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?