Tag Archives: civic literacy

More Confirmation Of Civic Ignorance

One of the most obvious–and infuriating–characteristics of the Keystone Kop administration that Trump has cobbled together is its utter cluelessness about the government they have been installed to manage.

One of the most consistent complaints I hear from reasonably well-educated Americans is amazement that there is still a base that sees nothing wrong with an Education Secretary who clearly knows nothing about public education, a Secretary of State who consults his bible in order to formulate foreign policy, an EPA Administrator who says we need not worry about climate change for another fifty years…and so on and so on.

Not to mention a President who is clearly unacquainted with any part of the U.S. Constitution and who would be challenged to answer questions on a 6th grade civics test.

Much of the answer is, of course, Trump’s appeal to white nationalists who are willing to support anyone who hates the same people they do. But another, significant part of the explanation is the large numbers of uninformed voters, citizens who have no idea how their government is structured or how it is supposed to operate–who have no clue what the rules might be, and thus are unaware of the (multiple) times when those rules are being broken.

Yes–I am once again going to pontificate about the civic ignorance of far too many American citizens. (And yes, I know it isn’t just civic ignorance–a recent, widely reported poll revealed that 56% of Americans believe that Arabic numerals should not be taught in American schools…it’s hard not to cry.)

When it comes to my persistent distress over civic literacy, however,  I now have the American Bar Association to confirm my rant.

According to a new national poll conducted by the American Bar Association, less than half of the U.S. public knows that John Roberts is chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, while almost one-quarter think it is Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 16 percent believe it is Clarence Thomas.

The nationally representative poll of 1,000 members of the American public found troubling gaps in their knowledge of American history and government, as well as constitutional rights. One in 10 think the Declaration of Independence freed slaves in the Confederate states and almost 1 in 5 believe the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution are called the Declaration of Independence instead of the Bill of Rights.

 ABA President Bob Carlson reacted to the survey:

Making sure that people living in America know their rights and responsibilities is too important to leave to chance,” said Carlson. “Moving forward, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Public Education will launch an educational program based on these survey results, to re-acquaint the public with the law and the Constitution.

“We cannot be content to sit on the sidelines as democracy plays out in front of us. For the sake of our country, we all need to get in the game,” he said.

So, what were the findings that shocked officials of the Bar Association? Let’s start with the “good” news:

The U.S. public expresses strong support for freedom of speech. Eighty-one percent of the public agrees that people should be able to publicly criticize the U.S. president or any other government leader and three-quarters agree that government should not be able to prevent news media from reporting on political protests. Fully 80 percent of the public agrees that individuals and organizations should have the right to request government records or information. And 88 percent correctly say that the government does not have the right to review what journalists write before it is published under the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, this strong endorsement of free speech is accompanied by public confusion over what the First Amendment actually protects.

Nearly 1 in 5 said freedom of the press is not protected by the First Amendment and 20 percent said the right of people to peaceably assemble does not fall under the First Amendment. More than half incorrectly think the First Amendment does not permit the burning the American flag in political protest under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down laws that forbid flag-burning, ruling first in 1989 that under the First Amendment a person cannot be penalized for such action.

There’s more, of course.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents, for example, knew that the term “the rule of law” means no one is above the law, but fully 15 percent believed  it means “the law is always right.”

The public also demonstrated a lack of basic knowledge about the rights and responsibilities accorded under the Constitution. Less than half know that only U.S. citizens can hold federal elective office, more than 1 in 5 believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for paying taxes and more than 10 percent believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for obeying the law. A little more than 1 in 6 think that due process of law is only available to U.S. citizens. And 30 percent believe that non-citizens do not have the right of freedom of speech.

To view the whole, sad survey, you can download it here.

As for me, I’m going to pour myself (another) drink.

 

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.

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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.

What We Can Do

Yesterday, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians about–surprise!–the importance of civic knowledge, and what each of us can do to encourage its acquisition…Here’s what I said. Apologies for the length.

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I was asked to talk today about the importance of what I call Civic Literacy—and to suggest what your congregation and each of you individually might do to encourage other people to acquire the knowledge necessary to properly discharge their citizenship responsibilities.

Let me share some background. In late 2010, I was teaching my undergraduate class in Law and Public Policy. I approach this subject-matter through a constitutional lens, because—after all—in order to be legally enforceable, policies have to be constitutional, and it helps when policymakers have some idea of what the Constitution requires. I begin with a brief description of the Enlightenment (which few of my undergraduate students have ever heard of), proceed to the “architecture” of our constitutional system, and then consider what people mean when they talk about “original intent.”

