Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

December 6 , 2000:
Calling all to serve the nation
But you can't comment if you haven't read the Federalist Papers

November 16 - I'm an enormous intellectual snob. Although I'm not especially proud of that fact, I have no problem admitting it. I firmly believe that there is such a thing as a stupid opinion; I think the greatest crisis facing America's political system is the uninformed voter; I think that if you're too daft to figure out a ballot you shouldn't be voting anyway; and I believe that if you support the designated hitter you shouldn't be allowed to buy tickets to a professional baseball game.

So the last week has been very trying. The broadsides of ignorance spewing from my television have made me want to go to Atlanta and torch the CNN studios. And I'm not referring to the counting errors made on election night - the networks were inept, but if you have a free, competitive media participating avidly in horse race politics, those kinds of mistakes are bound to occur. No, what galls me the most is that trying to find calm, intelligent, rational, informed opinions on anything regarding this election has been like searching for reasoned debate on the Internet.

In fact, the most rational thing I've heard in the last few weeks came from Bill Bennett - and when you're citing Bill Bennett as a paragon of rationality, you know that times are tough. And all Bennett had to say to earn my "Smart Man of the Week" award was that perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to assault the electoral college. Even though CNN didn't give him enough time to explain his point, his comment nevertheless stood out as a beacon of intelligence amid an endless void of shrill and ignorant opinions.

In my mind the current backlash against the electoral college represents everything that is wrong with our political culture today. I've watched at least a hundred different people on television fill a sound bite on our election process without hearing a single coherent point. Any talking head who hasn't read the Federalist Papers has nothing worthwhile to say about the electoral college. Their opinions are utterly without value. They are wasting my time when they talk on television - and, worse yet, they are actively contributing to the massive ignorance of the American public.

So if I were the Ivy League educated news director for a major network, this week I would have felt a responsibility to something other than the god of ratings. I would have known that I had blown it on election night, and I would have realized that the only way I could repay my debt to democracy would be to run a series of specials featuring professors without blow-dried hair and bleached teeth. They would have talked about the electoral college and the tyranny of the majority and all the other compelling parts of our political history that voters ought to educate themselves on but don't. And I wouldn't broadcast the opinions of the ubiquitous "man on the street" unless I had taken the time to make sure he had some background on his chosen issue. If, to use the electoral college example, he knows that even our Founding Fathers debated the merits of a direct popular vote, then I would be perfectly willing to listen to his opinion. Otherwise, he shouldn't be on television.

But if those news directors can't take responsibility on these issues - and the evidence is that they can't - then the rest of us need to spend a little time in the nation's service. Woodrow Wilson professors ought to fight to get on television; politics majors ought to write letters to local papers; and people like me ought to send fewer ballot jokes via e-mail and more serious critiques of the current mess. Simply blaming the "media," whatever that means, will only ensure that our national debate remains impoverished. The responsibility that comes with being educated is that sometimes you need to take a leadership role - in your office, community, or group of friends.

I'm an intellectual snob. I know that. But the far greater danger in this case would be for people educated in these issues to let the ignorant conduct this national debate. Which is exactly how we got these two candidates in the first place.


Wes Tooke is a regular contributor to PAW Online. You can reach him at cwtooke@princeton.edu