By Bernd Debusmann
“Would you support or oppose bombing Agrabah?”
That was question 38 in a long survey of Republican primary voters a few days after contenders for the party’s presidential nomination argued about foreign policy and national security in their last televised debate of 2015.
Thirty percent of those responding came out in favor of bombing Agrabah, a city they obviously considered a threat to America. Thirteen percent opposed it, and 57 percent were not sure.
The trick question inserted by Public Policy Polling highlighted a combination of fear and ignorance as the campaign for next November’s presidential elections moves into high gear.
Agrabah does not exist. It is the fictional city featured in a 1992 Disney film, Aladdin. When Democratic voters were asked the same question, only 19 percent favored bombing the home base of Aladdin, Princess Jasmine and Genie.
Thirty-six percent opposed bombs on Agrabah, a city chosen because it sounds vaguely Arab or Muslim and clearly foreign.
It’s no surprise that Republican voters are more bomb-happy than Democrats. The leading Republican contenders for the party’s nomination have been trying to win voters with bellicose rhetoric on how they would thwart attacks on America and solve the problems of the Middle East.
“An almost perfect storm of political ignorance”
On the campaign trail, no one has been louder than Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman who has been topping the polls since he launched his campaign in July with a plan to keep immigrants from Mexico out by forcing the Mexican government to build a wall along the 2,000-mile border.
Among outlandish proposals since then: ban all Muslims from travelling to the United States.
Trump’s popularity has baffled political analysts in the United States and abroad, prompting a tsunami of explanations. One of the more notable came from Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University and author of the book, Democracy and Political Ignorance.
Trump’s meteoric rise is “a particularly blatant example of a much deeper problem at the heart of modern democracy: widespread voter ignorance,” Somin wrote recently in the newspaper USA Today.
The success of the former reality TV host “is in large part the result of an almost perfect storm of political ignorance. As a longtime celebrity, he had a built-in advantage with voters who don’t know much about politics, and therefore know little about more conventional politicians. With them, the name recognition that comes from being an entertainment celebrity is crucial.”
Political ignorance is not unique to the Trump campaign or the Republican Party. Cynical operatives across the political spectrum have exploited it to their advantage.
Example from the Democratic side: in 2014, one of the architects of President Barack Obama’s controversial health care act, Jonathan Gruber, was caught on an open microphone saying that the complex legislation had passed “because the American voters are too stupid to understand the difference.”
Unworkable proposals don’t harm candidates.
Pollsters and political scientists describe that slice of the electorate as “low information voters,” or LIVs — people who pay little attention to factual information and chose their candidates more on the basis of personality traits than on closely-reasoned policy platforms.
Which may explain why clearly unworkable proposals have made little difference to the standing of candidates. Take Trump’s idea of rounding up and deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants, or his call for an entry ban for Muslims.
Or Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s proposal to wipe out ISIS through “carpet-bombing” in a way that would spare civilians.
Really? Launch massive air strikes without killing innocent people? As in Dresden, when allied bombers massacred tens of thousands of civilians in “carpet-bombing” of the German city in 1945?
As a political tool, exploitation of ignorance and fear is not new. But it is a safe bet to say that in the next 11 months, it will be the tool of choice for many of America’s presidential candidates.
Bernd Debusmann is a former columnist for Reuters who has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries (and lived in nine). He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.