Pontificating About Civic Literacy

Friday, I participated in a conference titled “Democracy in America–Promises and Perils” at Loyola Law School in Chicago. My concerns will not come as a surprise to regular readers. Here’s what I said.

For at least the past decade, political scientists have expressed growing concern over the inadequacies and outright corruption of America’s electoral processes and governance structures, and the erosion of the country’s democratic norms. Those expressions of concern accelerated in the wake of the 2016 election, which saw accusations of vote irregularities and various “dirty tricks” and the victory, compliments of the Electoral College, of a candidate who lost by a margin of nearly three million votes.

Undoubtedly, a number of factors have contributed to the current weaknesses of America’s democratic systems. It is the thesis of my paper, however, that the significance of one such contributing cause is routinely and dangerously underappreciated: the American public’s lack of civic literacy.

A large and growing body of data gives evidence that a majority of Americans know little or nothing about America’s Constitution and basic legal structures. In 2014 only 36% of the American public could name the three branches of government. Last year, that number was worse: 24%. In a recent survey by the Carnegie Foundation, just over a third of Americans thought the Founding Fathers gave the president “the final say” over the other branches; just 47% knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling. Almost a third believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed, and one in four believed that when the Supreme Court divides 5-4, the decision is sent to Congress for resolution. (Sixteen percent thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.) The Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI has been researching both the causes and consequences of that civic deficit since 2012, and has produced both a body of original research and an annotated bibliography detailing the copious amount of existing scholarship about what Americans know and don’t, and why that ignorance matters.
There is widespread agreement among scholars that the United States has experienced a significant erosion of democratic norms, and a corresponding loss of democratic legitimacy. As a result, voters exhibit high levels of distrust of the country’s political structures, and express considerable cynicism about the nation’s governance.

Analysis of the relevant literature suggests that the erosion of American democracy can be attributed to three interrelated causes: Ignorance (especially of politics and governance, and defined as a lack of essential information, not stupidity); the growth of Inequality (not just economic inequality, but also civic inequality, and power and informational asymmetries), and a resurgent Tribalism (racism and White Nationalism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, the urban/rural divide, and political identity).

On a personal level, civic ignorance complicates the interactions between citizens and their government that are an almost daily part of American life in the 21stCentury. Ignorance also exacerbates inequality; citizens who understand how the political system works are advantaged in a number of ways over those who do not. Ignorance of the overarching national principles to which citizens are bound encourages political constituencies to work for passage of laws and policies advantageous to their specific interests (or consistent with their parochial worldviews) that often are in conflict with both the Constitution and the common good.

Americans’ cynicism about government and their fear and suspicion of those they see as “other” are constantly being exacerbated by a media environment through which large amounts of disinformation are disseminated. Spin, propaganda, “fake news,” and outright conspiracies thrive in the Wild West that is the Internet and social media, and civic ignorance facilitates their wide acceptance. According to American Intelligence agencies, Russian “bots” successfully exploited both that ignorance and America’s tribal differences during the 2016 election cycle.

In Diversity and Distrust,Stephen Macedo addressed the importance of civic education and the civic mission of the nation’s public schools. As he wrote, the project of creating citizens is one that every liberal democratic state must undertake, and that project requires what he called “a degree of moral convergence” in order to sustain a constitutional order. The most pluralist, diverse and tolerant polities still require substantial agreement on basic political values. Such agreement (or disagreement, for that matter) requires knowing what those values are–and the primary responsibility for transmitting that information lies with the public schools.

American public education has been severely criticized for years. Business organizations complain about inadequate workforce development; technology companies demand more STEM instruction; urban minority populations point to resource inequalities between schools attended primarily by poor children and those located in wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs. Popular magazines “rate” high schools and colleges by calculating the percentages of students who are gainfully employed upon graduation, and state-level legislators respond to all of it by requiring more high-stakes testing. Whatever its other benefits or flaws, that testing almost never includes evaluation of civic competence.

In many states, privatization advocates have established voucher programs that permit parents to remove their children from the public-school systems entirely, and send them to private (almost always religious) schools. A recent survey I conducted with a colleague found that none of those programs require participating schools to offer civics instruction. Although the outcomes of vouchers and other efforts to improve public education have so far ranged from distressing to debatable, the very different diagnoses of the systems’ problems and reformers’ very different prescriptions for improvement have highlighted what may be the most significant impediment to effective education reform: a lack of agreement about what education is, how success should be measured, and what the mission of public schools should encompass in a diverse and democratic nation. To say that people engaged in this public debate are continuing to talk past each other would be an understatement.

Education reform that neglects the civic mission of public schools would seem to be inadequate by definition, yet education reformers have only recently begun to focus on the importance of civic education. An added irony of that neglect is that schools are increasingly being tasked with helping students achieve “news literacy,” by equipping them with tools  to assess the credibility of the media sources they encounter. One of the most effective tools is civic knowledge: when a website, blog or other “news” source accuses a political figure of doing or failing to do something that falls outside her authority, or a claim is made that is otherwise inconsistent with American constitutional principles or governance structures, students who are civically-literate are far more likely to recognize those misstatements and to question the credibility of the sources providing them.

The contrast between students in states that have largely abandoned  teaching civics with students from the very few that offer and fund effective civic education is striking.  In the aftermath of the horrific shooting at Marjorie Stoneham Douglas school in Parkland, Florida, the activism and eloquence of the students who survived frequently raised the question “why are these kids so articulate and effective?”

