On this blog, I frequently share concerns that American levels of civic literacy are too low to sustain democratic self-government.
I’d like to expand on those concerns.
Civic knowledge–or more accurately, its lack– is also linked to two aspects of the broader unrest we are experiencing: we need to restore civility and honesty to our public debates; and we need to encourage not just voter turnout–important as that is– but to improve the number of Americans who cast informed ballots.
Americans will always argue, but my research has convinced me that civic ignorance– defined as inadequate knowledge of America’s history, Constitution and Bill of Rights—creates conflicts that are wholly unnecessary, and worse, encourages the partisan dishonesty and propaganda we see all around us.
When people don’t understand the structure of federalism or separation of powers (only 26% of Americans can name the 3 branches of government), when they don’t know that the Bill of Rights limits both government and popular majorities, it’s easy for partisans to generate suspicion that government is operating in ways that it shouldn’t, and to undermine trust in our governing institutions.
As we’ve seen, when people distrust their government, and are suspicious of its motives, disrespect and hostility infect public attitudes and intensify public debates.
And when government really isn’t operating properly, when–as now– there’s clear evidence of incompetence or corruption or both, it’s especially important that citizens be able to communicate–that we occupy a common reality and argue from the same basic premises. When Americans are faced with evidence that America has failed to live up to its ideals, it’s critically important that we all understand what those ideals were.
America was the first country in the world to base citizenship on behavior rather than identity—on how people act rather than who they are. Initially, of course, that ideal of equality was only extended to white guys with property, but the principle–the ideal– represented an important paradigm shift.
America also redefined liberty. Liberty was no longer the individual’s “freedom” to do whatever the monarch or the church decided was the “right thing.”
Instead, government was supposed to protect your ability to do your own thing, so long as you did not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you were willing to respect others’ right to do likewise. Of course, Americans still can and do argue about what harm looks like, and what kinds of harm justify government intervention (and we seem to have a particularly difficult time with that thing about respecting the rights of others to do their thing.)
Civility and civil peace would be significantly enhanced if more Americans understood that the Bill of Rights requires a lot of “live and let live” forbearance, and especially if they understood that the Bill of Rights restrains government from doing some of the things that majorities at any given time want government to do.
If–as I devoutly hope–we eject Trump and his horrendous administration in November–and we turn to the long-term project of “cleaning up” corruption, incompetence and racism in government, voter education writ large must be the first order of business.
Voter education includes more than how to register, and how and where to vote, as important as those practical instructions are. (Helpful websites like this one from the Indiana Citizen have that information.)
For voter education to facilitate the casting of informed ballots, it has to include a basic understanding of how government is structured and operates, and an understanding of the duties and responsibilities of the office being filled. What does the job entail? What are the constraints that limit the office, the checks and balances? Do the candidates (unlike Trump) understand those limits?
The ability to cast an informed ballot requires information about the candidates and their positions on the issues. It also requires knowing how the incumbent has performed, assuming that incumbent is running for re-election.
This is precisely where our local information environments are failing. There has been a massive loss of local newspapers (over 2000 in the last few years)—and we get very little information about local government from the hollowed-out ones that remain.(The Indianapolis Star, is a case in point.)
In the run-up to elections, local newspapers used to analyze and fact-check political ads. Today, the general public is left to get its information from mostly partisan sources. Citizens must decide which of those sources are trustworthy and which are irremediably biased. One of the most helpful tools a citizen can have in making those determinations is a solid understanding of American government.
In the era of Trump, an understanding of elementary logic would also be helpful….