American Elephants

The Iowa Caucuses Don’t Make Any Difference! by The Elephant's Child

It’s caucus night in Iowa. That event has dominated the news for weeks, yet Iowans do not choose a nominee. It isn’t a primary.  All it offers is “momentum.”  Those who come out on top get momentum for the next primary, and the results inform the political establishment of their preferences, but otherwise they are meaningless.

How do we decide?  Who influences us? Are we informed on our own hook, or do we fail to get good information, and how do we decide. I just saw a video comparing Dr. Ron Paul to Dr. Zachary Smith in  “Lost in Space.” That was a TV show from 1965-1968. Even those who watched it when they were little kids are over 50 now.

People now talk to each other with movie and TV references as kind of a cultural shorthand — Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter are important sources, and, of course, anything from Monty Python. Does this cultural shorthand fail when used with a generation that did not experience those shows?  When it comes to politics, we should probably refer more to Yes, Minister — which has some important lessons for us, as it was intended to do, but that belongs to the Thatcher administration, which was also a long time ago.

I am fascinated with trying to put myself into the mindset of the age of the Founders when there were no radios, no telephones, no TV, no movies, no recorded music, and there were not all that many books.  I have seen reproductions of the newspapers of the day, and they were a far cry from our newspapers of today.

But we err if we assume that people were not literate.  In 1776, one book written in complex language, sold over 120,000 copies which would be equivalent to 60 million copies today. A Boston bookseller’s stock in 1700 included no less than eleven dozen spellers and sixty-one dozen primers.

Philadelphia, by 1776 had become second only to London as the chief city in the British Empire.  Between 1740 and 1776 over one hundred and twenty-five private schoolmasters advertised their services in local newspapers. Instruction was offered in Latin, Greek, mathematics, surveying, navigation, accounting, bookkeeping, science, English and contemporary foreign languages. One schoolmaster, Alexander Porter, a mathematics teacher, had over one hundred students enrolled in 1776. There were also, by 1767, sixteen evening schools catering mostly to the hardworking German population. There were also schools for women, blacks and the poor.

If you want to feel really ignorant, look up a school examination from a century or more ago.  When TV first arrived on the scene, it was assumed that it would be a great step forward in educating the ordinary citizen, with exposure to symphonies, opera, history and we all know how well that has worked out. We prefer being entertained and amused.

Does that roll over into politics? Are we informed voters? To what extent are we influenced by the media? I haven’t seen estimates of how many people watch the debates, nor of the extent to which the debates influence their choices.

I”m currently reading Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man, which is a new history of the Great Depression, and an absolutely fascinating one. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It has a lot to offer that is particularly pertinent to today’s politics. The account of the election of 1932 and the First Hundred Days in 1933 is enlightening, to say the least.  But time waits for no man.  On to New Hampshire.

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