Returning To My Civics Preoccupation

A week or so ago, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Indiana Philanthropic Association. I’m sharing my remarks, which regular readers will undoubtedly find repetitive. (Yes, I’m riding that horse again…)


Over the past several years, American political debate has become steadily less civil. Partisanship has overwhelmed sober analysis, and the Internet allows people to choose their news (and increasingly, their preferred realities). 

I’m here today to suggest that an enormous amount of this rancor is a result of civic illiteracy—widespread ignorance of the historical foundations and basic premises of American government.

It matters. 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 and constrain policy choices in the American system. 

The American Constitution was a product of the Enlightenment, the 18th Century philosophical movement that gave us science, empirical inquiry, and the “natural rights” and “social contract” theories of government. The Enlightenment did something else: it  changed the definition of individual liberty.  

We’re taught in school that the Puritans and Pilgrims who settled the New World came to America for religious liberty, and that’s true; what we aren’t generally taught is how they defined that 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 make their neighbors did the same. The Enlightenment ushered in a dramatically different definition of liberty. It begins with the belief that fundamental rights aren’t gifts from government; instead, humans are entitled to certain rights just because we’re human– and government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable rights. 

The Bill of Rights wasn’t conceived as a grant of rights—it was intended to protect our inborn rights from an overzealous government. It is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do. Government cannot dictate our religious or political beliefs, search us without probable cause, or censor our expression, for example—and it can’t do those things even when popular majorities want it to do so. The Bill of Rights only restrains government; it wasn’t until 1964 that the United States began to pass laws prohibiting discriminatory behavior by private-sector actors. 

I’m constantly amazed by how many Americans don’t understand the difference between constitutional liberties and civil rights, or the anti-majoritarian operation of the Bill of Rights, or– as we are seeing during this pandemic—the legitimate limits of our individual liberties. 

Governments create what lawyers call “rules of general application” to protect the common good. Public officials can properly and constitutionally establish speed limits, ban smoking in public places—even require us to wear clothes when we’re out in public. As Justice Scalia wrote in Employment Division versus Smith, back in 1990, so long as these and hundreds of other laws are generally applicable—so long as they aren’t efforts to unfairly target specific groups—they don’t violate the Constitution. 

Here’s the thing: the U.S. Constitution as amended and construed over the years guarantees citizens an equal right to participate in democratic governance and to have our preferences count at the ballot box. Those guarantees are meaningless in the absence of sustained civic engagement by an informed, civically-literate citizenry. Let me say that a different way: Protection of our constitutional rights ultimately depends upon the existence of a civically-informed electorate. That’s why efforts like Bill Moreau’s Indiana Citizen and the Bar Foundation’s sponsorship of “We the People” are so important.

The consequences of living in a system you don’t understand aren’t just negative for the health and stability of America’s democratic institutions, but for individuals. People who don’t know how government works are at a decided disadvantage when they need to negotiate the system. (Try taking your zoning problem to your Congressman.) Civic ignorance also impedes the ability to cast an informed vote. Especially at times like these—when official actions trigger massive protests– citizens need to know where actual responsibility resides. 

Today, we are all seeing, in real time, the multiple ways in which civic ignorance harms the nation. What we call “political culture” is the most toxic it has been in my lifetime. (And in case you didn’t notice, I’m old.) There are lots of theories about how we got here—from partisan gerrymandering and residential sorting to increasing tribalism to fear generated by rapid social and technological change. But our current inability to engage in productive civic conversation is also an outgrowth of declining trust in our social and political institutions—primarily, although certainly not exclusively, government. Restoring that trust is critically important —but in order to trust government, we have to understand what it is and isn’t supposed to do. We have to understand how the people we elect are supposed to behave. We need a common understanding of what our Constitutional system requires. 

Here’s an analogy: if I say a piece of furniture is a table, and you say no, it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a very productive discussion about its use.

Now, let me be clear: there are plenty of gray areas in constitutional law—plenty of situations where informed people of good will can come to different conclusions about what the Constitution requires. But by and large, those aren’t the things Americans are arguing about.

