Why I Love David French

I make it a point to read anything I come across from David French, whose writing I love because it is both eloquent and thoughtful–and admittedly, for the same reason most of us like writers: he shares my own beliefs and concerns. (Come on–admit it. We all prefer the folks we consider wise because they agree with us.)

In a recent essay for the New York Times, French focused on one of my longstanding and primary obsessions: the American public’s lack of civic literacy, and the consequences of that pervasive lack.

French used what he aptly termed the the “Articulate Ignorance of Vivek Ramaswamy” as his jumping off point, using reactions to Ramaswamy’s glib ignorance as an example of the way “in which poor leadership transforms civic ignorance from a problem into a crisis — a crisis that can have catastrophic effects on the nation and, ultimately, the world.”

French refers to the research that I have often reported on this site:

Civic ignorance is a very old American problem. If you spend five seconds researching what Americans know about their own history and their own government, you’ll uncover an avalanche of troubling research, much of it dating back decades. As Samuel Goldman detailed two years ago, as far back as 1943, 77 percent of Americans knew essentially nothing about the Bill of Rights, and in 1952 only 19 percent could name the three branches of government.

That number rose to a still dispiriting 38 percent in 2011, a year in which almost twice as many Americans knew that Randy Jackson was a judge on “American Idol” as knew that John Roberts was the chief justice of the United States. A 2018 survey found that most Americans couldn’t pass the U.S. Citizenship Test. Among other failings, most respondents couldn’t identify which nations the United States fought in World War II and didn’t know how many justices sat on the Supreme Court.

Unlike my periodic rants on the subject, French isn’t sharing these statistics to bemoan public ignorance. He wants to make a different argument, namely

that the combination of civic ignorance, corrupt leadership and partisan animosity means that the chickens are finally coming home to roost. We’re finally truly feeling the consequences of having a public disconnected from political reality.

Simply put, civic ignorance was a serious but manageable problem, as long as our leader class and key institutions still broadly, if imperfectly, cared about truth and knowledge — and as long as our citizens cared about the opinions of that leader class and those institutions.

French reminded his readers of the time that Gerald Ford’s gaffe about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe made a huge difference in that campaign. As he says:

Note the process: Ford made a mistake, even his own team recognized the mistake and tried to offer a plausible alternative meaning, and then press coverage of the mistake made an impression on the public.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present moment. Instead of offering a plausible explanation for their mistakes — much less apologizing — all too many politicians deny that they’ve made any mistakes at all. They double down. They triple down. They claim that the fact-checking process itself is biased, the press is against them and they are the real truth tellers.

He follows up with several examples of Ramaswamy’s blatantly, factually incorrect (and actually ridiculous– but articulate!) statements–and the reaction of the GOP, which  “deemed him one of the night’s winners.”

He sums it up:

The bottom line is this: When a political class still broadly believes in policing dishonesty, the nation can manage the negative effects of widespread civic ignorance. When the political class corrects itself, the people will tend to follow. But when key members of the political class abandon any pretense of knowledge or truth, a poorly informed public is simply unequipped to hold them to account…

A democracy needs an informed public and a basically honest political class. It can muddle through without one or the other, but when it loses both, the democratic experiment is in peril. A public that knows little except that it despises its opponents will be vulnerable to even the most bizarre conspiracy theories, as we saw after the 2020 election. And when leaders ruthlessly exploit that ignorance and animosity, the Republic can fracture. How long can we endure the consequences of millions of Americans believing the most fantastical lies?

I told you so…..


  1. Prof K says “…leaders ruthlessly exploit that ignorance and animosity”
    That should be the tag line for todays Republican party
    It could run after every TV Ad

  2. I saw first-hand one of the main causes of civic ignorance while teaching in public schools for 12 years: Too many coaches not qualified to teach civics and too busy building a “winning team”. The same problem impacted science. Just because a P.E. major has one class in kinesiology, it doesn’t qualify him/her to teach physics or chemistry. MANY of my science kids said that their previous science teachers taught by video while working on team plays.

    Add to that the passing down of ignorance and attitude about civics curriculum from so many parents – especially in poorer districts – and one can validate what one principal told me sardonically: “The ‘ABCs’ of education are Athletics, Band and Cheerleaders”.

    The lust for entertainment supersedes, it seems, any American need to understand how our country is supposed to work.

  3. A very large percentage of Americans celebrate our founders because we were taught we’re supposed to. That’s good. Traditions are long term nostalgic culture. Patriotic too.

    I suppose a better informed reason is because they were exceptional for their times, especially the ones remembered. Exceptionally exceptional by a long margin. Why?

