Tag Archives: civic literacy

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…)


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.


Is Low Civic Literacy a Wicked Problem?



In 1973, Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber published an influential article on the nature of social problems. Titled “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” the article focused upon the difficulty of solving what they dubbed “Wicked Problems,” and triggered an ongoing scholarly discussion about the nature of such problems and the differences between efforts to craft social policies addressing them and the “tamer” and more linear approaches appropriate to the solution of scientific problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

As Rittel and Webber (1973) defined them, stubborn (“Wicked”) problems are those implicating value judgments and perceptions of equity. Given the pluralist nature of contemporary democratic societies, those values and perceptions will be heterogeneous, making even agreement on policy goals a contested exercise. Furthermore, wicked problems are by definition systemic, and efforts to address them will have “waves of repercussions that ripple through such systemic networks” (p. 156).

“One of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies). In turn, and equally intractable, is the problem of identifying the actions that might effectively narrow the gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be” (p. 159).

Rittel and Webber (1973) proceeded to identify ten characteristics of wicked problems, and subsequent scholarship has elaborated on them (Richey 2005, 2011; Weber and Khademian 2008; Conklin 2001). Indeed, a robust and widely diverse scholarly literature has developed in which the notion of problem “wickedness” has been applied to everything from ecological challenges and environmental degradation (Brennan 2004; McKinney and Harmon 2004; Frame 2008; Frame and Brown 2008; Rayner 2006), to business and manufacturing (Camillus 2008; Conklin 2005; Powell, Kopet and Smith-Doerr 1996), to democracy, citizenship and politics (Barabas, Jerit, Pollock and Rainey 2014, Mathews 2008; Chrislip and Larson 1994) to public administration and governance (Head and Alford 2013; Feldman and Khademian 2002; Kettl 2003, 2202; Bardach 2001; Evans 2000; Klijn and Koppenjan 2000; Agranoff and McGuire 1998) to general organizational theory (Kedia and Mukherji 1999; Susskind, McKearnan and Thomas-Larmer 1999; Behn 1998), among many others.

A scholarly literature particularly relevant to problem “wickedness” is network theory, which has grown significantly since the introduction of the concept of “wicked problems.” As Weber and Khademian have documented (2008), the study of networks has augmented, and arguably is replacing, prior scholarship focused upon hierarchies and markets. Networks have come to be seen as an effective means of addressing complex problems and achieving collective goals. (Peters 2001 Podolny and Page 1998; Kickert, Klijn and Kippenjan 1997; Powell, Kopet and Smith-Doerr 1996). Weber and Khademian define effectiveness in this context as collaborative capacity, improved policy performance, and accountability, and argue that addressing the special attributes of “wicked problems” requires the sorts of collaboration and knowledge sharing that networks make possible.

While the literature of network theory has seen a copious expansion, scholarship applying the concept of problem wickedness to education, and especially to citizenship education, has remained relatively sparse. Educators and educational philosophers have begun to investigate the intersection of growing complexity and the transmission of civic knowledge (Hipkins 2010; Kress 2008; Gilbert 2005; Boyd, Bolstad, Cameron, Ferral, Hipkins, DcDowall et al 2005; Westheimer and Kahne 2004) but none have as yet applied the lens of “wickedness” to the specific challenges of civic education.

In order to determine whether the transmission of civic knowledge is a wicked problem, and whether the stubbornly low levels of American civic literacy can properly be categorized as “wicked,” it is necessary to determine how many of the problems faced by civic educators match the characteristics of wickedness enumerated by Rittel and Webber.

A caveat is important here: most wicked problems will not exhibit all ten of wickedness’ defining characteristics. Scholars are in agreement, however, that the greater the number of such characteristics, the “wickeder” the problem. The elements of wicked problems, as Rittel and Webber catalogued them, are: no agreed-upon formulation/definition of the problem; no “stopping rule” (solutions can always get better); solutions will not be true or false, but rather good or bad; there is no immediate and no ultimate test of solutions; every solution is a “one-shot” because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error; there is no enumerable or exhaustively describable set of potential solutions; every wicked problem is essentially unique; every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem; discrepancies can be explained in numerous ways; and the planner (or problem solver) has no right to be wrong.