I study how Constitutional values apply within our increasingly diverse culture, the ways in which constitutional principles connect people with different backgrounds and beliefs and make us all Americans.  That research has convinced me that widespread civic literacy—by which I mean an accurate, basic understanding of America’s history and philosophy—is absolutely critical to our continued ability to talk to each other, build community and function as Americans, rather than as members of rival tribes competing for power and advantage. Unfortunately, the data shows civic knowledge is in very short supply.

Let me share an illustrative anecdote: When I teach Law and Public Policy, I begin with the constitutional architecture, how that framework limits what laws we can pass, and what legal scholars mean by “original intent.” I usually ask students something like “What do you suppose James Madison thought about porn on the internet?” Usually, they’ll laugh and then we discuss how the Founders’ beliefs about free expression should guide today’s courts when they are faced with efforts to censor media platforms the founders could never have imagined. But a few years ago, when I asked a college junior that question, she looked at me blankly and asked “Who’s James Madison?”

It’s tempting to consider that student an outlier–but let me share with you just a tiny fraction of available research. The Annenberg Center conducts annual surveys measuring what the public knows about the Constitution. Two years ago, 37 percent couldn’t name a single one of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, and only 26 percent could name the three branches of government. 

Fewer than half of 12th graders can define federalism. Only 35% of teenagers recognize “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. It goes on and on.

And it matters, because Constitutions address the most basic question of any society—how should people live together? What should the rules be, how should they be made, who should get to make them and how should they be enforced? In America, citizenship wasn’t based upon geography, ethnicity or conquest, but on an Idea, a theory of social organization, what Enlightenment philosopher John Locke called a “social contract” and journalist Todd Gitlin has called a “covenant.” The most revolutionary element of the American Idea was that it based citizenship on behavior rather than identity—on how you act rather than who you are. As the ubiquity of cellphone cameras has demonstrated, we’re still struggling with the application of that principle.

The founders of this nation didn’t all speak with one voice, or embrace a single worldview. All of our governing documents were the result of passionate argument, negotiation and eventual compromise. And as remarkable as the founders’ achievement was, we all recognize that the system they established was far from perfect. The great debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists were about the proper role of government. We’re still having that debate. The overarching issue is where to strike the balance between government power and individual liberty.

The issue, in other words, is: who decides? Who decides what book you read, what prayer you say, who you marry, whether you procreate, how you use your property? Who decides when the state may justifiably deprive you of liberty—or tell you to wear a mask? 

How would the conversations we are having about “shelter in place” orders and wearing masks change, if parties to those conversations all understood how our Constitution approaches both the rights of individuals and the duties of government?

In our Constitutional system, individuals have the right to make their own political and moral decisions, even when lots of other people believe those decisions are wrong. What they don’t have is the right to harm or endanger others, or the right to deny an equal liberty to people with whom they disagree. Drawing those lines can be difficult; it’s impossible when citizens don’t understand the basic “rules of the game.” We can—and do—argue about what constitutes harm sufficient to justify government intervention in personal decision-making, but what we can’t do is argue that “Freedom is for me, but not for you.” 

When people don’t understand when government can properly impose rules and when it can’t, when they don’t understand the most basic premises of our legal system, our public discourse is impoverished and ultimately unproductive. We’re back to arguing whether a piece of furniture is a table or a chair.

Like all human enterprises, Governments will have their ups and downs. In the United States, the consequences of “down” periods are potentially more serious than in more homogeneous nations, precisely because this is a country based upon an Idea. Americans do not share a single ethnicity, religion or race. Culture warriors to the contrary, we never have.We don’t share a comprehensive worldview. What we do share is a set of values, a set of democratic institutions and cultural norms, a legal system that emphasizes the importance of fair processes–and when we don’t trust that our elected officials are obeying those norms, when we suspect that they are distorting and undermining the underlying mechanics of democratic decision-making, our democracy can’t function properly. 

