Human Rights, Equal Rights, Political Rights

Last night, I spoke at the annual dinner of the Columbus, Indiana, Human Rights Commission. Here’s what I said (sorry for the length…):


Over the past several years, American political debate has become steadily less civil. Partisan passions have overwhelmed sober analysis, and the Internet allows people to choose their news (and increasingly, their preferred realities). During the recent election cycle, it was clear that in many cases, Americans were talking past each other rather engaging with opponents through thoughtful public discourse.

I am firmly convinced that an enormous amount of this rancor and partisan nastiness is a result of what I call civic illiteracy—widespread ignorance of the historical foundations and basic premises of American government. I don’t want to belabor this lack of civic literacy, but I do want to share some statistics that should concern all of us. A few years ago, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs asked high school seniors in that state some simple questions about government. Let me share a few of those questions and the percentages of students who answered them correctly:

  • What is the supreme law of the land? 28%
  • What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution? 26%
  • What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress? 27%
  • Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? 14%
  • What are the two major political parties in the United States? 43%
  • We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? 11%
  • Who was the first President of the United States? 23%

Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th graders can describe federalism. Only 35% can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Only five percent of high school seniors can identify or explain checks on presidential power. (There’s a lot more depressing research on IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy website.)

Why does it matter? Well, for one thing, productive civic engagement is based on an accurate understanding of the “rules of the game,” especially but not exclusively the Constitution and Bill of Rights– the documents that frame policy choices in the American system.

Understanding the history and philosophy that shaped what I call “the American Idea” is critically important for understanding the roots of our national approach to human rights.

The American Constitution was a product of the 18th Century cultural, intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Most of us know that the Enlightenment gave us science, empirical inquiry, and the “natural rights” and “social contract” theories of government, but what is less appreciated is that the Enlightenment also changed the way we understand and define human rights and individual liberty.

 We are taught in school that the Puritans and Pilgrims who settled the New World came to America for religious liberty; what we aren’t generally taught is how they defined liberty. Puritans saw liberty as “freedom to do the right thing”—freedom to worship and obey the right God in the true church, and their right to use the power of government to ensure that their neighbors toed the same line. The Founders who crafted our constitution some 150 years later were products of an intervening paradigm change brought about by the Enlightenment and its dramatically different definition of liberty.

America’s constitutional system is based on an Enlightenment concept we call “negative liberty.” The Founders believed that our fundamental rights are not given to us by government; instead, they believed that rights are “natural,” meaning that we are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human (thus the term “human rights”) and that government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable rights.

Contrary to popular belief, the Bill of Rights does not grant us rights—it protects the rights to which we are entitled by virtue of being human against infringement by an overzealous government. The American Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do. For example, the state cannot dictate our religious or political beliefs, search us without probable cause, or censor our expression—and government is forbidden from doing these things even when popular majorities favor such actions. 

In our system, those constraints don’t apply to private, non-governmental actors. As I used to tell my kids, the government can’t control what you read, but your mother can. Public school officials can’t tell you to pray, but private or parochial school officials can. If government isn’t involved, neither is the Constitution. Private, non-governmental actors are subject to other laws, like civil rights laws, but since the Bill of Rights only restrains what government can do, only government can violate it. I’m constantly amazed by how many Americans don’t understand that.

Unlike the liberties protected against government infringement by the Bill of Rights, civil rights laws represent our somewhat belated recognition that if we care about human rights, just preventing government from discriminating isn’t enough. If private employers can refuse to hire African-Americans or women, if landlords can refuse to rent units in multifamily buildings to LGBTQ folks, if restaurants can refuse to serve Jews or Muslims, then the broader society is not respecting the human rights of those citizens and we aren’t fulfilling the obligations of the social contract that was another major contribution of Enlightenment philosophy.

The Enlightenment concept of human rights and John Locke’s theory of a social contract between citizens and their government challenged longtime assumptions about the divine right of kings. Gradually, people came to be seen as citizens, rather than subjects. The new concept of human rights also helped to undermine the once-common practice of assigning social status on the basis of group identity.

The once-radical idea that each of us is born with the same claim to human rights has other consequences. For one thing, it means that governments have to treat their citizens as individuals, not as members of a group. America was the first country to base its laws upon a person’s civic behavior, not gender, race, religion or other identity or affiliation. So long as we obey the laws, pay our taxes, and generally conduct ourselves in a way that doesn’t endanger or disadvantage others, we are all entitled to full civic equality, no matter what our race, religion, gender or other identity. When our country has lived up to that guarantee of equal civic rights, we have unleashed the productivity of previously marginalized groups and contributed significantly to American prosperity. And I think it is fair to say that—despite setbacks, and despite the stubborn persistence of racial resentments, religious intolerance and misogyny, we have made substantial progress toward a culture that acknowledges the equal humanity of the people who make up our diverse nation. So on that scale, good for us!

