Tag Archives: civic literacy

But I Repeat Myself…

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.

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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.

 

Policy, Politics And Reality

Paul Krugman condenses our current democratic dysfunction into one pithy paragraph.

In principle, voters should judge politicians by their actions; they should support politicians who pursue policies that help them, oppose politicians whose policies would hurt them. To do this, however, voters should have a reasonably good idea of what policy is doing.

Krugman is focused on economic policy, but his evaluation of what voters know–very little–is equally true of other policy domains. As he says, In a sensible world–i.e., one that worked as envisioned– voters would have both “a reasonably accurate picture of what’s happening” and a basic understanding of what aspects of our lives are actually under politicians’ control.

As he points out, in the world we inhabit, neither of these things is true. (This observation echoes a popular meme making the Facebook rounds, to the effect that it’s easy to believe in conspiracies when you have no idea how things really work.)

Krugman uses the current gloom over the economy as an example.

Start with the state of the economy. You might be tempted to assume that in a world in which getting and spending occupies a large part of everyone’s life, people would have a pretty good sense of how the economy is doing, even if they aren’t familiar with national income accounting. In reality, however, economic perceptions are largely shaped by media coverage — and, increasingly, by partisanship.

Indeed, the role of partisan skew has gotten so large recently that the Michigan Survey of Consumers, probably the most influential gauge of economic perceptions, highlighted it in its most recent data release; you might say that the Michigan Survey has warned us not to trust the Michigan Survey.

He has appended a chart illustrating the wide differences in consumer sentiment among self-identified Democrats and Republicans since 2019. The chart shows–among other things- that today’s Republicans  have a more negative assessment of economic conditions than they did in March 2009, when the country was in the depths of the financial crisis, a time when unemployment was at 8.7 percent and the economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month.

Other data confirms Krugman’s point that people’s views on the economy reflect what partisan media and their own political preferences are telling them; they show “a huge divergence between what people say about the state of the economy, which is quite negative on average, and what they say about their own personal finances.”

Then there’s the grousing about Biden and the increase in gas prices, despite the fact that the rise is global and Presidents have virtually no control over them.

So we’re living in a nation with many voters who seem to have both a distorted view of the state of the economy and false beliefs about what aspects of the economy politicians can affect. How is democracy supposed to function well under these conditions?…

The fact remains that public perceptions have become extremely disconnected from reality — economics is just one example. It’s a real conundrum. And if you’re waiting for me to propose solutions, well, not today.

That disconnect from reality is an absolutely foreseeable consequence of our national inability to know who and what we can trust.

The constant drumbeat about “fake news,” the willingness of far too many elected officials to lie through their teeth–not to mention their unwillingness to call a lie a lie–aided and abetted by media outlets engaged in propaganda rather than news, are all bad enough.But they would be far less effective if the population at large was minimally knowledgable–if people knew the basic facts about America’s legal framework, the rudiments of economic theory and the difference between science and religion.

When people who are ignorant of  those basics are constantly told that the “legacy” news media is peddling falsehoods, that “others” are to be feared and their voices discounted, that the United States was founded as a “Christian Nation,” that scientific “theories” are  nothing more than wild-ass guesses, and much more–they are far more susceptible to conspiracy theories and disinformation. Some of those theories are so far out–space lasers, pedophiles in charge of the federal government and similar lunacies–that most relatively sane people will reject them, but others–the President is in charge of prices at the gas pump, or the economy is not as robust as it looks–are far more likely to take hold.

When we no longer have Walter Cronkite (or reasonable clones) to trust, all bets are off.

 

Stuff I Know You Know…

At noon today, I’m speaking (via Zoom) to a Columbus, Indiana human rights organization. Here are my prepared remarks. (Long one–sorry.)
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Over the past few years, Americans have begun to recognize how endangered our representative democracy has become.

Pundits and political scientists have their pet theories for how this has happened. Some of that analysis has been intriguing, and even illuminating. Until lately, however, none of it had attempted to answer the important question: what should we do to fix our problems, and why should we do it? As the causes of our dysfunctions have become more obvious, however—as it has become very clear that we are caught up in an obsolete system that facilitates the dominance of a clear minority of our voting population– scholars are urging reforms that focus on protecting voting rights, and restructuring America’s antiquated electoral processes.