    They were all, as were all Americans then, recent generation immigrants but a couple of them could afford the price and time to live in Europe, the center of the Age of enlightenment and, in fact, all philosophy. They were prodigious readers before the Kindle and the Internet. They were well connected in Europe. They knew plenty of stuff that virtually no other Americans of those times knew. They were so civically literate they could write the Constitution. In fact, even more astounding, sell those ideas of the Age to civically illiterate Americans as being worth dying for.

    I mean exceptionally, exceptionally civically literate.

  4. Placing liars in charge of public education would be a terrible idea, and yet we’ve made this mistake. We’ve also put them in charge of all our other systems. The final blow was when our Fourth Estate crumbled under financial pressure.

    Even though the icing may be thinner on the liberal side of the cake, we still consume it. As of the last count, the US ranks 25th in the world for democracy.

    Jefferson was screaming iceberg a long time ago…we rearranged the chairs instead. Now we are bobbing in the water looking for just the right floatation aide which won’t come. If a boat does come by, we’ll capsize it or sink it with a shot from a flare gun.

  5. The civic illiteracy today has to do the blindness of the corruption of our current president. David French is quick to point out his problems with a conservative politician, and he will because he is a liberal. He is nonetheless blind to any of Biden’s issues his involvement in Ukraine. When the US loses the world currency, the US dollar is no longer the world currency, it is because most people are blind to the fact that another currency started by Brazil, Russia and China is making leaps and bounds all because of a war in Ukraine. Yes, the war is one we must fight, but it should be ended before we lose our world standing. most people do not understand and are ignorant that when we do lose this world currency all this money has to come home , there are some that are saying that we will be like Venezuela with huge increases of inflation that are exponential. Does this happen in 10 years or 15 years or will it happen in five years?
    What is worse? Is it ignorance or arrogance? The liberal media is not ignorant of all the corruption, Joe Biden, that they’re hiding this presidents corruption is pure arrogance.
    Wild one pass president is being indicted for having documents on his person locked away. Another president is hiding personal emails through an archive process which we will never see. Many are arguing that this current president we have is so arrogant, and so inside of himself, and we are all hiding his corruption that it will be too late when we lose our self in the world standing it is happening ever so slightly every day on the world scale.

  6. It’s amazing how many people have so little understanding of anything. I love those segments on Jimmy Kimmel’s show when they interview people on the street. The questions they ask are pretty simple. They’ll ask what state is Columbus, Ohio in and too often get a response like Missouri. Another favorite is Jordan Klepper, whose life since 2016 has been attending Trump rallies and interviewing MAGATS. I would have to find a good way to chill after doing that for even a few hours, much less 7 years. It’s the reason I bug all of my young friends to read. Babies get books for birthdays and Christmas. READ! LEARN! VOTE!

  7. Vernon – if you haven’t read it yet…check out “Amusing Ourselves to Death” – an amazing prophecy of our times.

  8. Our country, along with every state, should require that candidates for state or federal offices must pass a civics test that covers the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and their state Constitutions. Those tests should be extensive enough to weed out those who don’t really care about representing the people and they should require a minimum of 90% correct answers to pass the tests.

    State legislatures should create education requirements for civics classes all the way from elementary school through high school. That would ensure that even the students who are completely uninterested in learning about how our federal and state governments work will learn enough over the years to be well-informed.

    Now, I’ll remove my rose colored glasses. Who would have thought that being an honest investigative reporter and a top news anchor for several years could eventually be dangerous to your livelihood?

    Last week the main news anchor on the most-watched Fort Wayne tv channel, ABC 21Alive, lost his job. He had won numerous top journalism awards during his career. His contract was not renewed due to his interview of Jim Banks back in January. He refused to allow Banks to avoid answering important questions, especially regarding the 2020 election. I can only guess that Club for Growth and possibly other powerful super PACs put financial pressure on the television station owners. Banks has been an ALEC and Club for Growth lackey since his days in the IN state legislature. He is Pure Evil!

  9. Vernon

    Funny you should mention civics being taught by coaches. I had the misfortune of the high school basketball coach teaching U.S. History. He took attendance and then took the basketball players in our class down the hall to the gym to practice. He gave our class a weekly ten question quiz and also gave us the answers. That made it look like he was doing an excellent job of teaching and we students were all learning so much.

    At least I learned some history throughout my elementary and junior high classes, but I lacked a more deep knowledge of U.S. History. Since then I have educated myself on our history, but still feel that I should know more. We did have an excellent world history teacher who happened to also be the baseball coach, but he took teaching his history classes seriously.

  10. Nancy, do you think Julian Assange was an aberration?

    Honest journalism has long been a thing of the past, even in the accepted NYT or WaPo. Rags that print nothing but State Dept approved propaganda. Journalists are under siege, and so are whistleblowers.