“So what is the problem that the term “wicked problem” addresses? The common sense approach to WPs is fairly straightforward: As stated above, WPs are about people – the most “complex adaptive systems” that we know of. They are subjective problems. Everything that has to do with people and society is ultimately subjective. Above all, WPs are about people as stakeholders: competing and cooperating, vying for position, willing to reflect, and to change their positions on the basis of this self-reflection. This is why such problems do not have stable problem formulations; do not have pre-defined solution concepts; and why their course of development cannot be predicted. This is also why attempting to causally model or simulate the paths of development of such problem complexes is often worse than useless” (Richey 2005).

Weber and Khademian (2008) offered a somewhat abridged description of the elements of wickedness, summarizing the more elaborate ten-characteristic typology offered by Rittel and Webber into three major dimensions: wicked problems are unstructured (their precise causes and effects are difficult to isolate, the problem-solving process is fluid, and there is little or no consensus on problem definition or solutions); they are cross-cutting (having multiple stakeholders with diverse perspectives, requiring trade-offs among competing values); and above all, relentless (there is no finish line).


Civic Literacy and Civic Skills


As used in this analysis, civic literacy refers to knowledge of America’s history, governing philosophy and structures. It is different in kind from the sort of “civic intelligence” addressed by Douglas Schuler and others (Schuler 2014) and indeed, would seem to be far more concrete than the social impairments that work against achievement of such civic intelligence.

At first blush, low civic literacy, defined as widespread ignorance of basic civic knowledge, would not seem to be a wicked problem. If people lack information about their history and government structures, if they lack the tools to understand the roots and/or nature of the issues they face, the solution seems simple enough: they should be educated, and provided with that information and those tools, preferably in school. It is only when we look more closely at the nature of the problem that we begin to understand the multiple ways in which the challenge presented by the deficit of civic knowledge may be wicked. To begin with, the educational process itself has multiple characteristics of wickedness.

For example, it’s often said that the education problem can’t be solved until the poverty problem is addressed. These two problems are intertwined not only with each other, but with many other social issues such as crime, child care, health care, and unemployment. These entangled problems are made even more complex because they are values-laden. It’s impossible for everyone to reach consensus about how they should be addressed. There is no right or wrong answer, and each attempted solution will give rise to other anticipated, unanticipated, and delayed wicked problems. Furthermore, each wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another wicked problem because of their interconnectedness. Wicked problems are never solved once and for all, just re-solved over and over again. Hence, the current state of affairs in education (McMahon, 2011).

When we focus upon education in service of civic participation, we encounter still other aspects of wickedness. Although there is significant debate about causation–about which comes first, lack of knowledge or lack of engagement– there is substantial evidence of the correlation between civic ignorance and civic apathy and disengagement (Delli Caprini, Keeter and Scott 1996; Levine 2011).

There is also ample research confirming the existence of what has been called a “civic deficit” (Delli Caprini, Keeter and Scott 1996; Galston 2001, 2004, 2007; Intercollegiate Studies Institute 2008, 2011; Schudson 2000; Torra & Novarro, 2008; Fleming 2012; Levine 2011). A recent blog post from the Center for Civic Literacy summarizes some of that research:

Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Fifty-eight percent of Americans can’t identify a single department in the United States Cabinet. Only 5% of high school seniors can identify checks on presidential power, only 43% could name the two major political parties, only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term, and only 23% could name the first President of the United States (Kennedy, 2015).


In What Way is Civic Literacy a “Wicked” Problem?


Existing research on civic knowledge confirms that deficits in civic literacy are real, but that research also displays the heterogeneous value commitments identified by Rittel and Webber. There is no agreement, for example, on the definition, causes or consequences of the problem. In some cases, there is disagreement about whether this lack of knowledge should even be considered a problem; a number of people dismiss the importance of content knowledge, asserting that cultural attitudes are more important. Others question whether low levels of political participation are really attributable to civic ignorance, suggesting that apathy and even satisfaction with the status quo are more likely to explain a lack of civic engagement (Dudley & Gitelson, 2002; Galston, 2004).

Among those who believe that lack of basic information is a genuine problem, there is no consensus on the content of the civic information with which a minimally-literate citizen should be familiar. American history? The Constitution? What about basic economic or scientific principles necessary to an understanding of current events (Kennedy, 2013)? And what about those current events? Should a civically-literate American know the names and partisan affiliations of at least high-ranking elected officials? The names and locations of countries with which we are at war? The identities of sitting Supreme Court Justices? Scholars are deeply divided over the value of such knowledge, with some dismissing it as trivia not reflective of or necessary to a genuine understanding of the operation of our democratic system, and others arguing that truly engaged or informed citizens will inevitably acquire such information.

