Many political scientists have tried to explain away such results ever since surveys in the 1940s began turning up evidence of Americans' gross ignorance about politics. These apologists argue that Americans use shortcuts to compensate for their lack of knowledge. A voter, for example, who does not follow the daily news may nonetheless decide that he should vote for Candidate X because his local newspaper endorsed X and he generally agrees with the positions the paper takes.
Unfortunately, what the polls show is that Americans cannot make up for their lack of basic knowledge even if they shrewdly employ shortcuts. The harsh truth is that ignorant voters are sitting ducks for wily politicians. This is why millions were so easily misled when the Bush administration dropped hints that Saddam Hussein played a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. One study by the University of Maryland found that nearly 60 percent of Americans were convinced that Hussein was helping Al Qaeda when we undertook our invasion. A majority based their support for the war on this flagrant misunderstanding.
Why hasn't education helped voters become smarter about politics? Television is a big part of the explanation. Once television replaced newspapers as the chief source of news, this happened around 1965, shallowness was inescapable as Americans began judging politicians by how they looked and acted. Another factor was the collapse of the traditional two-party system and unions. Once voters stopped taking their cues from party and labor bosses, they were largely on their own as they sorted through the complicated choices they face.
Bottom line: U.S. officials claim there is evidence of an al Qaeda-Iraq connection -- but there is no "smoking gun."
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said he thinks the TV networks' news coverage has helped sell the Saddam-al Qaeda connection. "Suddenly, it was Osama, Osama, Osama ... Saddam, Saddam, Saddam ... and the networks -- the broadcast media -- simply picked that up [and] transferred our feelings of alarm and anger from one villain to another."
In a February CNN-Time poll, 76 percent of those surveyed felt Saddam provides assistance to al Qaeda. Another poll released in February asked, "Was Saddam Hussein personally involved in the September 11 attacks?" Although it is a claim the Bush administration has never made and for which there is no evidence, 72 percent said it was either very or somewhat likely.
"I think the administration has used the media very successfully to make the case against Saddam as the chief evildoer of the moment, but I still think there's an awful lot of uneasiness in America over this war," said Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media critic and co-host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."
"They use essentially the kind of logos, martial music, and so on that we saw after Gulf War One had started," Krugman said. "So, from the point of view of the American public, Iraq is already the enemy; we're already at war."