    It’s dangerous to flip on the oligarchy-run state. If you can do real damage, the FBI will be removing phones and computers within hours of a potential leak, guaranteed. This has been proven repeatedly. Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden to name a few. There are many others…

  11. John S – the concept of life free from egregious limitations by government and the rest of the global environment seems intuitively obvious but is not because the opposite is so stealthy. Some see authoritarianism and anthropogenic atmospheric toxins sneaking up from bush to bush, some wait for it and are surprised when they attack.

    Zelenski and most Ukrainians understood before most American/Europeans that Putin authoritarianism was sneaking up on them. They prepared a brave well disciplined and superbly led military but couldn’t afford to equip it with modern very costly consumable weapons.

    Fortunately their leaders knew that NATO is constantly cleaning out their military equipment warehouses to make room for ever even more modern weapons and has an ever open garage sale to turn things over.

    We are maintaining NATO borders with Ukrainian lives supplied from our garage sale.

    That of course requires accountants to count currency which is our present illusionary token of wealth. We ooh and hah over the illusion of accounting numbers big beyond imagining. Bankers and Republican politicians all furrow their brows.

    But what is real wealth? Perhaps it’s our children and theirs living free in a world well adapted to the current ever complex and changing environment writ large?

    For much better words expressing these ill expressed concepts read Kim Stanley Robinson starting with “New York 2140”.

  12. Let’s be choosey about what constitutes “civic knowledge”: ,
    – What are the 3 branches of government?
    – Who was the first President of the US?
    – Who is the Speaker of the US House?
    – Who is your state representative?
    – Etc.

    That ain’t knowledge…it’s multiple choice answers. We need real civic knowledge and critical thinking skills:
    – Where can you find out how your representative voted on a bill?
    – Where can you read the wording of a bill?
    – Where can you find out who donated to a politician?
    – Etc.

  13. We are, it has been reported, the most entertained country in the world. I am often blown away, when watching “Jeopardy,” to see that the contestants know just which TV episode, of just which show, was entitled whatever it was…and was shown on an odd numbered Wednesday…in 1978!!
    The amount of civic ignorance described also blows me away…scares the heck out of me.
    The statistics cited go back to 1943 and 1952, and, I expect, long before the 2018 survey, the shifting of the educational process towards educating specifically for tests and jobs did not help to broaden citizens’ understanding of civics.

  14. I just saw this in the “Florida Phoenix” for today; here’s Florida education for you:
    “With oral arguments set this week before the Florida Supreme Court over the future of abortion in Florida, we’re learning that young voters haven’t been taught about constitutional issues that might inform their take on the matter. Reporter Jackie Llanos contacted young people on both sides of abortion and learned that many don’t understand how the system works. ‘I didn’t even learn a lot of what was going on in our government and how it would affect us,’ said Alexa Matos of the University of South Florida, whose sex education classes in high school emphasized abstinence.”

  15. John S. Still no evidence that President Biden is corrupt. And if he is hiding personal emails, he has as much right to do so as any other citizen. It is only public documents that you have a right to see.
    Contrast that with the mountains of evidence (some of it from their own mouths) that TFG and his lackeys are corrupt.
    Endless repetition of accusations does not make them true. Stating your opinions as if they are facts doesn’t make them true, either. Hard evidence is required, the kind of evidence that has led grand juries of ordinary citizens to return indictments against Trump and his co-conspirators.

  16. Affirmation is intoxicating.

    Almost not as much as coming across an occasion to say “I told you so!”


  17. Per Pete: “But what is real wealth? Perhaps it’s our children and theirs living free in a world well adapted to the current ever complex and changing environment writ large?”

    Are we leaving them in the world we built with no tools or user’s manual to keep the United States going into the future?
    Jeff Daniels playing Atticus Finch in Alan Sorkin’s stage production:
    “Mob’s a place where people go to take a break from their conscience.”
    That may be the same condition within a cult.
    You can lead them to the trough but you can’t force them to drink.
    My civics class was taught by an elderly nun who had almost no control over the class most of the time. We were required to take the class to graduate. There was almost nothing taught about local government, some about state government and most about the structure of the federal government. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 3 years later. No discussion of it despite what was happening every day throughout the country.

  18. When I went to school, back in the late Jurassic period, I learned quite a bit about how our government worked. I also participated in a teen legislature program—we went to the state capitol and essentially cosplayed as our state legislature.
    However, in the intervening years between then and 2016, I’d forgotten a fair amount. I’d always voted in every election (except when my kid was born early, two weeks before election day), but I didn’t participate closely in civic life.
    But since 2016, every day has been a crash course in Civics. I’ve learned about things like the Hatch Act, and Constitutional legal points that would have been so arcane in the before times. I’m glad to be more informed, I guess, but sometimes I wish I didn’t have to know quite so much.

  19. Before COVID, I informally interviewed 145 individuals. Sixteen knew who represented them in the Indiana Senate and House of Representatives. It hasn’t gotten any better.

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