According to the Christian Science Monitor,

Thanks to state law, they have benefited from a civic education that many Americans have gone without – one that has taught them how to politically mobilize, articulate their opinions, and understand complex legislative processes. Now they are using their education to lead their peers across the country.

Parkland really shows the potential of public civic education.

In 1996, Delli Carpini and Keeter published “What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters.” It remains one of the most important studies of America’s low levels of civic literacy.

As they wrote,

“Factual knowledge about politics is a critical component of citizenship, one that is essential if citizens are to discern their real interests and take effective advantage of the civic opportunities afforded them…. Knowledge is a keystone to other civic requisites.  In the absence of adequate information neither passion nor reason is likely to lead to decisions that reflect the real interests of the public. And democratic principles must be understood to be accepted and acted on in any meaningful way.”

When America’s schools ignore their responsibility to provide students with an adequate civic education, there are no other institutions able to fill the resulting vacuum.

As a purely practical matter, individuals who don’t know what officeholders do, who don’t understand the division of responsibility between federal, state and local government units, who don’t know who has authority to solve their problems with zoning or trash removal or missing social security payments or the myriad other issues that arise at the intersection of public services and individual needs, lack personal efficacy. At best, that lack of knowledge is a barrier to the prompt resolution of issues that most citizens have to deal with; at worst, it puts them at a considerable disadvantage in legal or political conflicts with more informed citizens.

The multiple implications for democratic governance, however, are far more serious than the personal disadvantages. For one thing, voters who have only the haziest notion of the tasks for which their elected officials are responsible have no way of evaluating the performance of those officials for purposes of casting informed votes. Voters who don’t understand checks and balances or the functions of the judiciary are more easily persuaded that “imperial” courts have acted illegitimately when they issue a decision with which they disagree, and to believe that the courts should reflect public opinion rather than uphold the rule of law. Voters who don’t know their rights are more easily deprived of those rights by state actors who are acting illegitimately, as various examples of vote suppression illustrate.  Citizens intimidated by authority are unlikely to petition local or state government agencies for redress of grievances, whether those grievances are streets and sidewalks in disrepair or partisan gerrymandering, and research confirms that less knowledgeable citizens are less likely to engage with the democratic system, and much less likely to vote.

Even more troubling is the fact that people who have never encountered, and thus don’t understand, the basic philosophy of the U.S. Constitution can neither form an allegiance to its principles nor articulate reasons for rejecting such an allegiance. Lack of knowledge of the structures of governance, and the lack of personal and democratic efficacy that results, breeds suspicion and cynicism about “the powers that be,” attitudes that not only discourage civic participation, but have a detrimental effect upon the individual’s identification with other American citizens. As a result, rather than seeing themselves as part of the American mosaic, rather than seeing American diversity through the lens of e pluribus unum, the loyalties of the uninformed tend to default to their tribal affiliations.

Unlike citizens of countries characterized by racial or ethnic homogeneity, American identity is rooted in allegiance to a particular worldview; it is based upon an understanding of government and citizenship originating with the Enlightenment and subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. When a country is as diverse as the United States, it’s especially important that citizens know the history and philosophy of their governing institutions. In the absence of other ties, a common devotion to constitutional principles and democratic norms is critical to the formation of national identity. That devotion, obviously, requires knowing what those principles and norms are. If American diversity means that our national ideals must constitute our “civic religion” and act as our social glue, ignorance of those ideals becomes far more consequential than is commonly understood.

The United States’ national motto, e pluribus unum, translates into “out of the many, one,” and political theorists have long argued that a common belief structure, or “civil religion,” is required in order to turn the many into the one. Traditional religions cannot serve that purpose in America; adherents of virtually every religion on the globe live in the U.S., and recent polls show considerable growth in the numbers of Americans who consider all religion irrelevant to their lives and value structures. Americans don’t share races or ethnicities or countries of origin, and those who live in different parts of the United States occupy different political and social cultures. These extensive differences raise a profoundly important question: what common ties are available to enable and define the collective civic enterprise? What makes one an American?

The term “civil religion” was first coined in 1967 by Robert N. Bellah, in an article that remains the standard reference for the concept. The proper content of such a civil religion, however, has been the subject of pretty constant debate, and as the nation’s diversity has dramatically increased, that debate has taken on added urgency. A “civil religion” or common value structure provides citizens with a sense of common purpose and identity. Despite the claims of some conservative Christians, Christianity does not provide that social glue; the United States is not and has never been an officially Christian nation, although it has historically been culturally Protestant. Furthermore, the U.S. Constitution contains no reference to deity, and specifically rejects the use of any religious test for citizenship or public office. In order to be consistent with the Constitution, any civil religion must respect the nation’s commitment to individual autonomy in matters of belief, while still providing an overarching value structure to which most, if not all, citizens can subscribe. This is no small task in a nation founded upon the principle that government must be neutral among belief systems. Americans’ dramatically different approaches to traditional religion and spirituality means that religious theologies cannot serve as the country’s civil religion.

However, most Americans do claim to endorse an overarching ideology, a/k/a civil religion: a belief system based upon the values of individual liberty and equal rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. If those claims are to have actual content, if allegiance to the Constitution is to function as an “umbrella” belief system that supersedes tribalism, citizens need to be familiar with its basic principles and their application. Currently, they aren’t.

Significantly improving citizens’ levels of civic literacy will not magically repair America’s currently broken governance, but we will not be able to fix what is broken without such improvement. Widespread, basic civic literacy isn’t sufficient, but it is essential.