Last Thursday, I delivered the following speech to a Kiwanis group in Northwest Indianapolis. Longtime readers of this blog will recognize the “theme”…It’s also considerably longer than my usual posts, so my apologies.
Over the past several years, we’ve seen America’s political debates become steadily less civil. Bigotries that were once more or less suppressed—at least, in polite company– are being publicly paraded. Partisanship has overwhelmed reasoned analysis. The death of newspapers and the ubiquity of social media and the Internet have encouraged people to choose their news (and increasingly, to inhabit their preferred realities).
I’m here today to suggest that an enormous amount of this contemporary rancor is a result of civic illiteracy—widespread ignorance of the historical foundations and basic premises of American government.
John asked me to talk a bit about this small book I wrote a couple of years ago–Talking Politics? What You Need To Know Before Opening Your Mouth.. I wrote it because I believe that civic ignorance is a huge, and hugely under-appreciated, element of America’s current dysfunctions.
Voters don’t need to be constitutional scholars, but a basic understanding of the history and structure of American government matters. A lot. Productive civic engagement requires 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.
Most educated Americans know that our 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. What is less recognized is that the Enlightenment did something else: it changed the way people defined 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, however, 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 sure their neighbors did likewise.
The Enlightenment ushered in a dramatically different definition of liberty, sometimes called the Libertarian Construct. It’s a version of liberty that insists on the right of individuals to determine their own moral ends and life goals, and their right to pursue those goals free of government interference. People were supposed to be free to “do their own thing,” so long as they were not harming the person or property of others, and so long as they were willing to grant an equal measure of liberty to others.
The post-Enlightenment version of liberty begins with the belief that fundamental rights aren’t gifts from benevolent governments; instead, Enlightenment philosophers and America’s Founders believed that humans are entitled to certain rights just because we’re human– and that government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable human rights.
When we ask the question whether this or that behavior is protected by the Bill of Rights, it’s really important to recognize that the Founders didn’t conceive of the Amendments as grants of rights—they were commitments to protect our human, inborn rights from an overzealous government and what they referred to as the “passions of the majority.”
As I used to tell my students, the Bill of Rights 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 communications, for example—and it can’t do those things even when popular majorities approve. The Founders focused on restraining the power of the state, because in their world, governments were the most powerful entities. That’s why we define civil liberties as freedom from government intrusions. It wasn’t until 1964 that the United States began to pass civil rights laws that prohibited 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 cover our genitals when we’re out in public. As Justice Scalia wrote in Employment Division vs Smith, back in 1990, so long as these and hundreds of other laws are generally applicable—so long as they aren’t really sneaky 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 and engaged electorate.
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 as well. There’s a Facebook meme going around to the effect that people who don’t understand how anything works are the people most likely to latch on to conspiracy theories. Whether that’s true or not, it is definitely the case that people who don’t know how government works are at a real disadvantage when they need to navigate 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 action or inaction can 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. As I indicated earlier, what we call “political culture” is the most toxic it has been in my lifetime. (And in case you didn’t notice, I’m really old.) There are lots of theories about how we got here—from partisan gerrymandering and residential sorting, to increasing tribalism, to fears 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 this 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 or prohibits. But by and large, those aren’t the things Americans are arguing about.
In my academic life, I studied how Constitutional values apply within an increasingly diverse culture, the ways in which America’s constitutional principles connect people with different backgrounds and beliefs and make us all Americans. That research 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 taught Law and Public Policy, I began with what I like to call the “constitutional architecture,” a discussion of the ways America’s legal framework limits what laws we can pass, and what legal scholars mean when they refer to the importance of the Founders’ “original intent.”
I liked to ask students “What do you suppose James Madison thought about porn on the internet?” Usually, the student would laugh and then we’d 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 identify 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, for the first time, 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. Initially, as we know, the American Idea only applied to property-owning White guys, but—over a lot of resistance– we have steadily expanded it. (As the ubiquity of cellphone cameras keeps demonstrating, we’re still struggling with that expansion.)
History tells us that 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 in public?
How would the conversations we are having about vaccination mandates and 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 what government has the right to demand. We can—and do—argue about what constitutes harm, and when that harm is sufficient to justify government intervention in personal decision-making.
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 have their ups and downs. I think most of us will agree that we are in a very “down” period right now. Unfortunately, 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—at least theoretically– is a set of constitutional 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, and why I wrote that little book.
It’s a very little drop in a very big ocean…but we can only do what we can do.
I know I rant. Thanks for indulging me.