In addition to civic equality, however, respect for human rights also requires democratic equality—an equal right to participate in self-government. We now recognize—or at least give lip service to—the proposition that every citizen’s vote should count, but on this dimension of human rights, we not only aren’t making progress, we’re regressing, as anyone who follows the news can attest.

One element of civic literacy that gets short shrift even among educators is the immense influence of systems in a society—an appreciation of the way in which institutions and conventions and laws shape our understanding of our environments, and obscure our recognition of social problems. Right now, longstanding practices are obscuring the degree to which American democracy is becoming steadily less democratic—and the extent to which we are denying citizens the human right to participate meaningfully in self-government.

Vote suppression has been on the rise, especially but not exclusively in Southern states that have not been required to get preclearance from the Justice Department since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Thanks to population shifts, the current operation of the Electoral College gives disproportionate weight to the votes of white rural voters, and discounts the franchise of urban Americans. Ever since Buckley v. Valeo, which equated money with speech, and especially since Citizens United, which essentially held that corporations are people, money spent by special interests has overwhelmed the votes and opinions of average citizens.

The most pernicious erosion of “one person, one vote” however, has come as a consequence of gerrymandering, or partisan redistricting. There are no “good guys” in this story—gerrymandering is a crime of opportunity, and both political parties are guilty.

Those of you in this room know the drill; after each census, state governments redraw state and federal district lines to reflect population changes. The party in control of the state legislature at the time controls the redistricting process, and they draw districts that maximize their own electoral prospects and minimize those of the opposing party. Partisan redistricting goes all the way back to Elbridge Gerry, who gave Gerrymandering its name—and he signed the Declaration of Independence—but the process became far more sophisticated and precise with the advent of computers, leading to a situation which has been aptly described as legislators choosing their voters, rather than the other way around.

Academic researchers and political reformers alike blame gerrymandering for electoral non-competitiveness and political polarization. A 2008 book co-authored by Republican Norman Orenstein and Democrat Thomas Mann argued that the decline in competition fostered by gerrymandering has entrenched partisan behavior and diminished incentives for compromise and bipartisanship.

Mann and Orenstein have written extensively about redistricting, and about “packing” (creating districts with supermajorities of the opposing party) “cracking” (distributing members of the opposing party among several districts to ensure that they don’t have a majority in any of them) and “tacking” (expanding the boundaries of a district to include a desirable group from a neighboring district). They have tied redistricting to the advantages of incumbency, and they have also pointed out that the reliance by House candidates upon maps drawn by state-level politicians has reinforced what they call “partisan rigidity”– the increasing nationalization of the political parties.

Interestingly, one study they cited investigated whether representatives elected from districts drawn by independent commissions become less partisan. Contrary to their initial expectations, the researchers found that politically independent redistricting did reduce partisanship, and in statistically significant ways, even when the same party retained control.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of gerrymandering is the proliferation of safe seats. Safe districts breed voter apathy and reduce political participation. After all, why should citizens get involved if the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? (For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner?) What is the incentive to volunteer or vote when it obviously won’t matter? It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation, either: it becomes increasingly difficult for the “sure loser” party to recruit credible candidates. As a result, in many of these races, voters are left with no genuine or meaningful choice.  Ironically, the anemic voter turnout that gerrymandering produces leads to handwringing about citizen apathy, usually characterized as a civic or moral deficiency. But voter apathy may instead be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. People save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness in our electoral system, those places often do not include the voting booth.

If the ability to participate meaningfully in self-governance is a human right, partisan game-playing that makes elections meaningless should be seen as an assault on human rights. And increasingly, it is.

Safe districts do more than disenfranchise voters; they are the single greatest driver of governmental dysfunction. In safe districts, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that almost always means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged from the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they create a powerful incentive for incumbents to “toe the line”— to placate the most rigid elements of their respective parties. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating candidates they think will be most likely to appeal to the broader constituency, the system produces nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.

The consequence of this ever-more-precise state-level and Congressional district gerrymandering has been a growing philosophical gap between the parties, each with an empowered, rigidly ideological base intent on punishing any deviation from orthodoxy and/or any hint of compromise.