I often introduce that discussion by asking what James Madison thought about porn on the Internet.

Usually, the students to whom I direct that question laugh and say something to the effect that Madison could never have imagined something like the Internet. But of course, Madison did have opinions about the importance of free expression and the need to protect such expression from government censorship, so we proceed to discuss how the courts have applied the Founders’ intent – protection of the principleof freedom of speech—to a variety of communication mechanisms Madison could never have contemplated.

On this particular day, however, the student to whom I directed the question (a college junior) looked puzzled, and asked “Who is James Madison?”

It was my introduction to America’s civic literacy deficit.

That incident triggered a question I went on to explore: how widespread is such civic ignorance? What don’t Americans know about our country’s history, philosophy and legal system? The answer, according to the data then available, was: a lot. At the time, for example, only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government. By last year, that same national survey found the number had slipped to 26%.

Overall, a huge amount of data confirms that most Americans know little or nothing about the Constitution, or about government, economics or science. Most cannot define the terms they routinely employ to embrace or dismiss different systems, like capitalism, socialism and fascism.

Why do I think that informed civic engagement is so important?

Civic literacy (or lack thereof) affects the whole of society. Reasonable levels are especially critical to the maintenance of democratic norms.

We are currently seeing the results when people elected to high office don’t respect those norms, or know anything about the Constitution, or the way government works—or for that matter, what science is or the most basic principles of economics. Such individuals are elected by voters who don’t understand those things, either– who don’t understand what skills governing requires and who are unable to evaluate the performance of the people they elect.

If that isn’t bad enough, over the past quarter century or so, we’ve seen the growth of yet another problem that is largely attributable to low levels of civic literacy: susceptibility to spin, propaganda and so-called “fake news.” When you don’t know what the rules really are, it’s easy to believe hysterical accusations. Did a Court say a cross on government property violated the Establishment Clause? That means Satanists have won, and we’ll have to remove the crosses from our churches! (True story.)

We know that the American public is ignorant—not stupid, just ignorant– but there’s a lot we don’t know about the causes and consequences of this very troubling deficit of civic knowledge:
·      What is the civic deficit? i.e., what is the necessary content/what are the essential skills that make a person “civically literate”?
·      How are civic literacy and civic engagement related? Which comes first? What behaviors beyond voting reflect civic engagement/civic skills?
·      Where, besides some public-school classrooms, are civic skills taught and/or civic information imparted?
·       Is there a relationship between perceived political efficacy and motivation to become civically knowledgeable? (“I can’t make a difference anyway, so why bother?”)

As an old lawyer once told me, there’s really only one legal or political question, and that’s “what do we do?” That’s the question the Center for Civic Literacy is now focusing on.

So—what can any of us do? Let me share a few ideas.

Awhile back, a graduate student and I wrote a short book we called Giving Civics a Sporting Chance. We compared America’s fascination with sports trivia to our lack of civic knowledge. Every weekend, some bar is holding a trivia contest and customers are demonstrating that they know who threw the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series.  Why not hold trivia contests focused on American history, government and the constitution?  (You might generate some local political support if you include questions like “Who’s your city councilor?” or “What does the county coroner do?”)

In Indianapolis, we worked with the public library on a project we called “Electing Our Future”—it might also serve as a template for local efforts. A couple of months before municipal elections, we had panel discussions about the issues winning candidates would face. We didn’t talk about the candidates–we didn’t even invite them– but about the problems we’d expect them to solve and the practical, legal and financial constraints they would face.

One effort that is still ongoing and has been very popular is an adult version of “We the People.” Women4Change worked with the National Center for Civic Literacy to offer one night per week, six-week versions of that very effective civics curriculum.

There is another thing that each of us can do to call attention to the superficiality of American knowledge. When we read a letter to the Editor or a post to a widely-read blog that misstates a Constitutional principle, or incorrectly defines an economic term, or confuses science with religion, we need to respond.

For example: “I noticed that Sally Smith dismissed evolution because it is “just a theory.” But “theory” in science is a technical term, not to be confused with ordinary usage. Scientific theories are supported by evidence that has been tested empirically….” You get the idea. These corrections should be as polite as we can make them, since the people who express uneducated, factually-wrong opinions are likely to resent having “smarty pants elitists” correct them. That said, I think a concerted effort to highlight misinformation and raise awareness would have a positive effect.

