Equipping Voters

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….


  1. The number of citizens, living in poverty is alarming high in th USA. The old saying goes: Erst komt das Fressen, dann die Moral.
    First we Need zo Rat, toen we Can think about Moral behavior. So too many Americans are on the survival side of life. Civility comes with a certain level of prosperity for every citizen.

  2. “This is precisely where our local information environments are failing.”
    IF we clean up the mess now being perpetrated upon us, vote them out, The Press has a lot to answer for; we desperately need The Fairness Doctrine!

  3. “In the era of Trump, an understanding of elementary logic would also be helpful….”

    According to my Webster’s New College Dictionary the basic definition of Civics; the branch of political science concerned with civic affairs. One of the definitions of Civil; of or in accordance with civilized society: civilized.

    While Trump has no understanding of or interest in elementary logic, civics or civil behavior his administration and the Republican House and Senate members at federal, local and state levels are educated, experienced adults who are well aware of the fact that their “leader” has unleashed their previously covert racist, bigoted beliefs and encouraged them to forgo any semblance of civility in their public speeches, their official government meetings and their voting choices. They have full knowledge of civics and civility but follow their Pied Piper of White Nationalism in lockstep as Americans are dying.

    “This is precisely where our local information environments are failing.”

    This may explain some of the Staunch Republicans and Trump followers who knew he wasn’t a Republican in 2016 but it doesn’t explain those who are seemingly intelligent people who continue to support Trump after almost four years of deconstruction of democracy, Rule of Law and total disregard for the Constitution of the United States of America which is trying to protect THEM from Trump. The full intrusion of religion, in the form of evangelicals, has bastardized people’s faith in anyone but Trump and anything but what his loyal criminals support as their sole right to lead. They have absolved him of all past criminal business sins and sexual abuses of countless girls and women and refuse to wear masks now as a Trump badge of honor.

    Again: “In the era of Trump, an understanding of elementary logic would also be helpful….”

  4. Sheila’s wish list is a beauty, but the GOP wouldn’t have a base if Americans were literate. And guess what?

    Neither would the DNC.

    An article came out in Bloomberg this week, which captured it all but wasn’t noticed. I posted it on FB and received very few responses. I wonder why that is?

    Sheila is correct that our national media is to blame, but remember that a handful of entertainment conglomerates owns 85 % of ALL press. Their role is NOT to educate but make profits for shareholders. The furloughs of journalists, while CEOs get multi-million dollar golden parachute payouts.

    But even more elementary is the negative impact on workers, which includes 99% of Americans. A Koch owned economist once said it is more like 98%. Who am I to argue with a well educated and philanthropist endorsed academician?

    In the face of a global pandemic, how did our federal government respond? How did our elected leaders respond to the 98% who comprise the working class?

    They gave shit to essential workers like free healthcare in case they got sick. Those workers who became unemployed made more money than the so-called heroes. They sent a one-time stimulus check of $1,200 while Duh Trump said there would be another “very generous” paycheck coming to the 98%. He wouldn’t get specific…$1,200 for a 4-month quarantine is pathetic.

    The article in Bloomberg startled me because Mike let it be published. According to the report:

    “The U.S. has the worst record among major developed countries when it comes to workers’ rights, according to a survey of labor unions.

    The world’s largest economy is ranked a 4 on a scale by the International Trade Union Congress, meaning there are “systematic violations of rights.” Every other Group of Seven countries ranks 3 or better.”

    If 98% of our society are workers, how can WE allow our country to screw us over at every turn, including the distribution of wealth among the most prosperous nation on the planet?

    Einstein told us in the 40s that Americans don’t have sufficient information to cast an informed ballot because Oligarchs still run our country. He didn’t say it, but others have, it’s called OPPRESSION.


  5. Please consider joining the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization which supports civic education and participation. It grew out of the suffragette movement and is now open to all people – not just women. Go to http://www.lwv.org for information and to find your local League. Also check out their site, VOTE411.org for voting instructions and to preview your ballot and get candidate information (available closer to the election).

  6. The current President has caused more upheaval in these past three years than we actually realize. He and his backers in the Senate and House have wrecked what used to be norms of behavior among our elected officials. Now, before we proceed with anything, we have to decide which of those norms need to be codified.

    An example can be found in the selection of judges. In the past, both sitting Senators had to approve of any nominee to the bench in their state. Nominations were subject to filibuster, which meant at least 60 Senators had to find no reason to oppose a nominee. Today, only the President, Mitch McConnell, and the Federalist Society need to approve. Should we make it law that a nominee must be approved by the Senators and law that it takes at least 60 votes to confirm?

    Additionally, do we need a law that makes production of documents and witnesses to Congressional committees mandatory? Refusal would have been unthinkable when I was in D.C.

    Thinking about the Department of Justice, do we need a law that states the President can be subject to prosecution or even to remove politics from the deliberations of the Attorney General?

    I could go on, but you get the idea.

  7. Professor, from time to time, you have published speeches you have given to various groups about civic responsibility and literacy. Would you consider using your blog to explain more about these topics? Many years ago I had an outstanding American history teacher in high school who spent time on federalism, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I could use refreshment on these topics.

  8. What do you suppose would be the results if we gave our President and his VP, staff and Cabinet an elementary civil literacy exam?

    We have allowed what we know to be taught by entertainers instead of by books and professors and experts. As entertainers do what they teach is what gives them the most loyal audiences, the extreme of which are like cults.