First, some background.

You know, we humans don’t always appreciate the extent to which cultural or legal institutions—what we might call folkways, our longtime accepted ways of behaving and interacting—shape the way we understand the world around us. We rarely stop to consider things we simply take for granted—the conventions that constitute our daily lives. We drive on this side of the road, not that side; our marriages consist of two adults, not three or four; when our country holds elections we get to participate or abstain. Most of us accept these and multiple other conventions as givens, as “the way things are.” In some cases, however, institutions, systems and expectations that have worked well, or at least adequately, for a number of years simply outlive whatever original utility they may once have had, made obsolete by modern communications and transportation technologies, corrupt usages or cultural and demographic change.

I want to suggest that such obsolescence is a particularly acute element of American political life today. Let me share some of the more important examples that currently work in tandem to disenfranchise literally millions of Americans who are entitled to have their voices heard and their votes counted.

Perhaps the most significant problem of today’s electoral system is partisan gerrymandering. As you know, every ten years, after each census, state governments redraw state and federal district lines to reflect population changes. States—including Indiana– are engaged in that exercise as we speak. Except in the few states that have established nonpartisan redistricting commissions, the party in control of the state legislature when redistricting time rolls around controls the line-drawing process, and Republican or Democrat, they will all draw districts that maximize their own electoral prospects and minimize those of the opposing party.

Partisan redistricting goes all the way back to Elbridge Gerry, who gave Gerrymandering its name—and he signed the Declaration of Independence—but the process became far more sophisticated and precise with the advent of computers, leading to a situation which has been aptly described as legislators choosing their voters, rather than the other way around.

Academic researchers and political reformers alike blame gerrymandering for electoral non-competitiveness and political polarization. A 2008 book co-authored by Norman Orenstein and Thomas Mann argued that the decline in competition fostered by gerrymandering has entrenched partisan behavior and diminished incentives for compromise and bipartisanship.

Mann and Orenstein are political scientists who have written extensively about redistricting, and about “packing” (creating districts with supermajorities of the opposing party) “cracking” (distributing members of the opposing party among several districts to ensure that they don’t have a majority in any of them) and “tacking” (expanding the boundaries of a district to include a desirable group from a neighboring district). They have tied redistricting to the advantages of incumbency, and also point out that the reliance by House candidates upon maps drawn by state-level politicians operates to reinforce “partisan rigidity,” the increasing nationalization of the political parties.

Interestingly, one study they cited investigated whether representatives elected from districts drawn by independent commissions become less partisan. Contrary to their initial expectations, they found that politically independent redistricting did reduce partisanship, and in statistically significant ways.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of gerrymandering is the proliferation of safe seats. Safe districts breed voter apathy and reduce political participation. After all, why should citizens get involved if the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? (For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner?) What is the incentive to volunteer or vote when it obviously doesn’t matter? It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation, either: it becomes increasingly difficult for the “sure loser” party to recruit credible candidates. As a result, in many of these races, voters are left with no meaningful choice.  Ironically, the anemic voter turnout that gerrymandering produces leads to handwringing about citizen apathy, usually characterized as a civic or moral deficiency. But voter apathy may instead be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. People save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness in our electoral system, those places often do not include the voting booth.

Worst of all, in safe districts, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that almost always means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged from the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they create a powerful incentive for incumbents to “toe the line”— to placate the most rigid elements of their respective parties. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating candidates they think will be most likely to appeal to the broader constituency, the system produces nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.

The consequence of this ever-more-precise state-level and Congressional district gerrymandering has been a growing philosophical gap between the parties and— especially but not exclusively in the Republican party— an empowered, rigidly ideological base intent on punishing any deviation from orthodoxy and/or any hint of compromise.