The problem isn’t just that Americans are deficient in knowledge about the country’s history, constitution and legal system— the problem is that, so far as I can tell, most Americans have been unconcerned about those deficiencies, and the failure of most schools to teach civics adequately.

One of the reasons our public schools don’t focus on educating future citizens is the philosophical divide among citizens about the purpose of public education. The arguments made by self-styled reformers tend to focus on education as a consumer good; a “good school” is one that imparts skills needed by children who will enter the global marketplace. In the United States, however, public education was originally conceived to be—in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase—constitutive of a public. In an ever-more-diverse polity, where the Constitution and “American creed” are essential elements of our “civic religion” (and frequently the source of the only values we hold in common), a robust civics education is what allows us to “constitute” a polity. It is what makes us Americans.

Marketable skills and STEM skills are important, but so is familiarity with—and ideally, allegiance to– the history and philosophy of America’s approach to self-government. If there is one over-riding lesson we at the Center for Civic Literacy have learned it is that—despite our national fondness for flag waving and our constant, pious references to the Constitution—too few Americans know what the flag stands for, or what the Constitution says.

Ultimately, of course, we have to lobby our legislatures to require more and better history and civics instruction in our schools. When you think about it, Americans don’t pray to the same god, read the same books and newspapers, watch the same television shows, eat the same foods—a lot of us don’t even speak the same language. The only thing that all Americans have in common is a particular philosophy of government and a distinctive set of social values—and when we don’t know anything about that philosophy or those values, we aren’t Americans; we’re just a collection of separate, mutually-suspicious constituencies contending for power.

And most of us understand that encouraging distrust in a bunch of mutually hostile, know-nothing constituencies is highly unlikely to make America great again…

Thank you.

Communicating In The Age Of The Bubble

This is the speech I gave yesterday to the Public Relations Club of Indianapolis.

Democracies require ongoing discussions by participants who share a reality. Thanks to social media, conspiracy theories, “fake news,” and political polarization, Americans today occupy alternative realities. We talk past each other, not to each other, a problem exacerbated by distressingly low levels of civic literacy.

Most people have heard Daniel Moynihan’s famous quote to the effect that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. Less famous, but equally true, is this quote from the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick: “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”  I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson said something like “Reality doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.”

The problem is, without a shared belief in a shared reality, productive public discourse becomes impossible. When it comes to the exercise of democratic self-government, we also need a shared understanding of the basic premises upon which our system was built. People don’t need to be constitutional scholars, but they do need to know the philosophy of our system, what I call “America’s foundational values.” We don’t even have to agree with the principles and values the founders incorporated in our constituent documents:  we just need to know what they were, and how 200+ years of jurisprudence have changed and enlarged them.

People who know me know that civic literacy has been an obsession of mine for years. I’m not going to belabor it for my entire talk, I promise, but I do want you to understand what I mean when I say that civic ignorance is preventing informed civic participation by too many Americans.

For a number of years, it has been clear that what I call “civic literacy”—knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, the basics of American history, at least a nodding acquaintance with what is meant by the Rule of Law—has been in very short supply.

Let me just share some statistics that illuminate the extent of the problem. (There’s a lot more depressing research on IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy website.) A few years ago, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs asked high school seniors in that state some simple questions about government. Here are a few of those questions and the percentages of students who answered them correctly—and let me also assure you that there are dozens of studies confirming that, unfortunately, Oklahoma isn’t an outlier:

What is the supreme law of the land? 28%

What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution? 26%

What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress? 27%

How many justices are there on the Supreme Court? 10%

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? 14%

What are the two major political parties in the United States? 43%

We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? 11%

Who was the first President of the United States? 23%

A recent survey found only 24 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government—that’s down from that same survey’s result of a pathetic 36% just a few years ago. Fewer than half of 12th graders can describe federalism. Only 35% can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Only five percent of high school seniors can identify or explain checks on presidential power.

Americans are equally uninformed about important current events and issues: a survey taken during the widely publicized effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act found that a full third of Americans didn’t know that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are the same thing. Another survey found that only 47% of Trump voters know that Frederick Douglass is dead.  Closer to home, Indiana had the lowest voter turnout in the nation in 2014; when the Center for Civic Literacy fielded a survey asking why, 20% of the Hoosiers who didn’t show up at the polls said they didn’t vote because they didn’t know enough about the candidates or the issues.