There will always be disagreements over what government should and shouldn’t do. But there are different kinds of discord, and different kinds of power struggles, and they aren’t all equal. When we argue from within a common understanding of what I call the constitutional culture—when we argue about the proper application of the American Idea to new situations or to previously marginalized populations—we strengthen our bonds, and learn how to bridge our differences. When widespread civic ignorance allows dishonest partisans to rewrite our history, pervert our basic institutions, and ignore the rule of law, we not only undermine the Constitution and the American Idea, we erode the trust needed to make democratic institutions work.

Ultimately, that’s why civic ignorance matters. 


  1. Sheila; Giddyap!!!

    Being one who did not have the benefit of Civics class in high school, I came late to the beginning of my civics education in my lifetime, as yet incomplete.

    Before commenting I went to my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary for basic meaning of the words. “Civic; Of, relating to, or belonging to a city, a citizen or citizenship.” “Civics; the branch of political science concerned with civic affairs.”

    The first thing I learned from these definitions is why Trump and his Republicans are against our education in Civics, they know nothing about politics per se and our knowledge would stifle their powers and drastically cut their economic profits.

    “When people don’t understand when government can properly impose rules and when it can’t, when they don’t understand the most basic premises of our legal system, our public discourse is impoverished and ultimately unproductive. We’re back to arguing whether a piece of furniture is a table or a chair.” Unfortunately; the argument today is what constitutes a human being deserving of protection by local, state and federal governments. All states have State Constitutions; sadly the Republican states version of States Rights is moving back to the 19th century when Confederate States Rights meant White Supremacy, now termed White nationalism.

    Today “Shelter In Place” is recommended to save lives, Trump’s Executive Order regarding his version of “Police Reform” is that the choke hold is banned unless the officer believes his life is in danger which is another “stand your ground” permission to kill. The inaccurate term “Defund Police” is against civic, civil and human rights of protection under the law; Trump misuses the correct term “Police Reform” then guts the body of his own Executive Order.

    From the Declaration of Independence: “…Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes;…”

    The loss of voting rights, civil rights and and the addition of Citizens United put this country on the auction block bringing us to this point where we are all enslaved under Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell’s rule. Their foot is on all our necks.

    “Ultimately, that’s why civic ignorance matters. “

  2. Sheila, bravo!

    Harken back to the days of your youth so to speak, how does the young Sheila, compare to the gray Sheila?

    In the grand scheme of things, our lives are like a breath on a cold day, it expands out from the breather, in a fury, but the further away from the breather, it dissipates, and eventually disappears! This analogy is something that even King Solomon recognized in Ecclesiastes 1:2-9. That the further from righteous beliefs and truth one gets, the more weary every human generation becomes. But history constantly repeats itself, because every generational group recognizes and comes to grips with their mortality. So then in essence, whether a majority or a minority, they would prefer something to be left in place as a memorial to their existence. Even though the dead know nothing, history and the books that have been written, would always allude to their existence, whether good or bad!

    Absolutely, our Constitution was supposed to keep civil society fair and equitable, the Puritans came here for their religious freedoms and to escape oppression for their beliefs by religious leaders unscripturaly trying to force their beliefs on everyone.

    But, did they really think all men were created equal? Were the natives considered equal? I’m sure some thought so, but I would venture to say that was in the minority. It didn’t take long for the Puritans to take advantage of native traditions by using trinkets and beads to steal land. Because the natives did not believe in owning land, just using it, as the land provided for their existence. So there was no concept in land ownership, and when the native Americans wanted the use of their land back, they called them Indian givers, hence the taunt, “Indian giver!” Those so-called Puritans were really not so pure.

    And then continuing on into the future with our Constitution, of course no one could predict that future, how could our constitutional founders foresee what the world is like right now! And, they never really thought everyone was equal anyway. White women were not equal to white men, for the most part, women did not own property, natives were not considered equal to white men, those white men did not consider Judaism nor Abrahamist (Muslim) equal to their Christianity!

    So, starting out with a preconceived and unequal notion, how could they develop something in a document that would guarantee equality or fair and equitable treatment for everyone living under that document? They could not!