Not only is there substantial disagreement on the nature of the information necessary to informed participation in the democratic process, Americans’ value heterogeneity challenges efforts to reach consensus on the meaning of even that content widely agreed to be an essential element of civic knowledge. This is especially true with respect to our basic legal structure. The Bill of Rights, in particular, is a statement of broad principles, and the proper application of many of those principles to new and emerging “facts on the ground” has historically been contested even by legal scholars. What has been called “constitutional competence” (Rosenbloom, 2000) is further challenged by partisans and outright propagandists who seek to exploit the inherently contestable nature of Constitutional language in order to further ideological or religious agendas. This means that even in areas where there is broad agreement about the sorts of basic civic knowledge citizenship requires, there is considerable dispute over the proper way to understand those principles and the way in which civics should be taught. In Oklahoma last year, for example, lawmakers threatened to defund Advanced Placement American history because they deemed the new curriculum, which emphasized critical thinking, insufficiently “pro American.”

Conservative critics attacked the new course guidelines, and charged that the increased inclusion of negative episodes constituted “rewriting American history” in ways that undercut (their version of) the purpose of teaching that history.

If we are judging civic competence by reference to participation rather than knowledge, what should count as adequate engagement? Voting in a Presidential election, but not a municipal one? Working with one’s neighbors to solve a problem? Attending a public hearing? Donating to or volunteering with a political campaign, or working with a nonprofit organization to solve a civic problem (a metric used in state-level Civic Health surveys)? Furthermore, in each of these cases, how do we assess the adequacy of engagement? Should voting and other political participation “count” more than donating to a cause or doing volunteer work for one’s church? Should the amount of the donation or the duration of the volunteer effort factor into the evaluation? What “grade” is to be deemed sufficient? What about clearly uninformed or destructive participation—say, membership in the Ku Klux Klan or in a “volunteer” militia patrolling the border?

As noted above, research does support the contention that civic knowledge and civic engagement are highly correlated (Delli Caprini et al., 1996; Milner, 2002), but the relative contribution of each is speculative, as is the question of causation. Are more knowledgeable citizens more likely to become civically involved, or does civic involvement lead to a more complete and accurate understanding of the way in which our democracy works (or doesn’t)?

If there is no agreement on the nature and extent of the deficit, there is even less on its causes. Critics of public education accuse schools and teachers of poor performance, of which civics is only a part; defenders point to the current emphasis on STEM subjects, No Child Left Behind, and the increasing conflation of education with job training as major reasons schools have little time for civics. Civics and social studies teachers note that the current emphasis on high-stakes testing inevitably means that teachers and students alike will emphasize those areas of the curriculum that are subject to testing; they point out that civics is rarely one of the areas tested. Sociologists and political scientists point to socio-economic factors, and note that the gaps in civic knowledge between poor children and those from more affluent families are similar to the gaps that characterize disparate performance levels in other subjects (Diemer, 2012).

Still other observers focus on the fragmentation of contemporary media, and its tendency to feed a popular culture that emphasizes celebrities and sports figures, rewards sensationalism, and increasingly lacks the resources to provide serious investigative reporting on matters of public concern. Recent research by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service (home to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a pre-eminent resource for research on civic learning) has focused on the question whether and how the news media might impact broad democratic practices. Other explanations for low civic engagement include economic factors; observers note that low-income Americans are working increasing hours just to put food on their tables, and lack the time to participate in civic and political matters. Although such time constraints are undeniably real, however, it remains true that few of those Americans are motivated to devote what leisure time they do have to civic enterprises.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that all of these explanations, and many others that have been proposed, are interrelated. Economic inequality sends children to schools of very uneven quality. Our inability to agree on the content or methodology or institutional arrangements leading to effective public education produces very different results even in schools serving so-called “privileged” communities. The lack of a sound educational grounding drives media choices, and media outlets competing for “eyeballs” offer entertainment and (often) propaganda intended to appeal to increasingly segmented audiences—a problem exacerbated by the increasing use of sophisticated algorithms to deliver “relevant” information over the Internet (Pariser, 2011) and by America’s persistent thread of anti-intellectualism.

Wicked problems have multiple stakeholders representing multiple and frequently inconsistent values. This is certainly the case with civic literacy; stakeholders include the aforementioned public school teachers and administrators, education reform activists, lawyers, political pundits, elected officials and public managers at various governmental levels, journalists, and citizens working for particular policy outcomes or for redress of perceived grievances. Many of these stakeholders represent disciplines having specialized languages and professional terminologies, complicating communication. Further, value diversity means that solutions—or at least improvements—acceptable to some stakeholders will be unacceptable to others. In the Oklahoma example cited previously, stakeholders presumably agreed that “American Exceptionalism” should be taught, but they disagreed profoundly on its definition and importance.