After the 2010 census, Republicans dominated state governments in a significant majority of states, and they proceeded to engage in one of the most thorough, most strategic, most competent gerrymanders in history. The 2011 gerrymander did two things: as intended, it gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives; the GOP held 247 seats to the Democrats’ 186, a 61 vote margin– despite the fact that nationally, Democratic House candidates had received over a million more votes than Republican House candidates. But that gerrymander also did something unintended; it destroyed Republican party discipline. It created and empowered the significant number of Republican Representatives who make up what has been called the “lunatic caucus” and made it virtually impossible for the Republicans to govern.

Then, of course, there’s the problem that pretty much everyone now recognizes: The Electoral College. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by approximately 2.85 million votes. Donald Trump won in the Electoral College due to a total vote margin of fewer than 80,000 votes that translated into paper-thin victories in three states. Thanks to “winner take all” election laws, Trump received all of the electoral votes of those three states. “Winner take all” systems, in place in most states, award all of a state’s electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, no matter how close the result; if a candidate wins a state 50.5% to 49.5% or 70% to 30%, the result is the same; votes cast for the losing candidate simply don’t count.

Problems with the Electoral College are widely recognized. Among them are the outsized influence it gives swing states, the lack of an incentive to vote if you favor the minority party in a winner-take-all state, and the over-representation of rural voters and less populated states—what one scholar has called “extra votes for topsoil.” (Wyoming, for example, our least populous state, has one-sixty-sixth of California’s population, but it has one-eighteenth of California’s electoral votes.) The Electoral College
advantages rural voters over urban ones, and white voters over voters of color. (Of course, it isn’t only the Electoral College that is a mismatch between our professed belief in “one person, one vote”—the fact that each state gets two Senators means that the 40 million people who live in the 22 smallest states get 44 senators to represent their views, while the 40 million people in California get two. We are unlikely to change that particular element of our system, but there’s no reason to add insult to injury by keeping the Electoral College.)

Akil Reed Amar, who teaches Constitutional Law at Yale Law School, criticizes the justifications we often hear for the Electoral College. As he has pointed out, the framers put the Constitution itself to a popular vote of sorts, provided for direct election of House members and favored the direct election of governors. The Electoral College was actually a concession to the demands of Southern slave states. In a direct-election system, the South would have lost every time because a huge proportion of its population — slaves — couldn’t vote. The Electoral college enabled slave states to count their slaves in the electoral college apportionment, albeit at a discount, under the Constitution’s three-fifths clause.

Americans pick mayors and governors by direct election, and there is no obvious reason that a system that works for the nation’s other chief executives can’t also work for President. Amar points out that no other country employs a similar mechanism.

As Representative Jamin Raskin points out, the Electoral College is an incentive to cheat:
“Every citizen’s vote should count equally in presidential elections, as in elections for governor or mayor. But the current regime makes votes in swing states hugely valuable while rendering votes in non-competitive states virtually meaningless. This weird lottery, as we have seen, dramatically increases incentives for strategic partisan mischief and electoral corruption in states like Florida and Ohio. You can swing a whole election by suppressing, deterring, rejecting and disqualifying just a few thousand votes.”

Gerrymandering and the Electoral College are the “big two,” but there are other changes that would reinvigorate American democracy. The way we administer elections is one of them.

State-level control over the conduct of elections made sense when difficulties in communication and transportation translated into significant isolation of populations; today, state-level control allows for all manner of mischief, including—as we’ve recently seen– significant and effective efforts at vote suppression, and what is especially worrisome, efforts to put partisans in charge of counting the votes. But even without intentional cheating, state-level control allows for wide variations from state to state in the hours polls are open, in provisions for early and absentee voting, and for the placement  and accessibility of polling places. In states that have instituted “Voter ID” laws, documentation that satisfies those laws varies widely. (Voter ID measures are popular with the public, despite the fact that study after study has found in-person voter fraud to be virtually non-existent, and despite clear evidence that the impetus for these laws is a desire to suppress turnout among poor and minority populations likely to vote Democratic.)