    Do you think Rudyard Kipling thought every one was equal when he penned the “White man’s burden” absolutely not. So the perceived superiority of the white race so to speak or white ethnicity, that whiteness and privilege bled over into how they interpreted their religion. They manipulated their religion to allow them to own and abuse their fellow man, to slaughter and annihilate native populations, and do this under the guise of Manifest Destiny, American Romanticism, and American Exceptionalism! And, in other words, they just made stuff up to ease their conscience.

    And those who have that mentality today, usually those on the right, want to make sure the Constitution is supposed to be un-alterable, and not a living breathing document. A document able to be amended according to the times and advancement of civilization for the good or bad. Originalists are nothing more than impotent authoritarians that desire to return to the “Good Old Days” and be the Masters of all they survey.

  3. Those who harp on the Puritans and Pilgrims coming over to escape religious persecution are not aware that the underlying reason they emigrated was because the elders of those denominations didn’t want the members of their congregations to be corrupted by the teachings of the Church of England. So when they got here, they established “perimeters” defining where their members could go. Land was allotted to each member to farm, but they all had to live within the confines of the village – again, for fear that someone might not be adhering to the “rules” of the church-government.

  4. Did anybody see or read about the House Judiciary Committee meeting yesterday? It would seem that the first group who need a civics lesson are Republicans in the House of Representatives. Travesty is too nice a word for their actions in debating the Justice in Police Act. Sheila advises us not to ask our Congressman about zoning issues. It seems our Congressman might know more about that than he or she does about the law and his or her own responsibility to it.

  5. KUDOS, Sheila. THE root cause of much of the virus eating at our democracy. Can you (or anyone here point to a recent reference for what civic education should look like? Do any states come close?

    I know of one brilliant piece: In this program, starting in middle school, students learn about the mechanics of elections by actually becoming election workers.

  6. Peggy,

    Republicans are worthless at everything except kissing the asses of their donors and Donald Trump.

    There are several paragraphs in the Lewis Powell memo (The horse I continue to ride) that calls for corporate/banking America to invest in re-writing history in the colleges and universities by creating/funding chairs and “colleges” that spew the right-wing, corporatist bullshit that now drives our politics. It has worked, obviously, to divide us along alternate civics lines: those who actually understand the letter and spirit of the Constitution, and those who believe their own bullshit interpretations by those who are grinding monetary axes 24/7.

    This is a unique fascist exercise…for now. What comes next are the storm troopers.

  7. It would sure be interesting to see a middle and high school civic literacy class being taught. How would the creators of the course treat the role Oligarchs play in our governmental systems?

    Seeing that morphed into an Oligarchy decades ago, if not since our inception, it would be an exciting study seeing that most publishers partake in propaganda because truth-telling goes against our motto of American Exceptionalism.

    How has voting the past forty years improved the plight of the working man?

    We had eight years of Barack Obama at the helm, yet both income and wealth inequality got worse. Liberties vanished with authority given to our police state.

    Trusting our government to do the right thing is a sucker’s play in 2020, which might be why many don’t even participate in the game. If the Democratic Party represented the people, we wouldn’t have to deal with the likes of Trump. We also wouldn’t have to settle for the likes of Biden.

    Yes, a “civic literacy” program would be interesting to see developed. Still, I suspect it would be a joke — entertaining students on theories which have no meaning in our real world.

  8. Todd,

    Actually, with the improving job situation during the Obama years, more people, including people of color, WENT BACK TO WORK. Whatever wages they made were better than ZERO or unemployment – until it ran out. No, income didn’t get worse. The rich got MUCH richer and the unemployed found work.

    We have to make sure we have the perspective right. Now, please go to and buy my new novel.

  9. Vernon – foe of capitalists – tell people to get your novel at their local independent book store – a bit hypocritical?

