A big cloud of smug emanated from left-wing bloggers and pundits last week after Public Policy Polling—a progressive polling firm—decided to ask voters whether they support bombing Agrabah.
If you’ve begun racking your brain to try and remember where Agrabah is, then, unfortunately, you are not in on the joke. You see, Agrabah, is not actually a city in the Middle East currently occupied by ISIS; it is a fictional place from the movie “Aladdin.”
Now that you know, you can join the cocktail party guffaws directed at the oh-so-stupid 30 percent of Republican voters who responded by saying they would support such a bombing campaign. Then you will finally be able to bond with the self-satisfied “intellectuals” who read Buzzfeed, Salon, Mashable, Time, Mediaite, Alternet, or any one of the dozens of esteemed media outlets who ran with this hottest of takes about the stupidity of the American people, especially Republicans.
Some slightly fairer takes on the story noted that 19 percent of Democratic voters also supported bombing Agrabah. To be even “fairer,” they ought to have noted that that a greater portion—36 percent—of Democrats affirmatively opposed bombing the city, rather than refusing to answer the question, as one would do if one knew it was a fictional city.
But these attempts to even the “stupidity score” between Democrats and Republicans miss the point. The only stupid—and, indeed, shameful—people involved here are the priggish puerile pollsters (PPP) who dreamed up the question in the first place.
The Polled People Aren’t Dumb
In today’s world, if a pollster asks whether you support bombing someplace with a Middle Eastern name, it is reasonable to assume that you are being asked whether you support military engagement with ISIS, rather than a gotcha question about geography concocted by PPP pollsters to make themselves feel better about their Oberlin degrees.
Think about the absurdity of including the name of a particular city in the question. If I were to ask people whether they supported bombing, say, Mosul, how many people would seriously think to respond, “No, but I would support bombing Sinjar”? We all know that the public at large is neither expected nor claims to have the expertise to make these micro-strategic decisions. So the “dumb” voters who interpreted the question reasonably as a stand-in for their broader policy views responded intelligently.
The real joke is on those who don’t get this because they’re too busy laughing down their sleeves at a cheap trick designed to embarrass Americans who are rightly fearful about the possibility of ISIS attacking us at home.
It’s Intelligent to Not Waste Time
One of my favorite moments in college came during my Introduction to American Politics course. The professor was reviewing the academic literature on voter information levels, projecting slide after slide with statistics supposedly demonstrating how uninformed most Americans are about basic civic and political knowledge. The effect was to lure us into a sense of juvenile superciliousness in which the folks at PPP will be stuck forever.
Then a slide appeared with a large picture of a carburetor, and the professor said, “Before you feel so superior, who can tell me what this is? And could fix mine for me?” Maybe three hands shot up. The lecture hall froze; some hungover students even peeped up from their laptops.
The point, brilliantly demonstrated there, is that, no, most Americans don’t have the time to study up on politics—not even on facts that some of us might consider “basic,” and certainly not on which Middle Eastern cities ISIS controls. But it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they have cars to fix when they break down; they have real lives to lead and jobs to go to and families to raise.
This is not to excuse political candidates who make such mistakes (like confusing Iran’s Quds force for the persecuted Kurds). Candidates, especially for president, are expected to know these things, and mockery and humiliation is justified when they don’t.
But, especially now around the holiday season, it would be good for those of us who are political junkies, in both parties and of all persuasions, to remember that politics simply isn’t everything—or anything—for a lot of people in this country. This might lead them to know less than we think they ought, even about facts we deem “basic.”
You can be smug about that if you’d like, but in reality, it’s a good thing. One day, you’re going to need your carburetor fixed—and there’s a decent chance your mechanic will support bombing Agrabah.