One obvious problem with civic ignorance is that citizens who don’t know what the Constitution requires don’t recognize when proposed laws would violate it.  Here in Indiana, we have a legislature in which a number of lawmakers can’t tell the difference; As I’m sure you’ve seen in the news, both local and national, Milo Smith, a Republican from Columbus, has proposed a law that would require the owners of the Colts to refund ticket prices to attendees “offended” by athletes “taking a knee”– that is, by athletes exercising their First Amendment rights. (We can discuss the constitutional defects of that suggestion during Q and A, if they aren’t immediately apparent.) This proposal has generated national scorn, and made Indiana look like a backwater. Again.

Here’s my premise: Legislators and informed citizens should be able to recognize the difference between a policy they disagree with and one that is unconstitutional.

There is another “small d democratic” electoral problem with our dismal lack of civic knowledge; citizens can’t evaluate the performance of their elected officials if they’re unaware of the standards to which those officials should be held.

The ability of citizens to determine what constitutes accurate information—not just about our Constitution and legal system, but about science, about history, about economics, and about what happened yesterday—is critically important. Right now, even thoughtful people are unsure of who and what to believe.

That insecurity leads to distrust, and when people don’t trust their social and governmental institutions, society doesn’t function. Government doesn’t function.

Don’t kill this messenger, but the Public Relations profession bears a disproportionate responsibility both for the loss of trust and for people’s inability to sort the wheat from the chaff. I’m not talking about “puffery”—anyone who ever sold anything in the marketplace has been guilty of that, probably from the time of the Roman agora. I’m thinking of the far more sophisticated cultivation of purposeful distrust, that started really being socially problematic with its use by big tobacco. As I’m sure you all know, when science confirmed the health hazards of smoking, tobacco companies hit on a brilliant strategy: rather than debating the science, rather than responding with the dubious “findings” of their own shell “institutes,” they insisted that the jury was still out. No one really knows whether smoking is the cause of X, Y or Z.

The “who knows” tactic worked for Big Tobacco for a long time—if it hadn’t been for some industry whistleblowers, it might still be working. Today, that approach has been adopted by other industries that pose a threat to public health, most notably, the fossil fuels industry. Oil, gas and coal producers rarely argue anymore that climate change isn’t real; they say the science of causation is unsettled, that we don’t “really know” whether the changes that have become too obvious to miss are due to carbon warming the atmosphere, or whether they might be part of natural fluctuations, or something we have yet to identify. (What do 97% of climate scientists know, anyway?)

Then these profit-motive encouragements of uncertainty met the Internet, where conspiracy theories and political spin and propaganda intensified mistrust. These days, sane people don’t know what to believe; crazy people—whose ranks seem to be growing—believe all sorts of bizarre shit. Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor. Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and someone, somehow managed to get his birth announcement published contemporaneously with his birth in Hawaii because they knew he’d be President someday. Right.

I tell my students, if you want to believe that aliens landed in Roswell, I can find you five websites with pictures of the aliens’ bodies on them…

Rightwing and Left wing “news” sites constantly pump out propaganda that then is circulated through Right and Left social media bubbles. And to return to that horse I keep beating, if you are ignorant of how government works, if you can’t tell the difference between science and religion, if you don’t know the definition of “fascism” “socialism” or “capitalism”—you have no yardstick to apply, no way to evaluate the credibility of what your friends are posting, or the President is tweeting.

Words are the stock in trade of your profession, so it should really worry you that words are losing their meaning. If “socialist” is an epithet, rather than a description of a particular economic system, we can’t communicate. And you probably shouldn’t get me started on “liberal” and “conservative.” I think the GOP’s support of Donald Trump is pretty conclusive evidence that the party is not conservative—certainly not in the sense of political philosophy.

I’m a good illustration of how empty the words “conservative” and “liberal” have become—and how far the political pendulum has swung. In 1980, I was a Republican candidate for Congress. I was pro-choice and pro-gay-rights, and I won the GOP primary; when I lost the general election to Andy Jacobs, multiple people—most of them Republican– told me they couldn’t vote for me because I was “just too conservative.”  I have changed my positions on a couple of issues—issues where the “facts on the ground” have shifted, or I’ve learned more about them—but my basic political philosophy is the same as it was in 1980, and I have old position papers to prove it. Yet today, I am routinely accused of being a pinko leftwing socialist elitist.

The point of all this is: words matter. Facts matter. Trust matters. When words cease to have content, when facts become matters of personal preference, the communication that builds trust becomes impossible.

And without a basis of trust, democracy is impossible.

I don’t know how we fix the fix we’re in right now, but I know we’d better figure it out, and soon.

 

Thank you.