  10. i went to catholic school, my aunt was a nun across town at another..ive was listening to conversations between my grandmother,and the visiting preist, she was home bound,and couldnt practice..then Kennedy was killed. i began to read the news papers and find a world of history,and listened to the old men in the park,playing checkers,dominos. religion was questioned to death. the frankness of the words,they,many,went to church, many did not. reasons,their own,but made an impact on my beliefs. man has created his own bed,and from what i see,read,i lost any belief of a god. i made my decisions,and moved on. ive watched and heard insane ideals and actions start a demise our nations people,and its democracy. today i see a deep ignorance,and spoiled child syndrome,that has exploded with the present admin,and elected. stimulating this growth with a conman who sees his own needs over ours,and the ignorant riding on his real beliefs, silence the ones who want to hurt me..and the pied piper leads the pack to end what they dont see, what allows them the freedom to march like a mob dressed like some make believe army,to kill their own.. god? who cares, if any of them had a cells worth of christian morals, they would maybe see,nope. its probably a genteration of two or three has persuaded them to act like the pacifiers that raised them. not just the parents, the elected also,and their media squaks. freedom of whatever,missused,abused,and crapped on.. they probably never read beyond any border here,to see how other goverments have taken control and denied any rights beyond a type of slavery,of its masses. that silver spoon is finally coming out their ass,from being shoved into its mouth…(their freedom) they dont even recognize democray,they recognize only what they want..after the end game,they to will be marginalized,after we lose our rights and vote. they will be seem as a threat,and delt with accordingly..hopefully after november..maybe. seems we may have this neo nazi,etc play game to be played in november. if they are allowed to gear up, literally, the intimidation factor may rise to another level. this may well be the last vote ever.disruption at the polls may end the need to elect,and the preset admin taking control? far fetched,with all thats open up lately,ya might want to atleast ask the question and question those who have decided to allow the nazis to arm themselves and take control of the sideline. Mike Winship has a new op, ya might want to take a look,commondreams,org..
    maybe we are the antifa?

  11. Todd; in 1983-1984 I was Administrative Assistant to Michael Priller who had been liaison between city youth and city government for Division of Community Services, which was a division of Mayor Hudnut’s Office, and later other contractual programs after Reagan defunded DCS. We had two one-year contracts with the City; one to operate an employee tax break for hiring teens and one an educational program which held mock criminal trial, mock City-County Council meeting and a mock State Legislature session. The actual people working in all those areas worked with the kids training them prior to the mock sessions. During the Mock State Legislature Session they found errors in three bill just passed by the Legislature; the bills had to be pulled and reworked before they were sent back to be heard. Mike arranged a trip to Washington, D.C., by bus for the group, chaperones, a deaf translator (I think a total of 77) for three days; all funded by donations including arrangements at hostels and meal tickets.

    I answered the phone one morning for a call from the White House; their news sources had reported the trip, the caller planned a White House tour for the entire group. That afternoon I answered the phone for a call from the Pentagon who had also seen the news, they wanted to schedule a tour of the Pentagon but there weren’t funds for adding a day to the trip. The kids in our program were from all areas of this city; they learned much about their government from those involved and through personal experience. Too bad there aren’t more programs like this and more Mike Prillers to run them…of course we would first need government officials interested in teaching our kids.

  12. Vern
    Chris Hedges, nudged another eye opener,on wall streets elite,today,,
    i wonder if the fascists even know how the dow works? by the way,
    listen to marketplace when they mention the dow, they say,, the future dow…
    a piece in marketplace 6/3/20 a story about the numbers..seems were seeing fantasy here,not the real numbers,wall street again is allowed to speak as they see fit, in con game.. kruddy wants to end the extra benfits to the working class. his game,end the free money and end the protests…like trump ending testing to end the virus..but,ya need jobs and safe place to work first..

  13. The Enlightenment of a few centuries ago has been discarded for the Unenlightenment of today, i.e., political, economic and social garbage thrown to the masses by cunning politicians to keep voters civically ignorant an.d easily manipulated. There are no Lockes, Smiths, or Madisons in this political atmosphere; instead there are McConnells, Trumps, and other such political animals who prey on civic ignorance in order to gain and exercise power. The “sacred honor” and “fortunes” pledged by our founders in throwing off the royal yoke of George III are utterly alien to the power-grabbing politicians of today, who have long since lost any idea of the common good in favor of “What’s in it for me?”

