome is predictive on the social demographics upon where they live.
One way to work towards ensuring that the public does not “suck” is to provide equal access to quality education. Universal education. This is the first line of defense in protecting the public’s ability to elect better qualified officials to represent them. If we have an educated public, in theory, we should have elected officials who are not only educated, but who value the role education plays within our society. The second step is to depoliticize the fundamental building blocks of our society such as education, science, and other institutions designed not only to help everyone personally, but to further our developmental progress as humans collectively, regardless of political affiliation.
In sum, a small percentage of the public does suck, but it is not entirely their fault. Our system has failed them, and they have been exploited by those they have elected to help them. The larger population that votes into office those who conflict with their personal views and understandings out of sheer loyalty to their party, do suck. This percentage of the population sucks hard…but again if the social/political climate were improved by increasing focus and access on education, this could change in time. So yes, the public shares the responsibility for the choices and actions of the leaders they’ve elected, and yes the population does suck, but there is hope that things can improve. Increasing equal access to education and depoliticizing our institutions would be a good start. I think we’re reaching that turning point, at least I hope.