State-level control of voting makes it difficult to implement measures that would encourage more citizen participation, like the effort to make election day a national holiday or at least move election day to a weekend. A uniform national system, overseen by a nonpartisan or bipartisan federal agency with the sole mission of administering fair, honest elections, would also facilitate consideration of other improvements proposed by good government organizations.

The entire registration system, for example, was designed when registrars needed weeks to receive registration changes in the mail to produce hard copy voter rolls for elections. We are in a very different time now, and making registration automatic, moving to same day registration and on-line registration systems, adopting no-excuse absentee ballots or universal vote by mail, eliminating caucuses, mandating at least 14 hour election day opening times and one week of early voting would make for a better, more modern and much more user-friendly American election system.

I don’t need to belabor the next one: Campaign Finance/Money in Politics. Common Cause sums it up: “American political campaigns are now financed through a system of legalized bribery.” Other organizations, including the Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for Responsive Politics, and the National Institute for Money in State Politics, among others, have documented the outsized influence of campaign contributions on American public policy, but contributions to parties and candidates aren’t the only ways wealthier citizens influence policy. The ability to hire lobbyists, many of whom are former legislators, gives corporate interests considerable clout. Money doesn’t just give big spenders the chance to express a view or support a candidate; it gives them leverage to reshape the American economy in their favor.

Even worse, a system that privileges the speech of wealthy citizens by allowing them to use their greater resources to amplify their message in ways that average Americans cannot does great damage to notions of fundamental democratic fairness, ethical probity and civic equality.

Until recently, the role played by current use of the filibuster has been less well recognized, but it is no less destructive of genuine democracy.

Whatever the original purpose or former utility of the filibuster, when its use was infrequent and it required a Senator to actually make a lengthy speech on the Senate floor, today, the filibuster operates to require government by super-majority. It has become a weapon employed by extremists to hold the country hostage.
The original idea of a filibuster was that so long as a senator kept talking, the bill in question could not move forward. Once those opposed to the measure felt they had made their case, or at least exhausted their argument, they would leave the floor and allow a vote. In 1917, when filibustering Senators threatened President Wilson’s ability to respond to a perceived military threat, the Senate adopted a mechanism called cloture, allowing a super-majority to vote to end a filibuster.

Then in 1975, the Senate changed several of its rules and made it much easier to filibuster. The new rules effectively allowed “virtual” filibusters, by allowing other business to be conducted during the time a filibuster is theoretically taking place. Senators no longer are required to take to the Senate floor and argue their case. This “virtual” use, which has increased dramatically as partisan polarization has worsened, has effectively abolished the principle of majority rule: in effect, it now takes sixty votes (the number needed for cloture) to pass any legislation. This anti-democratic result isn’t just in direct conflict with the intent of those who crafted our constitutional system, it has brought normal government operation to a standstill, and allowed small numbers of senators to effortlessly place personal political agendas above the common good and suffer no consequence.

My final two targets aren’t part of our governing or electoral systems, but they have played massively important roles in producing America’s current dysfunctions. The first is substandard civic education. This civic deficit was a primary focus of my scholarship for a very long time. Let me just say that when significant segments of the population do not know the history, philosophy or contents of the Constitution or the legal system under which they live, they cannot engage productively in political activities or accurately evaluate the behavior of their elected officials. They cannot be the informed voters the country requires. We see this constitutional ignorance today when people claim that mask or vaccination mandates infringe their liberties. The Bill of Rights has never given Americans the “liberty” to endanger their neighbors.

The final institution that has massively failed us also doesn’t need much editorial comment from me: the current Media—including talk radio, Fox News, social media and the wild west that is the Internet.

Several studies have found that the greatest contributor to political polarization is the growing plurality of news sources and increasing access to cable television. People engage in confirmation bias—they look for viewpoint validation rather than exposure to a common source of verified news.

The Pew Research Center published an extensive investigation into political polarization and media habits in 2014; among their findings, unsurprisingly, was that those categorized as “consistent conservatives” clustered around a single news source: 47% cited Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics, with no other source even close. Among consistent liberals, no outlet was named by more than 15%.