A study done by researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that Indiana is the fifth most gerrymandered state in the country. We had a chance to change that system in the just-concluded legislative session; Representative Jerry Torr, a good government Republican, introduced a measure that was co-sponsored by Brian Bosma, the Republican Speaker of the House. Thanks to efforts by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the public came out in droves from all over Indiana in a massive show of support for the bill; however, the chair of the Elections Committee, Milo Smith, refused to allow his committee even to vote on it, and killed it.

In the United States, we tend to think of Human Rights in terms of legal rights: equality before the law, an equal right to participate in democratic governance and to have our preferences count at the ballot box. But most of us recognize the existence of non-legal challenges to full realization of equal human rights. Poverty is one; a citizen working two or three jobs just to put food on the table doesn’t have much time for civic engagement, and in Indiana, that’s a lot of people.

In 2014, the United Ways of Indiana took a hard look at “Alice.” Alice is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; it applies to households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living. The report was eye-opening.

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working 40 or more hours a week.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and most do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

ALICE families don’t have time or energy for civic participation or political engagement through which to exercise their human and civil rights. Human Rights Commissions lack the jurisdiction to address ALICE inequities, but we all need to recognize that people preoccupied by a daily struggle for subsistence are unable to participate fully in the formation and conduct of civic society.

How can our civic institutions—including local Human Rights Commissions– help guarantee citizens’ human rights?

Human Rights Commissions can act when employers or owners of public accommodations violate local ordinances. Indiana also has a civil rights law, although it currently omits protection against discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity, and the federal government has several agencies charged with enforcement of civil rights—although recent statements from Administration officials have called their commitment to doing so into question. Local to federal, these agencies are important, and the work they do is critical to social stability and fundamental fairness.

Critical as they are, there are rights violations these agencies cannot address or solve. Reversing the erosion of America’s democratic norms, turning back the assault on equal access to the ballot box, and fixing the gerrymandering that makes too many votes meaningless will require political action and persistent civic engagement by an informed, civically-literate citizenry. We all have a stake in improving civic knowledge and encouraging informed participation, because safeguarding human rights ultimately depends upon the existence of a civically-informed electorate.

It won’t be easy, but We the People can do this.


  1. I will admit, I have not voted in every local election for the very reason that I was a blue dot in a sea of red. The only vote I cast that may have counted was in the 2008 election of President Obama, and I had to do a lot of work to cast that vote as I had to replace my ID.

  2. I always learn something from your posts, Sheila. Are civics and government even taught at the high school level anymore? Spot on about gerrymandering, and it was so disappointing (but not surprising) when redistricting reform efforts were quashed this year. I always vote, but do so knowing my vote will rarely matter in this red state.

  3. After giving my full support to Sheila’s oft repeated comments regarding the need for Civics classes to be required for all students, I will add that I believe it should begin prior to high school level education and continued into high school due to the changing governmental laws and regulations. Added (and repealed) Amendments also change our involvement and responsibilities regarding civic protection as well as civic duty.

    After watching the on-going, ever-changing situation and claims regarding Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, I believe we are due to form that “third party” so many in this country believe will resolve all our political problems. I would call it the Independence Party, not connected to today’s remaining Independent voters (my apologies to Bernie). Reading the Declaration of Independence gave me this idea; using portions of this document to base the party on; “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another …requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    When a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security.”

    Quoting Sheila:
    “Reversing the erosion of America’s democratic norms, turning back the assault on equal access to the ballot box, and fixing the gerrymandering that makes too many votes meaningless will require political action and persistent civic engagement by an informed, civically-literate citizenry.”

    The lack of knowledge and awareness of civics by the vast majority if the American public has produced a nation of people unaware of their rights and protections regarding government but; more importantly it has produced the lack of knowledge and awareness of our responsibility to do more than vote – we must know who we are voting for and why they should be elected. Human rights carry with it human responsibility; we have seen little, if any, responsibility in this current administration and there is no change in sight.

  4. That’s the first time I’ve seen a reference to John Locke in nearly 50 years. Thanks for the memory. I wonder if that says someting about our civic literacy.

