Tag Archives: civic knowledge

Equipping Voters

On this blog, I frequently share concerns that American levels of civic literacy are too low to sustain democratic self-government.

I’d like to expand on those concerns.

Civic knowledge–or more accurately, its lack– is also linked to two aspects of the broader unrest we are experiencing: we need to restore civility and honesty to our public debates; and we need to encourage not just voter turnout–important as that is– but to improve the number of Americans who cast informed ballots.

Americans will always argue, but my research has convinced me that civic ignorance– defined as inadequate knowledge of America’s history, Constitution and Bill of Rights—creates conflicts that are wholly unnecessary, and worse, encourages the partisan dishonesty and propaganda we see all around us.

When people don’t understand the structure of federalism or separation of powers (only 26% of Americans can name the 3 branches of government), when they don’t know that the Bill of Rights limits both government and popular majorities, it’s easy for partisans to generate suspicion that government is operating in ways that it shouldn’t, and to undermine trust in our governing institutions.

As we’ve seen, when people distrust their government, and are suspicious of its motives, disrespect and hostility infect public attitudes and intensify public debates.

And when government really isn’t operating properly, when–as now– there’s clear evidence of incompetence or corruption or both, it’s especially important that citizens be able to communicate–that we occupy a common reality and argue from the same basic premises. When Americans are faced with evidence that America has failed to live up to its ideals, it’s critically important that we all understand what those ideals were.

America was the first country in the world to base citizenship on behavior rather than identity—on how people act rather than who they are. Initially, of course, that ideal of equality was only extended to white guys with property, but the principle–the ideal– represented an important paradigm shift.

America also redefined liberty. Liberty was no longer the individual’s “freedom” to do whatever the monarch or the church decided was the “right thing.”

Instead, government was supposed to protect your ability to do your own thing, so long as you did not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you were willing to respect others’ right to do likewise.  Of course, Americans still can and do argue about what harm looks like, and what kinds of harm justify government intervention (and we seem to have a particularly difficult time with that thing about respecting the rights of others to do their thing.)

Civility and civil peace would be significantly enhanced if more Americans understood that the Bill of Rights requires a lot of “live and let live” forbearance, and especially if they understood that the Bill of Rights restrains government from doing some of the things that majorities at any given time want government to do.

If–as I devoutly hope–we eject Trump and his horrendous administration in November–and we turn to the long-term project of “cleaning up” corruption, incompetence and racism in government, voter education writ large must be the first order of business.

Voter education includes more than how to register, and how and where to vote, as important as those practical instructions are. (Helpful websites like this one from the Indiana Citizen have that information.)

For voter education to facilitate the casting of informed ballots, it has to include a basic understanding of how government is structured and operates, and an understanding of the duties and responsibilities of the office being filled. What does the job entail? What are the constraints that limit the office, the checks and balances? Do the candidates (unlike Trump) understand those limits?

The ability to cast an informed ballot requires information about the candidates and their positions on the issues. It also requires knowing how the incumbent has performed, assuming that incumbent is running for re-election.

This is precisely where our local information environments are failing. There has been a massive loss of local newspapers (over 2000 in the last few years)—and we get very little information about local government from the hollowed-out ones that remain.(The Indianapolis Star, is a case in point.)

In the run-up to elections, local newspapers used to analyze and fact-check political ads. Today, the general public is left to get its information from mostly partisan sources. Citizens must decide which of those sources are trustworthy and which are irremediably biased. One of the most helpful tools a citizen can have in making those determinations is a solid understanding of American government.

In the era of Trump, an understanding of elementary logic would also be helpful….

 

 

Truth And Consequences

I told you so. Over and over. (Okay, I know I’m preaching to the choir here–those who read and respond to this blog aren’t the problem…) But here we go again.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted a survey of American constitutional knowledge. CNN reported the results, which it dubbed a “bouillabaisse of ignorance.”

  • More than one in three people (37%) could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment.
  • Only one in four (26%) can name all three branches of the government. (In 2011, 36% could name all three branches.)
  • One in three (33%) can’t name any branch of government. None. Not even one.
  • A majority (53%) believe the Constitution affords undocumented immigrants no rights. However, everyone in the US is entitled to due process of law and the right to make their case before the courts, at the least.

“Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are,” said Annenberg Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson. “The fact that many don’t is worrisome.”

Many definitely don’t. Mountains of evidence confirm Americans’ ignorance of their government.

A 2010 Pew poll asked respondents to name the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Now, I’m not a big fan of these sorts of “trivia” questions–I’m much more concerned that people know what the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court do–but it is nevertheless disheartening when fewer than three in 10 (28%) could answer correctly. That rate compared unfavorably to the 43% who had correctly named William Rehnquist as the chief justice in a Pew poll back in 1986.

Worse– although most of the 72% of people who didn’t name Roberts as the chief justice in 2010 said they didn’t know, eight percent guessed Thurgood Marshall, who was never  chief justice of the Court (and had been dead for 17 years)and 4% named Harry Reid.

In another widely-reported poll, 10% of college graduates thought Judith  Sheindlin–aka “Judge Judy”– was on the Supreme Court, but it was kind of a trick question….

When large numbers of people know absolutely nothing about the way their government is supposed to work, the consequences are grim. As the CNN report duly noted, we’re living with certain of those consequences now.

The level of civil ignorance in the country allows our politicians — and Donald Trump is the shining example of this — to make lowest common denominator appeals about what they will do (or won’t do) in office. It also leads to huge amounts of discontent from the public when they realize that no politician can make good on the various and sundry promises they make on the campaign trail.