People who routinely consume sharply partisan news coverage are less likely to accept uncongenial facts even when they are accompanied by overwhelming evidence. Fox News and talk radio– with Rush Limbaugh and his imitators– were forerunners of the thousands of Internet sites offering spin, outright propaganda and fake news. Contemporary Americans can choose their preferred “realities” and simply insulate themselves from information that is inconsistent with their worldviews.

Americans is marinating in media, but we’re in danger of losing what used to be called the journalism of verification. The frantic competition for eyeballs and clicks has given us a 24/7 “news hole” that media outlets race to fill, far too often prioritizing speed over accuracy. That same competition has increased media attention to sports, celebrity gossip and opinion, and has greatly reduced coverage of government and policy. The scope and range of watchdog journalism that informs citizens about their government has dramatically declined, especially at the local level. We still have national coverage but with the exception of niche media, we have lost local news. I should also point out that there is a rather obvious relationship between those low levels of civic literacy and the rise of propaganda and fake news.

In order for democracy to function, there must be widespread trust in the integrity of elections and the operation of government. The fundamental democratic idea is a fair fight, a contest between candidates with competing ideas and policy proposals, followed by a winner legitimized and authorized to implement his or her agenda. Increasingly, however, those democratic norms have been replaced by bare-knuckled power plays. The refusal of Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate to “advise and consent” to a sitting President’s nominee for the Supreme Court was a stunning and unprecedented breach of duty that elevated political advantage over the national interest. The dishonesty of that ploy was underlined by his rush to install an ideologically-acceptable replacement almost immediately after Ruth Bader Ginsberg died. No matter what one’s policy preferences or political party, we should all see such behaviors as shocking and damaging deviations from American norms—and as invitations to Democrats to do likewise when they are in charge.

If that invitation is accepted, we’ve lost the rule of law.

One outcome of these demonstrations of toxic partisanship has been a massive loss of trust in government and other social institutions. Without that trust—without a widespread public belief in an overarching political community to which all citizens belong and in which all citizens are valued—tribalism thrives.  Especially in times of rapid social change, racial resentments grow. The divide between urban and rural Americans widens. Economic insecurity and social dysfunction grow in the absence of an adequate social safety net, adding to resentment of both government and “the Other.” It is a prescription for civic unrest and national decline.

If Americans do not engage civically in far greater numbers than we have previously—If we do not reform outdated institutions, protect the right to vote, improve civic education, and support legitimate journalism—that decline will be irreversible.

The good news is that there is evidence that such engagement is underway. We the People can do this.

Thank you.

 

It’s All Connected

Americans today face an unprecedented challenge. The Internet, which has brought us undeniable benefits and conveniences, also allows us to occupy “filter bubbles”—to inhabit different realities. One result has been a dramatic loss of trust, as people of good will, inundated with misinformation, spin, and propaganda, don’t know how to determine which sources are credible.

Fact-checking sites can be helpful, but only for those who seek them out. The average American scrolling through her Facebook feed during a lunch break is unlikely to stop and check the veracity of most of what her friends post.

There is general agreement that Americans need to develop media literacy. But before we can teach media literacy in the schools or consider policy interventions to address propaganda, we need clarity about our goals.

Think about that fictional person scrolling through her Facebook or Twitter feed. She comes across a post berating her Congressman for failing to block the zoning of a liquor store in her neighborhood. If our person is civically literate—if she understands federalism and separation of powers– she knows that her Congressman has no authority in such matters, and that the argument is bogus.

In other words, basic knowledge of government is a critical component of media literacy. It isn’t just civic knowledge, of course. People who lack a basic understanding of the difference between a scientific theory and the way we use the term “theory” in casual conversation are much more likely to dismiss evolution and climate change as “just theories,” and to be taken in by efforts to discredit both.

In other words, people fortified with basic civic and scientific knowledge are far more likely to recognize disinformation when they encounter it. That knowledge is just as important as information on how to detect “deep fakes” and similar counterfeits.

There are also policy steps we can take to diminish the power of propaganda without doing violence to the First Amendment. I’ve previously noted the Brookings Institution’s suggested establishment of a “public trust” to provide analysis and generate policy proposals that would defend democracy “against the constant stream of disinformation and the illiberal forces at work disseminating it.”