    In terms of knowledge our addiction to entertainment media has turned out to be a weakness in the Constitutional wall that protects our freedom, our democracy.

  9. When I rook a course in STIX just before Latin supplanted hieroglyphics in the lexicon, a course called The Statistical Evaluation of Economic Data (you can see why we students shortened the name), I used a slide rule to obtain square roots, but that was in the Stone Age. Today I can push a button for the square root of whatever. Unfortunately, such new means of obtaining quick and accurate answers in the hard sciences have little to no appliation to an understanding of federalism and the Separation of Powers, an understanding vital to how democracy can work, but again unfortuanately, an “understanding” that can be manipulated by those who lust for power via both subtle and open appeals to race, class, gender and other artificial distinctions (see, currently, by those such as McConnell, Trump, et al) designed to remove such small d understandings from the civic table.

    My now deceased wife, a university professor appointed by her department to defend existing course work and new courses offered from review and approval of visiting accreditation teams, often lectured me on the value of critical thinking and individual differences. She came home after a day’s discussion with a visiting accreditation team one day and excitedly told me that she had gained approval of her own new course called “Creative Modes of Expression.” I didn’t ask her for details as to how she ran that one past the accreditation team or how it fit in with the undergraduate and graduate students degree programs she taught, reasoning that as a lawyer I would never come across a set of facts where such knowledge would be helpful.

    I think that teaching civic literacy in school in how to be an informed citizens is as important or even more so as rote learning of content, since content can largely be had these days with the click of a button, but how to know and understand the obligations imposed on good citizens to understand and live up to our constitutional history is not a click away from elucidation. Perhaps the process falls into one of my wife’s “creative modes of expression,” but wherever it falls, I think it worthy of a hard look by curricular czars and school board consideration.

  10. I doubt civic literacy would change much of the voting pattern we’ve seen in the last decade.

    The folks who vote for Trump and Company would still vote for him or worse, even if they could ace any civics test you throw at them. To them it is not about civics; it’s about two very emotional issues–abortion and machismo.

    Yet, it is possible to make an argument that the Trump voters have mastered more civics than us. It requires a certain mastery of functional civics to know how to win the electoral college vote when you lose the popular vote. Part of civics expertise is knowing how to beat civics restrictions and how to circumvent “established norms”.

    I propose that we liberals do a bit of civic homework in that regard. I too find that we liberals have become too soft, too gentle, too kind, too giving, too acquiescent, and too fearful of hurt feelings to even protect our Constitution. Useful character traits for humanity are quite different than the traits useful in governing, and the traits useful in governing are quite different than those useful in campaigning.

    Democrat leaders remind me of a company commander I had in Vietnam. He was so nice that he didn’t know how to fight. We soon came to realize that his gentleman qualities were going to get us massacred. Some of us pushed hard for transfers. I got one to another company, less than a month before Sir Nice Guy lost his entire company, including the platoon I formerly led.

    Democrat leadership also remind me of West Side Story. In it, street gangs were depicted by a whole dance troupe of effete dudes who were sissies in real life. They inspired about as much story credibility as prissy Democrat leaders inspire campaign credibility.

    Thinking here…if the Republican Party would disavow trickle-down economics and boot Trump out, I would be tempted to switch parties. That’s how much I detest the Democratic slide into gentle uselessness.

  11. You can teach all the Civics classes you want to. The political system is not a precisely engineered structure. Given inputs do not produce a given output it has many flaws built in like Campaign Donations, Lobbyists, Pacs and SuperPacs.

    In the 2006 movie, Idiocracy, Mike Judge imagined “a dystopian world where commercialism has run rampant, mankind has embraced anti-intellectualism, and society is devoid of such traits as intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, justice, and human rights.”

    Given The Trump, Pastor Pence approach Idiocracy has arrived, Life imitating art. Anti-intellectualism, and society is devoid of such traits as intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, justice, and human rights could describe the GOP in it’s entirety.

  12. Lester, I’m anti-NRA; they are the biggest sissies of all. Why would you even ask?

  13. Larry; I’m with you, a musical gang war, or a gang war musical, just doesn’t ring true. Any more than our dangerous Laugh-In White House which SNL gave up trying to find anything humerus about their words or acts. Their “Here comes da Judge” bit is particularly unsettling and Trump’s Goldie Hawn take-off isn’t an act.

  14. Larry – your “sissies” is (I presume) your attempt at Trumpian comedy? Next, you’re gonna tell me your a feminist? Words matter….

  15. Larry,

    I think you’ve conveyed, more eloquently, the message that Bill Maher keeps trying to get across. In some weeks he makes more sense than anyone other than Sheila.

  16. Ah, Larry and JoAnn – I suppose all entertainments should be Quentin Tarantino films? West Side Story was art with great music and great choreography – the story was Romeo and Juliet, known for people dying, but not gang warfare.

    Sad anecdote – on the game show, Masterminds, with Ken Jennings of Jeopardy fame, one question was which branch of government is dealt with in Article I of the Constitution – all three “Masterminds” got it wrong. Very sad.

    Back in 2010, my organization tried to put on a “road show”, entitled “Why Should I Care about the 2010 Elections & Does My Vote Really Matter?”, highlighting how local offices affected everybody’s day to day life and also showing how elections can be won (or lost) by a mere handful of votes. Let’s say we got great response from somewhat politically active people, but I don’t think it had much effect on others. Of course, that was a 30-minute presentation (against my better judgement, twice or three times longer than it should have been). Still, I would favor repeats with a better honed presentation. I am sure Sheila would have done a better job than I did.

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