A week or so ago, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Indiana Philanthropic Association. I’m sharing my remarks, which regular readers will undoubtedly find repetitive. (Yes, I’m riding that horse again…)
Over the past several years, American political debate has become steadily less civil. Partisanship has overwhelmed sober analysis, and the Internet allows people to choose their news (and increasingly, their preferred realities).
I’m here today to suggest that an enormous amount of this rancor is a result of civic illiteracy—widespread ignorance of the historical foundations and basic premises of American government.
It matters. Productive civic engagement is based on 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.
The American 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. The Enlightenment did something else: it changed the definition of 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 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 their neighbors did the same. The Enlightenment ushered in a dramatically different definition of liberty. It begins with the belief that fundamental rights aren’t gifts from government; instead, humans are entitled to certain rights just because we’re human– and government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable rights.
The Bill of Rights wasn’t conceived as a grant of rights—it was intended to protect our inborn rights from an overzealous government. It 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 expression, for example—and it can’t do those things even when popular majorities want it to do so. The Bill of Rights only restrains government; it wasn’t until 1964 that the United States began to pass laws prohibiting 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 wear clothes when we’re out in public. As Justice Scalia wrote in Employment Division versus Smith, back in 1990, so long as these and hundreds of other laws are generally applicable—so long as they aren’t 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 electorate. That’s why efforts like Bill Moreau’s Indiana Citizen and the Bar Foundation’s sponsorship of “We the People” are so important.
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. People who don’t know how government works are at a decided disadvantage when they need to negotiate 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 actions 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. What we call “political culture” is the most toxic it has been in my lifetime. (And in case you didn’t notice, I’m old.) There are lots of theories about how we got here—from partisan gerrymandering and residential sorting to increasing tribalism to fear 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 a 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. But by and large, those aren’t the things Americans are arguing about.
I study how Constitutional values apply within our increasingly diverse culture, the ways in which constitutional principles connect people with different backgrounds and beliefs and make us all Americans. That research has 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 teach Law and Public Policy, I begin with the constitutional architecture, how that framework limits what laws we can pass, and what legal scholars mean by “original intent.” I usually ask students something like “What do you suppose James Madison thought about porn on the internet?” Usually, they’ll laugh and then we 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 name 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, 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. As the ubiquity of cellphone cameras has demonstrated, we’re still struggling with the application of that principle.
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?
How would the conversations we are having about “shelter in place” orders and wearing 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 the basic “rules of the game.” We can—and do—argue about what constitutes harm sufficient to justify government intervention in personal decision-making, but what we can’t do is argue that “Freedom is for me, but not for you.”
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 will have their ups and downs. 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 is a set of 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.