Steve Haycox: How seriously literate does a democracy need to be?

It was a telling moment on the campaign trail, as one participant described it. Sarah Palin met with Andrew Halcro in a coffee shop; they were in a contest for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. As Halcro reconstructed it on his blog, and then in a piece in the Christian Science Monitor (October 1, 2008), Palin praised Halcro for his command of facts and figures and formulations of policy in their recent debate. But, according to Halcro, Palin then went on to say, "I look out into the audience and I ask myself, 'Does any of this really matter?' "

Halceo gave Palin her due. She was, he mused, merely articulating what was her greatest strength, perhaps without realizing it. Having little interest in policy, she relied on her populist appeal, giving non-answers to debate questions and talking in pleasing generalities. In essence, Palin asked voters to elect her on the basis of her personality, not her notions of how to govern.

On one level, Palin's casual and cynical dismissal of the reasoning capability or interest of the electorate is breathtaking. An operative principle of democracy is periodic appeal by those seeking election to the reasoned judgment of the voting public. Palin's comment suggests a campaign comprised of non-threatening platitudes that please the multitude, and airy non-engagement with substantive issues of governance.

But on another level, one could argue that Palin's is a fair question. Pundits have debated since the first election what percentage of the electorate have the capability and interest to familiarize themselves with the issues and with candidates' records, and what percentage vote simply on name recognition, or "intuition" based on a candidate's appearance in a 30-second television commercial, or any number of other superficial categories. And while many candidates take the high road and try to become knowledgeable and conversant with issues, many others tell the voters what they, the voters, think they want to hear, regardless of logic or realistic appraisals of what's actually possible.

How significant is reasoned analysis in society and in our democracy? It has been plausibly argued that perhaps around 15 percent of the population has been seriously literate at any given time in our history. Seriously literate would mean being able to read and meaningfully discuss Edmund Burke on the French Revolution or Thomas Jefferson on the hinterland of Virginia or Alexander Hamilton on public credit or Richard Rorty on contingency, irony and solidarity.

Does a healthy and successful democracy, one in which government expresses, implements and protects the people's interests, depend on a seriously literate electorate? Perhaps not.

Until near the end of the 19th century, a majority of the population was not sufficiently literate to read and understand their mortgage papers; many could not do much more than sign their names. But the ideas discussed by the literate percolated into the broader culture through the schools, and in newspapers and popular periodicals. And arguably, there was greater willingness to accept the leadership of an educated elite than there is now.

Are people today, ironically, more vulnerable to manipulation through the blandishments and intimidations perpetrated by the cynical because the Internet and social media have narrowed perspective? Even with virtually universal access to the Internet, many commentators have noted, reading what one agrees with online is not the same thing as critical thinking.

Some things once thought indispensable for intelligent analysis - geography and history, for example, are no longer understood to be essential elements of critical thinking. Clive James in a penetrating exploration of this phenomenon calls it cultural amnesia. History as entertainment is as popular as ever. But history as a central aspect of critical analysis has eroded away. For example, would it be better to evaluate Vic Kohring's new election bid on the basis of his current proffered good intentions and his personality, or on the basis of his proven record, that is to say, his history? Does his history matter?

The deeper meaning of what Mrs. Palin asked is, "Do we want to be, do we need to be, a literate democracy?" The Roman emperors are criticized for buying off the populace with bread and circuses. If we answer Mrs. Palin, "No," then just how different are we?

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.