Furthermore, as Rittel and Webber (1973) noted, professionals of various fields laying claim to superior knowledge or expertise can expect considerable resistance from members of the general public, or laity, who tend to be resentful of such claims and suspicious of “elites,” especially academic ones. This heterogeneity of stakeholders is further complicated by the structural relationships among them.

Civic literacy deficits exhibit three other elements of “wickedness”: there are no “stopping rules,” because the problem of a civically illiterate population cannot be definitively solved; solutions are unlikely to be true or false, only better or worse; and there is no immediate or ultimate test of a solution.


What to do

With “tame” problems, linear processes leading to recognizable solutions can be employed: one defines the problem, identifies potential solutions together with their strengths and weaknesses, and chooses the remedy that seems best. With efforts to improve civic literacy, however, proceeding in that fashion leads to what has been called “analysis paralysis,” repeated studies that simply confirm the widespread lack of civic knowledge. Stakeholders can’t act to address the problem until there is more information, but that information isn’t available until someone acts. In the case of civic literacy, analysis paralysis has resulted in a copious literature confirming the existence of a deficit and a less robust literature offering theoretical approaches to remedying that deficit, but considerably less research on actual programmatic efforts.

If civic literacy is a wicked problem, we have no choice but to act, to try different solutions that will help us to better understand the nature of the problem and evaluate the results of efforts to address it. This is not a risk-free strategy; as Ritchey (2005) has written, “every implemented solution is consequential. It leaves “traces” that cannot be undone…And every attempt to reverse a decision or correct for undesired consequences poses yet another set of wicked problems.” This is self-evidently true of any individual program or attempted intervention. However, a new approach to content delivery in a classroom, a new state standard for civics instruction, an effort to improve public understanding of local government or similar efforts can be immensely instructive—whether it succeeds or fails. It is here, I argue, that civic literacy differs from many other wicked problems and (arguably) becomes less wicked. Rittel (1973) notes that “One cannot build a freeway to see if it works.” But civic education is not a freeway; nor is it the design of a new car (an example used by Conklin). Proposed solutions need not exclude other potential solutions, need not require the expenditure of massive amounts of money. Pilot programs can be conceived and their results evaluated; those with promise can be adapted or replicated.

A central insight of Rittel and Webber (1973) was that substantially wicked problems can only be approached through an iterative process that sheds needed light on the nature of the problem at the same time as it is trying to improve the situation. The nature of the civic deficit allows for the use of a wide variety of approaches employing such a process.

In order to engage in this trial and error methodology, however, we must address the elements of wickedness that have led to the current analysis paralysis. At a minimum, stakeholders must work together to create, first, a shared and much more widespread and public understanding of the problem and its consequences; and second, a shared commitment to the broad goal of improving civic knowledge, all while recognizing the partial and tentative nature of that understanding and the high probability that the goalposts will move more than once.

Rittel and Webber’s (1973) original identification of wicked problems, and their enumeration of the thorny challenges such problems represent, was not intended to dissuade us from trying to solve social problems. It was not a counsel of surrender. It was an analytic tool that distinguished between different kinds of challenges, confirmed the contours and difficulties of certain of those challenges, and warned us away from obvious pitfalls.

If the literature on wicked problems confirms anything, it is that most social problems are wicked to a greater or lesser extent. Recognizing that fact does nor relieve us of the obligation to work for their (more-or-less) satisfactory resolution.


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Playing “What If”

The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) recently published an essay written with my former Graduate Assistant. Hey–if you’re going to dream, might as well dream big….Anyway, here’s our original draft, appropriate for a Sunday Sermon.


Americans are increasingly concerned about two seemingly unrelated issues: a distressing lack of civic literacy and informed civic engagement among the general public, and the escalating burden of student loan debt.

We could make significant progress on both of these issues with a new G.I. Bill.

In the wake of World War II, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill. It provided a wide range of benefits for returning veterans, including subsidies that allowed G.I.’s to obtain low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans that could be used to start a business, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend a university or vocational training program. All soldiers who had been on active duty during the war for at least one hundred twenty days and had not been dishonorably discharged were eligible. By 1956, estimates were that roughly 2.2 million veterans had used the G.I. Bill education benefits in order to attend college, and an additional 5.6 million had used them to obtain job training of some sort.

