Tag Archives: civic literacy

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.

 

 

Constitution Day

This year, I was asked to give a Constitution Day lecture at Xavier University. This is what I said. (Warning: this is long, and I’ve said a lot of it before…)

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Does Civic Ignorance Really Matter?

The title of this talk is a question: does civic ignorance matter? It will not come as a surprise to you that I think it does—that I believe the consequences of living in a system you don’t understand are negative not just for the health and stability of America’s democratic institutions, but for individuals. After all, if you don’t know how your government works, or who does what, you are at a decided disadvantage when you need to negotiate the system. (If you take your zoning problem to your Congressman, or your Social Security problem to your Mayor, you’re going to waste a lot of time.)

Today, however, I want to focus on the ways in which low civic literacy harms the nation, and talk a bit about what you need to know in order to be an informed voter or even better, an involved civic activist.

Let me begin with an observation. What we call “political culture”–including the public conversations that citizens have with each other about the rules we live by– 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 what has led us to this rather unfortunate place—from partisan gerrymandering and residential sorting to increasing tribalism to fear generated by rapid social change—and during Q and A, we can talk about the different ways those elements and others contribute to the political nastiness we see all around us. But I want to begin our conversation by considering a different villain.

I want to suggest that our current inability to engage in productive civic conversation is largely an outgrowth of declining trust in our  social and political institutions—primarily, although certainly not exclusively, our government. Restoring that trust is critically important if we are to make our democracy work—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, basic understanding of what our particular Constitutional system requires.

Think about it: if I say this podium is a table, and you say no, it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a very productive discussion about its use—for that matter, we’re each likely to think the other person is nuts. We’re certainly not going to trust his or her other observations.

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, and they aren’t the things I’ll be talking about today.

I study how Constitutional values apply within our increasingly diverse culture, the ways in which constitutional principles connect people who have very 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 the history and philosophy of our country—is absolutely critical to our continued ability to talk to each other and to our ability to function as Americans, rather than as members of disconnected tribes competing for power and advantage. My research has also convinced me that the civic knowledge we need is in very short supply.

Let me share a story that may illustrate my concern. When I teach Law and Public Affairs, I begin with the structure—the architecture–of our particular legal framework, how that framework limits what laws we can pass, and how “original intent” guides the application of Constitutional principles to current conflicts. 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 freedom of expression should guide today’s courts when they are faced with efforts to censor communication mediums 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?”

Now, it’s tempting to dismiss this as anecdotal, to consider that student an outlier–but let me share with you just a tiny fraction of available research. For several years, around Constitution Day, the Annenberg Center has conducted surveys measuring what the public knows about the Constitution. This year, more than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) couldn’t name a single one of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, and only 26 percent could name all three branches of government. That is actually down from 2011, when a still-pathetic 36% could name them.

A few years ago, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs asked high school students in that state some basic questions about American government. Here are just a few of those questions, and the percentages of students who answered them correctly:

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%

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

Other research tells us that fewer than half of 12th graders can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. It goes on and on–there’s much more data, all depressing.

And it matters.

If you think about it, the choices originally made in the design of our Constitution have shaped America’s culture. Those choices have shaped our beliefs about personal liberty, and our conceptions of human rights. They have framed the way we allocate social duties among governmental, nonprofit and private actors. In short, those initial Constitutional choices created a distinctively American worldview.  We don’t have to agree with all of those choices, but if we don’t understand what they were, or why they were made, or how they make America distinctive, we can’t fully understand the world we live in.

Constitutions are expressions of political theory, efforts to 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, for the first time, 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.

That American Idea reflected certain assumptions about human nature and accordingly, privileged certain values—values that need to be more explicitly recognized, discussed and understood, because they provide the common ground for our citizenship and they define our public morality.

Now, obviously, 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, as enduring as the bulk of their work has proven to be, we all recognize that the system they established wasn’t perfect, nor was it sufficient for all time.

