Tag Archives: civic ignorance

Where Do We Place The Lever?

I was going through some files recently, and came across Governing essay from last September that echoed my own growing despair over what the author called “the situation.” He’d been invited to a conference that was ostensibly about the future of the Badlands, but during the telephoned invitation, it was suggested that they would also discuss “the situation.”

That phrase triggered his inquiry.

For the rest of the evening, I tried to determine what might be meant by “the situation.” I know, I could simply have picked up the phone and asked a few questions, but I thought it was an interesting exercise. It’s easy enough to get started. America seems to be disintegrating. Our national political system seems to be paralyzed. There is a great deal of anger and distrust awash in the land. Each of the two main tribes (the Right and the Left) declares that the other one is a clear and present danger to the future of civilization. Some tens of millions of people continue to argue, and perhaps believe, that the 2020 election was stolen. We cannot even agree on basic public health measures in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than 100 years.

If–as he assumed–these and other crises we face are what was meant by “the situation,” what could be accomplished in that discussion? As he noted, it’s a lot easier to diagnose “the situation” than to identify a prescription.

More civility? A great and inspiring leader with the idealism of Barack Obama and the oomph of Theodore Roosevelt? Some self-restraint by the 24-7 cable media? A return to the Fairness Doctrine? I can hear one participant saying we’d be just fine if we could only get back to the intentions of the Founding Fathers; and another urging the progressives to terminate the filibuster and pass rafts of reform legislation along the lines of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. One person would argue that we must abolish the Electoral College, another that we should pack the Supreme Court.

The fact that his imagined conversation was self-evidently inadequate to the challenge mirrors much of the conversation on this blog: there’s general agreement that America’s society is in crisis and its governance is in thrall to a minority composed of frightened, uninformed  and frequently deranged citizens–but there is no such agreement when it comes to the really important question: what must we do?

The author illustrated the dilemma by quoting Archimedes, who said, “show me where to put the lever and I will move the world.” The question, as he noted, is: where do we put the lever?

After citing research showing that that 43 million Americans (about one in nine) are illiterate, he makes a point that I endlessly repeat:

If American citizens don’t know the difference between an impeachment and an impeachment trial, if they don’t know the difference between an emolument and an embolism, if they don’t understand the constitutional function of the Supreme Court, if they think Obamacare is socialism but Medicare a sacred American right, how can we expect to keep the republic alive? In a letter to Charles Yancey in 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.”

Ignorance, of course, isn’t the only threat to democracy and stability. The vast and growing divide between the rich and the rest is a clear danger. The author writes that the inability of our government to address climate change is another–and he wrote this essay before the Supreme Court further hobbled government’s ability to do so. He acknowledges the ongoing legacy of slavery, and the racism that is an all-too-obvious motivation of the MAGA crowds. He gives a nod to Eisenhower”s warning about the dangers of an unrestrained military-industrial complex.

Unsurprisingly, the author of the essay doesn’t answer his own question. Instead, he argues (feebly) for a “spiritual renaissance.” I think the reason I haven’t previously written about this particular essay is my instinctive aversion to that cop-out. This often-encountered longing for a “renaissance” rests on a very dubious belief that Americans were once more “spiritual”–a belief uncomfortably close to the “we were once a Christian nation” fantasy. In any event, he is silent on the rather significant question of how the desired increase in spirituality is to be obtained.

So here we are–like doctors who can describe the disease but have no magic potion with which to treat it. We’re left with what is, admittedly, a very good question: where do we put Archimedes’ lever?

It’s a question that suggests another: are our problems far too numerous for a lever even to work?

 

 

 

More Confirmation Of Civic Ignorance

One of the most obvious–and infuriating–characteristics of the Keystone Kop administration that Trump has cobbled together is its utter cluelessness about the government they have been installed to manage.

One of the most consistent complaints I hear from reasonably well-educated Americans is amazement that there is still a base that sees nothing wrong with an Education Secretary who clearly knows nothing about public education, a Secretary of State who consults his bible in order to formulate foreign policy, an EPA Administrator who says we need not worry about climate change for another fifty years…and so on and so on.

Not to mention a President who is clearly unacquainted with any part of the U.S. Constitution and who would be challenged to answer questions on a 6th grade civics test.

Much of the answer is, of course, Trump’s appeal to white nationalists who are willing to support anyone who hates the same people they do. But another, significant part of the explanation is the large numbers of uninformed voters, citizens who have no idea how their government is structured or how it is supposed to operate–who have no clue what the rules might be, and thus are unaware of the (multiple) times when those rules are being broken.