The G.I. Bill was expensive, but by all accounts it was a major political, humanitarian and economic success. It contributed significantly to the creation of a skilled workforce, moved thousands of people into the middle class, and was a spur to long-term economic growth.

The G.I. Bill was originally an effort to reward those who had manifested a willingness to risk their lives for their country, but it has had a number of other salutary consequences: it raised the skill level of the American workforce and provided an avenue for social mobility.

Defending the United States is an important goal, but military service is only one aspect of that defense. It is equally important that citizens understand just what it is that our military is protecting. Citizenship is more than residence; patriotism requires informed engagement by people who have earned the right to be considered citizens. Survival of America qua America is not the same thing as physical survival.

To put it bluntly, there is more than one way to lose one’s country.

If we are to provide that second kind of defense—defense of the American system of law and government—we require a civically educated populace, and it is increasingly obvious that current patchwork efforts to boost civic literacy are not producing that populace.

Our proposal builds on the laudable efforts of others—including, recently, General Stanley McChrystal– who have called for a renewal of national service. It’s important to challenge the notion that military service is the only way to serve one’s country. While military service has been shown to significantly increase voting rates and other forms of civic engagement, fewer Americans serve in the military than in past generations, and we need to consider what sorts of national programmatic efforts might begin to change the civic culture.

We propose a National Service program for high school graduates who would be paid minimum wage during a one year “tour of duty.” At the end of that year, assuming satisfaction of the requirements, participants would receive stipends sufficient to pay tuition, room and board for two years at a public college or trade school. The public service requirement would be satisfied through employment with a government agency or not-for-profit organization focused upon civic improvement.

In addition, students would be required to attend and pass a civics course to be developed by the U.S. Department of Education in cooperation with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools.

What sorts of outcomes might we expect from such a program? Since the program is likely to be most attractive to those struggling to afford higher education, we could expect broader civic participation from populations whose voices are largely missing from today’s civic conversation. A better-educated population should engage in better, more nuanced policy debates, leading (hopefully) to more thoughtful policy choices. We might even see more meaningful and issue-oriented political campaigns, with fewer of the “dog whistles” and less of the intemperate rhetoric that characterizes messages crafted to appeal to uninformed voters.

A program of this sort would also have an enormous and positive impact on the level of student debt.

According to a 2014 report by the New York Times, total student loans outstanding have risen to $1.1 trillion, compared with $300 billion just a decade before. The average total debt for student borrowers was around $30,000 in 2013.

Student debt has thus become a significant impediment to America’s economic growth.

Studies show that the burden of student debt constrains individual decision-making in a number of ways, and affects the entire economy. People with student loans, for example, are less likely to start businesses. Considering that 60 percent of jobs are created by small business, diminishing the ability to create new businesses does considerable harm to the economy.

Debt loads also affect overall consumer consumption. According to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, fewer 30-year-olds in general have bought homes since the recession, but the decline has been steeper for people with a history of student loan debt and has continued even as the housing market has recovered.

In an economy that depends upon the ability and willingness of consumers to purchase homes, furniture, automobiles and other goods, a debt load that effectively precludes such purchases poses a real problem. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, three-quarters of the overall shortfall in household formation can be attributed to younger adults ages 18 to 34. In 2011, 2 million more Americans in this age group lived with their parents than in 2007.

According to a recent report from Zillow, the relatively few millennials who are thriving economically are the ones whose parents are able to subsidize college tuition or a down payment on a home. Help with education and buying a home were the two primary ways in which the original G.I. Bill created upward social mobility. Estimates are that each new household formed leads to $145,000 of economic impact. If student debt is keeping just a third of those 2 million young Americans from living on their own, that adds up to a $100 billion loss or delay in economic activity.

The G.I. Bill was a social contract that said if you invest in your country’s future, your country will invest in yours.

A national public service program of the sort contemplated here would significantly reduce student loan debt, increase civic competence, and provide local communities with additional human capital— resources they can deploy to improve the quality of local life. (Kalamazoo, Michigan, where a local program has been providing subsidies for college tuition to high school graduates since 2005, the city has seen a 4.7 dollar return for every dollar invested, according to a recent Upjohn Institute Study.)

In addition to the economic benefits, a national program encouraging increased civic knowledge and engagement would also move the culture, since an informed citizenry with experience in civic life can be expected to vote, volunteer and engage at substantially higher levels.

The real question is: do we Americans still have the ability to think big?