Take that issue of “original intent.” There are those who believe that the role of the courts is to look only at the world the founders inhabited in order to understand what they intended, and to apply the rules as they would have been applied in that world. Such a view of the judicial function arguably misreads both history and the founders’ expressed intent. In any event, it’s impossible. We can’t think like people who lived in 1787. And whose “original intent” are we supposed to apply? John Marshall’s? Thomas Jefferson’s? James Madison’s?

More to the point, constitutions are by definition statements of basic principles to be applied to fact situations which may or may not be foreseeable at the time the principles are endorsed. Our inquiry, properly understood, must be to identify the principle or value the founders wanted to protect, and protect it to the best of our abilities in a rapidly changing world. The question isn’t: What did James Madison say about pornography on the internet? The question is: how do we apply this principle James Madison enunciated –the importance of protecting citizens’ communication from government censorship—to forms of communication Madison could never have imagined?

The great debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists were about the proper role of government. We are still having that debate. We have enlarged our notion of citizenship since the constitutional convention to include women, former slaves and non-landowners, but the framework remains the same. 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? How do we balance government’s duty to exercise authority and enforce order against the individual’s right to be secure in his person and free in his conscience? The founders answered that question by carving out, in the Bill of Rights, things the government was forbidden to do.

As I tell my students, the Bill of Rights does not give us rights. The founders believed we have “natural rights” by virtue of being human; the Bill of Rights was meant to keep government—not your boss or your mother– from infringing upon those natural rights.

Today, we have groups on the political right who “know best” what books we should read, what prayers we should say, and who we should be permitted to love. We see groups on the political left shutting down speech with which they disagree, and advocating censorship of materials they find offensive. Both groups want to use the power of government to impose “goodness” on the rest of us. The problem is, they want to be the ones who get to define goodness. If they had even a rudimentary civic education, they would know that the Constitution absolutely prohibits them from doing so. In our system, individuals have the right to make their own political and moral decisions, even when lots of other people believe those decisions are wrong.

The definition of individual liberty that emerged from the philosophical and scientific period we call the Enlightenment—the definition that was embraced by America’s Founders– is sometimes called the Libertarian Principle: it’s the principle that individuals have the right to make their own moral and personal choices—the right to “do their own thing”—until and unless they harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as they are willing to give an equal liberty to others.

Now, we can argue about what constitutes harm, and when the majority, acting through government, is entitled to step in and keep people from doing something. But we can’t take the position that “Freedom is for me, but not for you.”

When people are ignorant of constitutional history, when they fail to understand that the central constitutional issue is the use and abuse of the power of government, they confuse support for constitutional rights with support for unpopular uses of those rights. The issue is who decides what books you read—not the merits of the books you choose. You get to decide what God you worship, or whether you worship at all; government doesn’t get to make that decision for you.

The central issue for civil libertarians is the power of government—or popular majorities working through government—to compel individual behaviors or infringe personal liberties. When people don’t understand that, when they 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 this podium is a table or a chair.

Governments are human enterprises, and like all human enterprises, they will have their ups and downs. In the United States, however, the consequences of the “down” periods are potentially more serious than in more homogeneous nations, precisely because this is a country based upon covenant, 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 government doesn’t function properly. Right now, America is facing some very troubling attacks on essential democratic institutions, and those attacks are undermining public trust in government.

Let’s begin with the assault on the most basic premise of self-government in democratic systems: the value of your vote. There are a number of ways politicians in both parties suppress voter turnout, but the single greatest threat to the value of your vote is gerrymandering.

Today, thanks to partisan redistricting, what we call gerrymandering, only one out of twenty Americans lives in a genuinely competitive Congressional District.

Think about that for a minute.

America has become a country where—as Common Cause puts it—legislators are choosing their voters rather than the other way around.