Yes–I am once again going to pontificate about the civic ignorance of far too many American citizens. (And yes, I know it isn’t just civic ignorance–a recent, widely reported poll revealed that 56% of Americans believe that Arabic numerals should not be taught in American schools…it’s hard not to cry.)

When it comes to my persistent distress over civic literacy, however,  I now have the American Bar Association to confirm my rant.

According to a new national poll conducted by the American Bar Association, less than half of the U.S. public knows that John Roberts is chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, while almost one-quarter think it is Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 16 percent believe it is Clarence Thomas.

The nationally representative poll of 1,000 members of the American public found troubling gaps in their knowledge of American history and government, as well as constitutional rights. One in 10 think the Declaration of Independence freed slaves in the Confederate states and almost 1 in 5 believe the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution are called the Declaration of Independence instead of the Bill of Rights.

 ABA President Bob Carlson reacted to the survey:

Making sure that people living in America know their rights and responsibilities is too important to leave to chance,” said Carlson. “Moving forward, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Public Education will launch an educational program based on these survey results, to re-acquaint the public with the law and the Constitution.

“We cannot be content to sit on the sidelines as democracy plays out in front of us. For the sake of our country, we all need to get in the game,” he said.

So, what were the findings that shocked officials of the Bar Association? Let’s start with the “good” news:

The U.S. public expresses strong support for freedom of speech. Eighty-one percent of the public agrees that people should be able to publicly criticize the U.S. president or any other government leader and three-quarters agree that government should not be able to prevent news media from reporting on political protests. Fully 80 percent of the public agrees that individuals and organizations should have the right to request government records or information. And 88 percent correctly say that the government does not have the right to review what journalists write before it is published under the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, this strong endorsement of free speech is accompanied by public confusion over what the First Amendment actually protects.

Nearly 1 in 5 said freedom of the press is not protected by the First Amendment and 20 percent said the right of people to peaceably assemble does not fall under the First Amendment. More than half incorrectly think the First Amendment does not permit the burning the American flag in political protest under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down laws that forbid flag-burning, ruling first in 1989 that under the First Amendment a person cannot be penalized for such action.

There’s more, of course.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents, for example, knew that the term “the rule of law” means no one is above the law, but fully 15 percent believed  it means “the law is always right.”

The public also demonstrated a lack of basic knowledge about the rights and responsibilities accorded under the Constitution. Less than half know that only U.S. citizens can hold federal elective office, more than 1 in 5 believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for paying taxes and more than 10 percent believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for obeying the law. A little more than 1 in 6 think that due process of law is only available to U.S. citizens. And 30 percent believe that non-citizens do not have the right of freedom of speech.

To view the whole, sad survey, you can download it here.

As for me, I’m going to pour myself (another) drink.

 

Revising History? Or Ignorance Of It?

A recent article in the Charleston Post and Courier reported on the results of a poll conducted by Winthrop University. It was pretty disheartening.

The Winthrop University Poll randomly dialed and questioned 969 residents in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia between Nov. 10-20 and Nov. 26-Dec. 2. Results have an error margin of plus or minus 3.15 percent.

The poll found that half of residents either agree or strongly agree that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation.

Among white evangelicals, three-fourths agreed or strongly agreed with this belief about how the nation was founded.

The immediate question raised by such results is whether these respondents have chosen to ignore what they (presumably) learned in history class  or whether they are simply uninformed. Whatever the answer, the poll results explain a number of things about Southern political culture.

The poll’s director noted that the belief in a Christian founding is central to Christian Nationalism.

“Research has shown that increases in Christian Nationalist beliefs lead to more exclusionary views on immigration and more negative views of multi-culturalism in America,” Huffmon said. “Those who hold these views care more about whether they have a strong leader who will protect their religious and cultural values than whether a leader is individually pious.”

Forgive me if I suggest that the “cultural value” they want to protect is Christian social dominance.

It is virtually impossible to reconcile this belief in a Christian Nation with American history, or with what we know about the origins of America’s constitution–or for that matter, with the plain language of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is one thing for Christian fundamentalists to prefer that the country affirm the superiority of their particular creed; it is another thing entirely to falsify history in order to convince themselves and others that the Founders agreed with them.

If these folks have made a conscious decision to falsify history, that’s reprehensible. But it is far more likely that they are ignorant of history, that they’ve never heard of the Enlightenment, or encountered the (then radical) political philosophy that privileged personal autonomy over religious and political beliefs endorsed and imposed by the state.  The widespread belief in Christian nationhood reflected in the poll results is a stark reminder of Americans’ deficit of civic literacy, and the failure of our schools to teach history and government accurately and adequately.

