If you're thinking about voting because Leonardo DiCaprio urged you to, please don't.
The Titantic actor, along with singer Selena Gomez, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and other stars, are headlining a new effort to increase voter turnout. In the video, an assortment of celebrities urge: "And remember, vote for stuff in 2012."
"Vote 4 Stuff," as this particular campaign is called, is hardly revolutionary: Rock the Vote, which concentrates on young adults, has been around since 1990. Both efforts are founded on a naive premise: that it would be better if every American of voting age participated in the election.
And that's just not true.
When it comes to fairly basic facts about public policy and the Constitution, plenty of U.S. citizens could use a remedial civics class. Only 34 percent of Americans can name even one Supreme Court justice, according to an August FindLaw.com survey. In 2011, Newsweek administered the citizenship test to 1,000 Americans -- and 38 percent failed the test. A 2006 study by the now-defunct McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum discovered that only 28 percent could identify even two of the First Amendment's five freedoms.
Regarding the federal budget -- the turf on which many of the fiercest ideological battles about government's size and purpose are fought -- Americans are lamentably misinformed. Americans tend to think that foreign aid, often a favorite to be put on the cutting block when the deficit is in the spotlight, is a much higher percentage of the budget than it actually is. A 2011 CNN survey found that the median estimate for the percentage of the budget that was foreign aid was 10 percent. In reality, it was then under 1 percent of the total federal budget. It's the same story with public broadcasting: the median estimate was 5%, while actually it was 1/100th of 1 percent.
How can you decide?
But if you didn't know that, you might have been impressed by Mitt Romney's fiscal conservative credibility when he said during the first presidential debate that he would cut PBS, despite the fact that he "love(s) Big Bird."
Alternately, if you aren't familiar with the details of President Obama's health care program -- including $716 billion in cuts to Medicare over 10 years -- you may be more inclined to support that program than you would be otherwise.
No, we shouldn't restrict voting to policy wonks. But nor should we embrace a mindset that encourages everyone -- no matter how ignorant -- to vote.
Elections are no American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. If we pick poorly in those contests, we can flip to the next radio station or change the channel when a lousy entertainer comes on.
But we aren't going to hop the border into another country -- even if the leaders we voted for promote legislation that harms, not helps, the United States of America.
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