You probably know how gerrymandering works; after each census, state legislatures draw new legislative and Congressional districts to “even up” the number of voters in each district. The party that controls the legislature gets to control the process, and its goal is to draw as many “safe” seats as possible–more for the party in power, of course, but also for the minority party, because in order to keep control, the winners need to cram as many of the losers into as few districts as possible, and those districts are also safe. Legislators of both parties have engaged in this effort since the time of Vice-President Gerry, for whom the process is named –and he signed the Declaration of Independence! —but it was pretty hit or miss until computers came along to make the process far, far more precise.

Neighborhoods, cities, towns–even precincts–are evaluated solely on the basis of voting history, and then broken up to meet the political needs of mapmakers. Numbers are what drive the results–not compactness of districts, not communities of interest, and certainly not democratic competitiveness. (I will point out that the numbers used for these calculations are previous votes—if we could get a significant number of people who haven’t been voting to the polls, there would be far fewer safe seats.)

Some of the results of this partisan process are obvious:

Safe districts create unresponsive legislators. If you are guaranteed victory every election, it is hard to be motivated and interested, easy to become lazy and arrogant. Safe seats allow politicians to scuttle popular measures without fear of retribution.

These are a few of the more obvious effects of gerrymandering, and they are all worrisome. But there are two other consequences that deserve special attention, because they undermine government legitimacy and are inconsistent with democratic self-government.

First of all, lack of competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why volunteer or vote?

It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it is very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the general election ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal candidate or sacrificial lamb who offers no genuine challenge. And in increasing numbers of statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed even by a token candidate. Of the 100 seats in the Indiana House last November, all of which were on the ballot, 32 candidates ran unopposed.

We hear a lot about voter apathy, as if it were a moral deficiency. Allow me to suggest that it may be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. Watch those same “apathetic” folks at a local zoning hearing when a liquor store wants to move in down the street! Rational people save their efforts for places where those efforts can actually make a difference, and thanks to the increasing lack of electoral competitiveness, those places often do not include the voting booth.

Second, and even more pernicious, gerrymandering has contributed to the polarization of American politics, and our current toxic political discourse. When a district is safe for one party, the only realistic way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that almost always means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is effectively the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged by the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to toe the line– to placate the most extreme elements of the party. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating folks they think will be most likely to attract support from a broad constituency, we get nominees who have been chosen by the most extreme voters on each side. Then we wonder why they can’t compromise and get the people’s business done!

Until and unless we eliminate gerrymandering, whoever we send to Washington will be stymied by the gridlock that is an inevitable consequence of the current system. And–perhaps even worse– reduced voter participation has significant implications for the legitimacy of government action. Is a Representative truly representative when he/she is elected by 10% or 20% of the eligible voters in the district?

This year, the United States Supreme Court will hear an enormously important case: Gill v.Whitford. The Court has previously ruled racial gerrymandering—districts purposely drawn to disenfranchise members of minority groups—unconstitutional, but it has yet to strike down partisan gerrymandering, because the Justices haven’t had a test, a formula that they could rely on to show that districts were intentionally drawn to disadvantage the other party.  A couple of professors have developed such a test, and in a Wisconsin case, a three-judge federal panel applied that test, ruled that the maps were an unconstitutional gerrymander, and ordered the Wisconsin Legislature to redraw them.

If the Supreme Court agrees with that three-judge panel, we may finally have a tool to force State Legislatures to reform their redistricting practices. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that it will be easy; elected officials aren’t going to cheerfully relinquish the tools that have given them power. It will take civic pressure, political will and probably additional litigation. But eventually, we might live in a country where more than one in twenty Americans has an actual legislative choice at the ballot box.

Gerrymandering is what we call a systemic issue, and we Americans aren’t very good at recognizing the importance of systems. We’ve recently become more aware of the way the Electoral College works, but only because in two of the last four elections, the person who won the Presidency lost the popular vote. In the wake of Citizens United, people are beginning to understand how special interests with lots of money can undermine democracy. And in the wake of Charlottesville, we can see what happens when we fail to address and reject the systemic racism that too many people have accommodated for too many years.