    That said, perhaps the royal dictatorship and East India Tea monopolistic economic (and even religious) practices that gave rise to the Enlightenment will give rise to a a New Enlightenment in which we will recapture the verve and basic honesty of our forebears due to a surge in interest in civic literacy that Sheila rightly trumpets, one that leads to decision making by a new brand of politicians who actually legislate for the common good.

    Perhaps it is not government which a jaded public has been taught to abhor but rather the people who run it. That can be changed if we rise up and do our duty this November, so let’s do it, and if we do, does that ensure a political nirvana. No, it’s a continuing process, and someday, somehow, maybe, like Denmark, we will once again trust government to work for the common good, because it does.

  14. Todd
    remarkable how the stock market regained after the fall in 2008, 9000 points, to end around 18000 when Obama left.then it jumped 3000 points after trump was elected! wow, it took from the civil war to 1990 to get to 10000.wall street is now blaintantly gaming people,without fear from the SEC,FED or congress… seems blackstones own ceo, ponzie scheme head, wants and has gotten his christmas gift early..commondreams,.org story, 6/16/20 leading U.S, retirees ,like lambs to a slaughter.. like the 2008 game, pension,retirement funds can now be used privatly by these hedgefund goons..the fees game..each fallout economically we have had, has made these pension and retirement funds magically disappear. now the fee games.. we listen to the protests,and congress flies another over our head…

  15. We are a country born of freedom. Entertainment media preaching the message of oligarchy has rabble roused many of us these days into becoming a tribe desperate for power. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were meant to keep us free regardless of what we might become desperate for; freedom was that important to those who went to war with what was then arguably the most powerful country on the globe to capture that freedom for us.

    Now we have to re-establish the liberal democracy that we were given but started taking for granted. Fortunately there might be just enough of our birthright left to allow us to use peaceful means to reassert it.

    I see no way but blue no matter who in November despite how distasteful single issue or party voting typically is.

  16. Jack,
    You are absolutely and positively correct! It was only a matter of time before everything aligned just right to blow up the balloon until it explodes. People sitting at home, flush with some money, from their own 401ks linked to the stock market, have realized that they could make themselves wealthier by manipulating the stock market. Alot of these people are not the uber wealthy, they are middle to upper middle class. They call them the mom and pop investors. They are the ones meddling in the stock market and manipulating the bottom. The uber wealthy are the ones making the profit right now off of these mom and pop investors. they are like a whale eating the Plankton, they just scoop the money up like a big net, and when the crash hits, this one is not going to be able to be recovered from. Then, the right is going to witness anarchy on an epic scale, they’ve been harping on anarchy for quite a while, but they are the ones that have lit the fuse and held everyone back until the balloon explodes.

    The only problem with that, is when that happens, wheelbarrows full of money won’t buy a roll of toilet paper. And, gold, silver, precious gems, won’t be able to buy what doesn’t exist.

  17. Todd, “Yes, a “civic literacy” program would be interesting to see developed. Still, I suspect it would be a joke — entertaining students on theories which have no meaning in our real world.”

    Just knowing how the “System” is supposed to work is fine. There is the actual way the “System” works. Sports has a set of rules to be followed. Cheating can happen at any level. The bigger the rewards the temptation grows to bend or out right break the rules.

    Our political system can confer very big rewards on certain select parties or people via campaign donations. The field is not level for all candidates. Many will have the advantage of gerrymandering and/or voter suppression.

    The political system influences most of what happens to us in life one way or another. I suspect most people could care less about what James Madison or Thomas Jefferson said 200 plus years ago about the way the political system should work.

    We know how it works today and it works for the 1% and the American Oligarchs. The McMega-Media has avoided at all costs telling the story of how money influences politics. Why would the McMega-Media tell us, they make bundles of money off of political adverting.

    It is far better to pretend we have a working system for the Proles – Keep them in Wonderland or OZ.

Comments are closed.