It’s interesting–and telling– that this particular fantasy about America’s founding is almost exclusively a phenomenon of White Christians who consider themselves the only true Americans.

The Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Charleston, disagreed with claims that the country was intended to be explicitly Christian.

Darby, who also pastors Nichols Chapel AME in Charleston, didn’t mince words in describing Christian nationalists and white evangelical denominations with exclusionary views on immigration and multiculturalism.

“It’s called Christian hypocrisy,” Darby said.

Darby added that the country should not be in favor of one particular religion. Rather, he said politicians and voters should “love God and love others as we would be loved.”

“If the laws reflect that, we’d be one nation under all,” he said. “If you have something that’s exclusively Christian, you’re walking a very slippery, nationalist slope. Everyone in America is not Christian.”

I suspect that White Christian Nationalists are more worried about the threat civic equality poses to their cultural hegemony than they are about America’s spiritual prospects.

Policymakers can’t do much about chosen ignorance, but polls like this should be seen as yet another reason to make civic education a national priority.

What We Don’t Know…

When I give presentations like the one I recently posted, addressing deficits in civic literacy and the extent of American ignorance of our constitutional system, I often include a statistic from a 2011 survey: only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government. Audiences tend to gasp. Only 36%! How awful!

Well, the Annenberg Public Policy Center has just released the results of a similar survey taken just this year, and not only has there been no improvement, the results are actually worse.

The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey finds that:

  • More than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly think it is accurate to say that immigrants who are here illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution;
  • More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment;
  • Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government.

When asked about rights protected by the First Amendment, most of those who could name at least one right connected the Amendment to Freedom of Speech. But naming a right obviously isn’t the same thing as understanding it: 39% of those respondents said they support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on “any issue of national security” without government approval.

I’m sure Donald Trump believes that any reporting critical of him is an “issue of national security.” Definitions can be so pesky….

I know I sound like a broken record, but civic ignorance matters. It’s one thing to have different policy preferences and to engage in debates about the relative merits of those preferences; such debates can be illuminating and productive. Most of us have been in situations where we are “schooled” by a person arguing for a different approach to an issue; sometimes, we’re introduced to information we didn’t have, other times to arguments we haven’t considered. Even if we don’t change our own preferences, we appreciate where others are coming from.

However, when one party to a political argument is clearly ignorant of the most basic premises of American government, we don’t consider that person’s point of view legitimate. Those who know better will discount the person, and any organization he or she might represent, in the future.

The problem is, too few of us know better; as a result, we can often be persuaded by arguments that a civically-literate person would recognize as specious.

When Americans don’t know squat about their government, democracy doesn’t work. Voters don’t have the tools to evaluate candidates’ platforms or assess their fitness for office. They can’t hold public officials accountable, because they don’t know what those officials are supposed to be accountable to. 

Activists, candidates and office holders who don’t know what they’re talking about ought to be marginalized for that reason– but as we have seen, when Americans dismiss knowledge and expertise as “elitist,” even profound and obvious ignorance is no longer an electoral handicap. Today, too many Americans don’t vote for the person they consider most knowledgable and thoughtful; they vote for the demagogue who is most closely channeling their bigotries.

We are about to discover that the old adage was wrong: what you don’t know can hurt you.

 

Worse Than I’ve Been Telling You

There’s a jaw-dropping video making the rounds of Facebook, Twitter, et al. It shows several Texas Tech students being stopped on campus and asked questions that any American should be able to answer. In our sleep.

Who won the civil war? Who is the Vice-President of the United States? From whom did the U.S. win independence?

I know I get tiresome on the subject of civic ignorance, but these students–college students at a reputable university–are so embarrassing it is hard to believe this wasn’t staged (and even harder to understand how they gained admittance. Evidently, Texas Tech is not what you’d call selective.)

Not only were the students unable to answer the simplest questions about American history (one of them, upon being asked who’d won the civil war asked “who fought in that war?” Another asked “was that in the 1960s?”), but–to add insult to injury–they could all give the names of both actresses Brad Pitt had married, and the name of the television program on which someone named “Snookie” had appeared.

This does answer a persistent question of mine: namely, what kind of people elect buffoons like Louis Gohmert?

And it certainly explains why Texas is my go-to source when I need examples of stupid public policy to use in my classrooms.

As uninformed as many of my undergraduate students are, I truly do not believe that a similar effort on the IUPUI campus would yield such a collection of pitifully ignorant and utterly shallow responses.

I hope to hell I’m right about that, because otherwise, America is over.