In a country that celebrates individual rights and respects individual liberty, there will always be dissent, differences of opinion, and struggles for power. 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 as Americans, and learn how to bridge our differences. When we allow powerful partisans to rewrite our history, pervert our basic institutions, and distort the rule of law, we undermine the American Idea and erode the trust needed to make our democratic institutions work.

So—to answer the question I asked at the beginning of this talk, civic ignorance matters. When we don’t understand how our systems are supposed to work, we don’t recognize when they have become corrupted, and we can’t fix our problems. Without that shared ground—without that common understanding of our nation’s foundations and commitments– we can have no dialogue, reach no agreement. Without it, we can’t repair our broken government.

My generation has failed yours. It will be up to you and your peers to reclaim, revitalize and restore the American Idea—to make this the country we like to believe it is: one nation, with liberty and equal justice for everyone.

We have a long way to go.

Thank you.

What To Do, What To Do…

I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating.

I teach my law and public policy classes through a constitutional “lens,” because I am convinced that students must understand America’s fundamental legal framework and philosophy if they are to approach policy proposals with the necessary analytic tools.

I often introduce the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment with a purposely silly question: “What did James Madison think about porn on the Internet?” Usually, the student I’ve asked will laugh and respond that Madison never encountered the Internet; that then allows us to discuss the expressive values Madison and other Founders were trying to protect, and the ways in which modern courts attempt to protect those values in a world that the Founders could never have envisioned.

But several years ago, when I asked a student that question, she looked at me blankly and said “Who’s James Madison?”

That experience–unfortunately, not an outlier–led to the establishment of the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, (CCL) and research to determine how much Americans really know–or don’t– about the country’s history, economy and legal system, and the political and social consequences of low levels of civic knowledge.

If anyone doubts the corrosive effect of civic ignorance, I suggest watching this year’s political campaigns.

There is clearly little we can do that would immediately improve the abysmal state of public discourse as it is practiced today, but in addition to research into the causes and consequences of civic ignorance, CCL has been working with the League of Women Voters and the Indiana Bar Foundation, among others, to produce materials that we hope will help address the issue going forward.

The Center and the Bar Foundation have published a book called “Giving Civics a Sporting Chance.” The book points to the pervasive social and cultural supports that reward knowledge of sporting events and trivia, and makes the argument that we need to institute similar mechanisms that would reward and increase civic knowledge.

Young Americans who can tell you who threw out the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series are capable of answering equally obscure questions about the Articles of Confederation, but American culture privileges sports knowledge over civic literacy. The book suggests a number of mechanisms for bringing civics “into the sunlight”–from relatively “do-able” measures like increasing participation in the excellent “We the People” curriculum and competition, to “wouldn’t it be wonderful” suggestions for a new GI Bill that would reduce student debt while increasing civic information and engagement.

Information about the book’s availability will be posted to the Center’s website shortly.

Another publication–originally an ebook, but just this month available in paperback--is a mere 36 pages of essential civic information. Titled Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before Opening Your Mouth, it includes “What everyone should know about the Constitution and American legal system,” “What everyone should know about the American economic system,” “What everyone should know about science,” and “What everyone should know about politics.”

Obviously, all of those subjects cannot be comprehensively covered in 36 pages, but the book provides basic facts and settled definitions that can allow people to argue for their policy preferences more productively and convincingly.

I encourage readers of this blog to examine these two products, and if you find them useful–and I think you will–disseminate them broadly. Discuss the recommendations in “Giving Civics a Sporting Chance”with school curriculum officials. Read Talking Politics in your book club. Whatever.

I think thoughtful Americans of every party and political philosophy will agree that–whatever else America’s current election campaign may signify–the nomination of Donald Trump by a major party could only occur in a country where significant numbers of citizens have no understanding of the way their nation’s government works, or the rules that constrain elected officials.

That nomination should be a wake-up call.