“I wouldn’t call it fascism exactly, but a political system nominally controlled by an irresponsible, dumbed-down electorate who are manipulated by dishonest, cynical, controlled mass media that dispense the propaganda of a corrupt political establishment can hardly be described as democracy either.” —Edward Zehr

Whatever else we have learned from the national healthcare debate, it is resoundingly clear that America’s education system is at least as bad as its healthcare.

By one recent poll, nearly 70 percent of white southerners do not believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States. In another poll of North Carolina voters, only 54 percent said that Obama was native born. Among Republicans, 47 percent said he was born in America; 29 percent were not sure. (In the same poll, respondents were asked if they “consider Hawaii to be part of the United States.” Among Republicans, 88 percent said yes, 7 percent said no, and 4 percent were unsure. Numbers were only slightly better among the general public.)

Such a proliferation of ignorance and misinformation is a veritable Eden of mischief for politicians, and Sen. Jim DeMint was in full frolic when he spoke to more than 300 white people at the Daniel Island Club last week. The white folks were gracious and mannerly. They laughed at all the Obama jokes. They applauded DeMint’s jabs at Democrats and federal bureaucrats. There was no one packing heat here. No swastika signs. Nobody standing up to scream, “You will stand before god to answer for this someday.” No, these white people were a model of decorum. And why not? They were hearing exactly what they wanted from their hero.

Unfortunately, DeMint did not return the favor. In fact, he was downright contemptuous of his audience’s intelligence, telling them that he favored controlling healthcare costs through tort reform and more competition among insurance companies. Of course, anybody who was familiar with the healthcare debate would know that DeMint was lying through his teeth. First, DeMint and the Republicans are doing everything humanly possible to kill the public option plank of the Democratic reform plan, which would be the most effective competition for insurance companies. The last thing Republicans want is honest competition in the insurance industry.

As for tort reform, less than 1 percent of the cost of American healthcare is the result of litigation. In California and Texas, two states that have capped medial malpractice payouts, healthcare costs have continued to rise. DeMint knows this. Millions of people know it. But I’m sure the senator looked out over this agglomeration of grits eaters and said to himself, “These goobers will believe anything.” And so they did.

Today the Republican Party has been taken over by “birthers” and “teabaggers” and a host of other angst-ridden, mostly older white people (old yellers, they’ve been called for their boorish behavior) who appear willfully ignorant and willfully eager to believe anything that certain sources tell them. The leading source of misinformation about healthcare today is Fox News.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, released last week, identified four frequently told lies about healthcare reform:

• It will give coverage to illegal immigrants.

• It will lead to a government takeover of American healthcare.

• It will pay for abortions.

• It will create “death panels” and allow the elderly to die.

According to the poll, Fox News viewers were overwhelmingly more likely to believe these lies than viewers of MSNBC or CNN.

As it happened last week, I went to my doctor for my regular checkup. I like my doctor very much. He is caring and supportive. After the prescriptions were written and the meeting was almost over, he mentioned that the pharmaceutical industry would be devastated by healthcare reform, because government programs would allow only the cheapest generic drugs. It would be the end of innovation in pharmaceuticals, he warned direly. And look at the Canadians coming down here to get healthcare. Why would we want to adopt a system like theirs?

Then I remembered that the television in his waiting room is permanently tuned to Fox News. Anywhere you sit you must listen to it. In many of the seats you must watch it or hold a magazine in front of your face. My doctor is a good physician and probably a good man in his personal life. But he has clearly made some errors of judgment. I hope they were not failings of character. He had drunk the Fox News Kool-Aid, and now he was offering it to me. It was definitely time to leave.

Democracy is a messy business under the best of circumstances. In the atmosphere of malice and misinformation that Fox News and its allies have created, it may be impossible.