  5. Really excellent, Sheila! Thank you giving the full text. Along with Peggy Hannon, it’s refreshing to hear someone refer to John Locke.
    I’m a product of the IPS system from school year 1959/58 (kindergarten) through 1971 high school graduation from Arlington High School.
    We studied these things at various appropriate history levels all through my years of education. It got much deeper and more detailed in Junior High School through High School. I was fascinated.
    As a descendent of Revolutionary War veterans whose family roots go back to the 1650’s, 1730’s and 1801 in Vermont & Pennsylvania I grew up in a family who knew some of it’s history. As we’ve worked over the years with my Mom on our genealogy it has become deeper and more complex.

    I think that is part of the problem today – kids are not given their family past and roots. They don’t have sense of their place in our national history. Too many of them only have sense of an individual self- not a historical collective self.

    Our educational system MUST focus on our earliest national history to set the context for everything that follows. Too many people don’t realize that from the earliest colonial settlement there were religious power struggles and abuses that led to our Founders’ committment to the Constitutional wall between religion and the civic State.

    So many of our current civil and civic problems are streams that run throughout our national history and without having that background make it almost impossible to put into context and understand how and why our ancestors have tried to resolve them.

    I stand with you in raising my voice for MUCH BETTER HISTORICAL AND CIVIC EDUCATION!!!

  6. There have been many memorable quotes through the ages around the thought that in democracies freedom is earned and can be lost by those inadequate to that task.

    We have confirmed that in demonstrable ways.

    Of course that’s a failure of education.

    As we rebuild America fixing that has to be job #1.

  7. Excellent article!

    Sadly, we haven’t been treated as citizens since post-WWII. There is a reason for this…we watched how the German people were manipulated against Gods will. It was concluded that we cannot be trusted to form our own opinions and vote for the right people. Instead of citizens, we became consumers. Our only purpose was to consume information and then buy products or services. Knowing how the government functioned wasn’t necessary.

    Due to technology, we are waking up from this dream state the Establishment has placed us under since the early 1950’s. Call it another Age of Enlightenment. We’ve literally been under a spell for six decades…maybe it’s the fault of television. 😉

  8. Excellente, Sheila! I took the Oklahoma test and scored 100 percent, but then I had considerable exposure to history and government many moons ago. The current emphasis on STEM production without a solid grounding in where we came from and where we are in government is a mistake. What good is a citizen in a discussion of civil rights, the Revolution’s objectives etc. when he or she is so deeply into algorithms that there is no time for civic education? Tomorrow may depend not upon Silicon Valley but what to do with its advances in, for instance, robotics and other automated devices that supplant human labor. Your speech was great; let’s hear more of them.

  9. Not specifically mentioned in this blog but implicit to the understanding how we got here, is the clear evidence of the importance of education, not just civic literacy, in our society. What is taught is just as important as IF it is taught.
    If we allow politics to dictate the content of public education in basic and fundamental policy decisions, eliminating basic facts they find politically undesirable for ideological, economic or religious reasons, including only those ideas and concepts that support ideology or religion or economic advantage that they desire, are we any different from other authoritarian states?
    Public universities should be venues for exploration of all rational and reasonable discussions of all subjects. But, and I emphasize “but”, they are under no obligation, nor should their students or faculty be required, to attend to those discussions if they are not part of a sanctioned and certified course. If the speaker talks and there is no audience, do they still influence the discussion? As part of the curriculum, students are required to show mastery of material, not complete acceptance of concepts or ideology. One of the most important aspects of education is learning to think critically and to question continuously. That is why we have the advances in all disciplines. Someone questioned, thought, observed and found a new perspective, a new question that needs to be explored, a new challenge to be met. I don’t think we do a good job of teaching our children what the real value of education has been and continues to be.
    Rant done. I look forward to any response if anyone care to do so. Maybe my opinion is way off base.

  10. JD – You are spot on. Those who write the curricula have a lot to do with what the student takes (or doesn’t take) from the exercise. Stalin opined that the vote is less important than those who count the votes, and I see similar authoritarianism in those corporate-influenced writers of the curricula. The education edifice is far from immune to propaganda (note the increasing influence of the Kochs et al. in business schools with their “scholarships” etc.) Peter Abelard would not be pleased.

  11. JD
    That has been a problem that my wife and I observed in our children’s education. From the time I attended school the emphasis shifted from teaching subject matter to conformance with behavioral and social standards. We encouraged our kids to question and not to accept anything at face value. Politicized education undermines the teacher’s role and adds a different dimension to determining if a teacher is qualified and is performing up standards. Add ISTEP to that and you have a system that is focused on meeting the requirements set by mostly uninformed legislators pushing their political agenda at the expense of education and always promising to do better. They should step away, but it’s part of the power they seek to retain.

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