Of course, we don’t encounter disinformation only on line. Cable news has long been a culprit. (One study found that Americans who got their news exclusively from Fox knew less about current events that people who didn’t follow news at all.)  Fox is one of several channels that benefit significantly from “bundling” arrangements favored by cable companies. A regulatory change ending bundling would force cable channels to compete for the eyes, ears and pocketbooks of Americans who haven’t yet abandoned cable for streaming. There are other proposals that would address misinformation without implicating the First Amendment; many address the social media protections offered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

A couple of days ago, I blogged about Section 230, which says that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, online platforms that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do.

Most observers believe that an outright repeal of Section 230 would destroy social networks as we know them, but there is a middle ground between total repeal and pinning our hopes on the willingness of millions of users to voluntarily leave platforms that fail to block misleading posts. Section 230 could be amended by adding a requirement that social media platforms establish an industry standard for detecting and mediating violence, fraud, and abuse. (Such a standard already exists for advertising fraud.) Regulation could also limit Section 230 protections to content that is unmonetized.

Bottom line: we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

America’s classrooms must be given the resources—curricular and financial—to teach civic, scientific and media literacy. And policymakers must devise regulations that will deter propaganda without eviscerating the First Amendment.

It Isn’t Just Media Literacy

Americans today face some unprecedented challenges–and as I have repeatedly noted, our information environment makes those challenges far more difficult to meet.

The Internet, which has brought us undeniable benefits and conveniences, also allows us to occupy “filter bubbles”—to inhabit different realities. One result has been a dramatic loss of trust, as even people of good will, inundated with misinformation, spin, and propaganda, don’t know what to believe, or how to determine which sources are credible.

Fact-checking sites are helpful, but they only help those who seek them out. The average American scrolling through her Facebook feed during a lunch break is unlikely to stop and check the veracity of most of what her friends have posted.

There is general agreement that Americans need to develop media literacy and policy tools to discourage the transmittal of propaganda. But before we can teach media literacy in our schools or consider policy interventions to address propaganda, we need to consider what media literacy requires, and what the First Amendment forbids.

Think about that fictional person scrolling through her Facebook or Twitter feed. She comes across a post berating her Congressman for failing to block the zoning of a liquor store in her neighborhood. If our person is civically literate—if she understands federalism and separation of powers– she knows that her Congressman has no authority in such matters, and that the argument is bogus.

In other words, basic knowledge of how government works is a critical component of media literacy.

It isn’t just civic knowledge, of course. People who lack a basic understanding of the difference between a scientific theory and the way we use the term “theory” in casual conversation are much more likely to dismiss evolution and climate change as “just theories,” and to be taken in by efforts to discredit both.

To be blunt about it, people fortified with basic civic and scientific knowledge are far more likely to recognize disinformation when they encounter it. That knowledge is just as important as information on how to detect “deep fakes” and similar counterfeits.

There are also policy steps we can take to diminish the power of propaganda without doing violence to the First Amendment. The Brookings Institution has suggested establishment of a “public trust” to provide analysis and generate policy proposals that would defend democracy “against the constant stream of disinformation and the illiberal forces at work disseminating it.”

In too many of the discussions of social media and media literacy, we overlook the fact that disinformation isn’t encountered only online. Cable news has long been a culprit. (One study found that Americans who got their news exclusively from Fox knew less about current events than people who didn’t follow news at all.)  Any effort to reduce the flow of propaganda must include measures aimed at cable television as well as online media.

Many proposals that are aimed at online disinformation address the social media protections offered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  I reviewed them here.

Bottom line: we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

If and when we get serious about media literacy, we need to do two things. We need to ensure that America’s classrooms have the resources—curricular and financial—to teach civic, scientific and media literacy. (Critical thinking and logic would also be very helpful…) And policymakers must devise regulations that will deter propaganda without eviscerating the First Amendment. Such regulations are unlikely to totally erase the problem, but well-considered tweaks can certainly reduce it.