I am alternately amused and infuriated by the fact that people who wouldn’t think of choosing a dentist who’d skipped dental school (bone spurs?) and had zero experience working on teeth are nevertheless perfectly willing to turn the government and its nuclear codes over to someone who clearly doesn’t have the slightest notion how government works (or, one suspects, what government is.)

I can only assume that this willingness is the consequence of the voter’s own ignorance of the knowledge and skills required–the “job description.”

In a very real sense, when American voters go to the polls, we are “hiring” for the positions on the ballot. Yet people who would never choose a cleaning lady who didn’t know how  clean a sink or plug in a vacuum cleaner will cheerfully cast their ballots on the basis of a candidate’s attractiveness, partisan affiliation, or belief in the juicy tidbit their neighbor whispered about the opposing candidate’s spouse.

Or the fact that the candidate hates the same people they do.

No wonder our government is broken.

What Do You Know?

A friend sent me this link to a quiz developed by Pew research. Twelve questions, virtually all of which should be easily answered by anyone who regularly follows national news.

The results, which are pretty appalling, may give us a clue to the ascendance of Donald Trump, not to mention the pathetic state of American politics today. After all, if you have no context within which to judge whether candidates’ positions are reasonable, or based upon an understanding of the issues involved, your vote is likely to fall into that category titled “uninformed.”

Here is the invitation to take the quiz. I particularly agree with the last line:

NEWS IQ TEST
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This is a terrific test. And it shows results in a number of ways. It surely indicates that the majority of Americans don’t know what’s going on.

It’s astonishing that so many people got less than half right. The results say that 80% of the (voting) public doesn’t have a clue, and that’s pretty scary.

There are no tricks here — just a simple test to see if you are current on your information.
This is quite a good quiz and the results are somewhat shocking.

Test your knowledge with the challenge of 13 questions, then be ready to shudder when you see how others did:

If you get less than half correct, please cancel your voter registration.

My sense is that visitors to this blog are considerably more aware of what’s going on than the average American. Take the quiz and let me know if my intuition is correct.

The “Good Enough” Voter

It’s a political truism that Labor Day is when voters wake up and start paying attention to candidates and campaigns. But for the sizable portion of the citizenry that doesn’t vote, Labor Day–yesterday– just marks the beginning of fall.

In the run-up to this year’s municipal elections, I’ve participated in a number of conversations about these people who don’t vote–those who just skip local elections, turning out only in Presidential years and those who don’t participate at all.

As part of our upcoming “Electing the Future” project, NUVO and WFYI have focused on those non-voters. The whole committee of sponsors has searched for examples, in order to ask the obvious question: why?

The results have been interesting. Many of the people we found who admitted to never voting were unwilling to “come out” and be identified; they were obviously embarrassed, a response that suggests they know they are evading a civic responsibility. What was interesting is that they had the same excuse as those who were willing to participate in the effort we’ve dubbed “Make Me Care.” They explained that they “didn’t know enough” to feel confident about their votes.

Of course, it’s pretty obvious that many, many people who know very little nevertheless make it to the polls. (Just look at the open-ended responses to exit polls..) But using the excuse of civic ignorance raises a pretty important question, namely, what degree of information is necessary to make one a “good enough” voter?

The ideal voter, of course, would know a great deal about the candidates, the offices for which they are running, and the issues that are relevant to those offices, but very few of us meet that standard. One shortcut–used by a large number of voters–is party affiliation; if you know which political party stands for positions with which you generally agree, voting for members of that party is usually a safe way to express your general policy preferences.

In this internet era, a quick visit to the websites of the candidates will show what issues those candidates believe are important, and their approach to those issues and to the offices they seek.

Ultimately, of course, we all have to look at the candidates and judge whether they seem intent on improving the city (or state or nation), or whether they seem to be waging campaigns that are all about them. What does your gut tell you? Is this someone who wants to do something, or someone who wants to be someone?

Making that determination, and voting for the candidate who seems more interested in and capable of doing the job than in being important, probably makes you a “good enough” voter. And goodness knows, we need a lot more of those!

Beating That Dead Horse….

I know, I know….this blog has become a venue for breast-beating and hand-wringing and other elements of my increasingly curmudgeonly analysis of our collective civic IQ. (Ironically, if the people who comment here are representative of those who read my rants, they don’t need the lectures. I guess it’s the ultimate “preaching to the choir.”)

Still.

A reader sent me a link to an NPR story that makes a really important point about the content of civic knowledge.

According to the National Council for Social Studies, the goal of social studies is to promote civic competence, or the knowledge and intellectual skills to be active participants in public life. Yet, engaging with the most complex public issues of our time—biodiversity, climate change, water scarcity, obesity, energy, and HIV/AIDS—also requires a deep understanding of the scientific process.

I’d settle for a cursory understanding of what science is. And isn’t.

Turn on your television, or even worse, read the letters to the editor in your local paper, and you will encounter–ad nauseum–mindless repetition of the “evolution is just a theory” meme, displaying total ignorance of how the use of the term by scientists differs from its use in everyday language. Ask students what falsification means, and you will get blank stares.

Ignorance of the most basic definition/methodology of science may not have been problematic back when most Americans were still on the farm, and the policy issues we faced did not require a working understanding of things like net neutrality, climate change, the human genome, etc. It is more than problematic now.

And scientifically illiterate voters have just empowered a bunch of aggressively scientific illiterate politicians to decide those policies and make those decisions.

It’s truly terrifying.