On his HBO program last night, John Oliver devoted 30 minutes to a discussion of U.S. surveillance programs, advocating a much more substantive debate as the June 1 deadline for renewing the Patriot Act approaches (the full segment can be seen here). As part of that segment, Oliver broadcast an interview he conducted with Edward Snowden in Moscow, and to illustrate the point that an insufficient surveillance debate has been conducted, showed video of numerous people in Times Square saying they had no idea who Snowden is (or giving inaccurate answers about him). Oliver assured Snowden off-camera that they did not cherry-pick those “on the street” interviews but showed a representative sample.

Oliver’s overall discussion is good (and, naturally, quite funny), but the specific point he wants to make here is misguided. Contrary to what Oliver says, it’s actually not surprising at all that a large number of Americans are unaware of who Snowden is, nor does it say much at all about the surveillance debate. That’s because a large number of Americans, by choice, are remarkably unaware of virtually all political matters. The befuddled reactions of the Times Square interviewees when asked about Snowden illustrate little about the specific surveillance issue but a great deal about the full-scale political disengagement of a substantial chunk of the American population.

The data on American political apathy is rather consistent, and stunning. Begin with the fact that even in presidential election years, 40 to 50 percent of the voting-age public simply chooses not participate in the voting process at all, while two-thirds chooses not to vote in midterm elections.

Even more striking is what they do and do not know. An Annenberg Public Policy Center poll from last September found that only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government, and only 38 percent know the GOP controls the House. The Center’s 2011 poll “found just 15 percent of Americans could correctly identify the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, while 27 percent knew Randy Jackson was a judge on American Idol.”

A 2010 Findlaw.com poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans — 65 percent — were incapable of naming even a single member of the U.S. Supreme Court. A 2010 Pew poll discovered that 41 percent of Americans are unable to name the current vice president of the U.S; in other words, Oliver could just as easily (if not more easily) compile a video of Times Square visitors looking stumped when asked if they knew who Joe Biden, or Antonin Scalia, is.


These are obviously significant facts which receive far too little discussion, analysis and attention. One reason is that they serve as a rather stinging indictment on the political system which media and political insiders love to glorify: a huge chunk of the population, probably the majority, have simply turned away entirely from politics, presumably out of a belief that it makes no difference in their lives. It’s difficult to maintain mythologies about the glories of American democracy if most of the population believes it has so little value that it merits literally none of their time and mental attention.

Then there’s the role that U.S. media itself plays in this dynamic. I’ve often cited as the most revealing fact of the post-9/11 era this Washington Post poll from September, 2003 — six months after the invasion of Iraq — which found that “nearly seven in 10 Americans believe it is likely that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks” and that a “majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe it’s likely Saddam was involved.”

Propagandizing 70 percent of the population is not easy to do, and obviously requires active deceit or pervasive acquiescence by the country’s news media. As part of his discussion last night, Oliver showed my favorite MSNBC clip in order to illustrate the lack of substantive surveillance discussion in the media:

As if to prove his point, click-hungry gossip websites (such as one named Time) ignored most of Oliver’s substantive discussion of the Patriot Act and surveillance and instead seized on the Times Square aspect to mock Snowden for his cultural irrelevance. To the extent that’s true, what they’re actually (unintentionally) mocking is the political process they typically glorify and, most of all, their role within it.

Image: HBO