Tag Archives: diversity


For the past couple of years, our family has gathered for our Thanksgiving meal on the Saturday following the “proper” Thursday; it allows those coming in from the coasts to get better airfares, and those with “other” families to split their time equitably among relatives. So–although there seems to be some sentiment for a return to the traditional day of celebration–yesterday was our big meal.

And big it was! 22 people around three tables. Two turkeys, and multiple dishes, many assigned to children and siblings in advance. (My sister always brings the sweet potatoes–our daughter brings veggies, my daughter-in-law’s usually stuck with appetizers.)

I know that Thanksgiving is an ordeal for many people, a time of enforced conviviality with seldom-seen relatives who pry or judge, disagree politically, are more or less religious or are otherwise less than pleasant. But the thing I’m most grateful for is a family that isn’t at all like that. Our family includes not just blood relatives, but long-time friends, and relatives of relatives. This year, we welcomed the parents of my nephew’s partner. (My sister and brother-in-law have decided that even if it doesn’t work out between Josh and Michael, they’re keeping Michael’s parents!) We had nephews from both coasts, cousins from Florida, a son from New York, all our children and all but one of our grandchildren (our oldest granddaughter lives in England–she was missed!)

I’m probably biased, but I think our Thanksgiving table(s) are a perfect reflection of America.

We have Jews, Protestants, Catholics,Buddhists and atheists. We have gays and straights. We have native-born Americans and immigrants.

What we don’t have any more, I realized yesterday, are Republicans. And that’s interesting, because fifteen years ago, most of the people at my Thanksgiving tables were Republican. My sister used to poll her neighborhood for her precinct committee person. My brother-in-law was showing some disquieting signs of imminent “Fox-afication.” My husband and I were still hanging in, believing–hoping–that the sharp-right tilt of the party we’d worked for so long was a temporary aberration. A couple of the kids had already deserted, and several of us were getting uneasy, but like so many others, we had deep, longstanding ties to the GOP. We were loyal.

On the other hand….

We would all describe ourselves as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. We are all–every single one of us, whatever our religious beliefs, national origins or sexual orientations–pro-science. Pro-empirical evidence. Pro-diversity. Pro-reality.

And so here we were, this year, a now group composed entirely of Democrats and Independents. A group of people who favor reproductive choice and same-sex marriage, and worry about global climate change.

There’s a lesson for the GOP here, and I hope the party learns it. The country needs two credible political parties, and if our family is typical (and I think it is), we’ve pretty much lost one.


Today’s Coffee House?

I’ve been reading a book called Abundance, which details the multiple breakthroughs that promise to eliminate poverty in the world–if we humans deploy them wisely. There’s a lot of interesting information, and stories of human ingenuity are encouraging.

An interesting observation was that the Enlightenment was a product of the coffee house. According to the author, the practice of gathering in coffee houses and exchanging points of view–debating, discussing, considering alternatives–sparked the development of new philosophies, new ways of engaging reality. That diversity of perspective is also what makes cities important generators of new ideas, new inventions–as the author points out, the density of urban life also requires that we encounter people with different ideas, backgrounds and points of view, and it is that “bubbling cauldron” that incubates progress.

Then, however, the author made a comparison that may be too optimistic. He sees the internet as an extension of the city–a vast coffee house where even the most rural or isolated individuals can encounter the diversity of ideas and opinions that characterize the human family. And theoretically, that’s true. Those who actually seek out new and different points of view can certainly find them on line, along with information (and disinformation) about virtually anything. But as Eli Pariser pointed out in The Filter Bubble, the internet is increasingly being used not to explore new ways of seeing, but to reinforce existing prejudices.

If we use our new, marvelous technologies to construct “bubbles”–comfortable realities within which we encounter only those who agree with us–we might just as well be back on the farm.

We live in a time when we have access to marvelous tools. The question is: will we use them to encounter and engage with each other, or to construct comfortable silos that wall off those who are different, those who make us uncomfortable?

Progress is rarely comfortable.

Civic Literacy: Charting the Dimensions and Consequences of a Civic Deficit

Sheila Suess Kennedy

Professor of Law & Public Policy

Erin Braun, MPA Student

Adriene Tynes, MPA Student

School of Public & Environmental Affairs

Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis


Available data gives evidence of a widespread lack of constitutional competence and civic literacy in the United States. The consequences of this ignorance are profound; the current polarization in American political discourse has been significantly enabled by widespread ignorance of the most basic American constitutional principles.

Self-government in a liberal democratic state requires an educated citizenry. When a polity is diverse, as in the United States, it becomes particularly important that citizens know the history and philosophy of their governing institutions; in the absence of other ties—race, religion, national origin—a common devotion to constitutional principles is critical to the formation of national identity. That devotion, however, must be based on genuine understanding of the history and context of our constituent documents.

This paper addresses the deficit in American civic literacy, building upon available survey and anecdotal data; it also explores hypothesized connections between deficits in civic literacy and increases in political polarization and governmental dysfunction.

Introduction: The Problem

Available data from a multitude of sources gives evidence of a widespread lack of constitutional competence and civic literacy in the United States. The statistics are depressing: Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government (Annenberg, 2007). Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism (NAEP, 2006). Only 35.5% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution (National Constitution Center, 1998). The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies indicates that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power. (A comparison between the 1998, 2006 and 2010 exams can be found in Appendix 1. The 2010 results were released May, 2011.)

Survey after survey adds to the dismal picture, and while the various ways in which the questions are asked and the answers tallied may result in slightly different percentages depending upon the survey, the overall conclusions are consistent and discouraging.  A 1998 study conducted by the National Constitution Center found that more American teenagers were able to name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government (59% to 41%), and more knew the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air than could name the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (94.7% to 2.2%). Although 58.3% were able to name Bill Gates as the “father” of Microsoft, only 1.8% could identify James Madison as the father of the Constitution.

During the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan, Findlaw fielded a survey assessing public knowledge of the Supreme Court. This was during a time when news about the Court and arguments about the Justices was prominent; despite that heightened public attention, nearly two-thirds of respondents could not name a single member of the Court.

Earlier this year, Newsweek Magazine, in a story titled “How Dumb Are We?” revealed the sort of survey research results that drive high-school history teachers to drink. Out of the 1000 Americans who took the test, 29% could not name the Vice-President of the United States, 73% couldn’t identify the reasons for the Cold War, and 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights.

In an article written for the International Journal of Public Administration, William Galston noted that “It turns out that today’s college graduates know no more about politics than high school graduates did 50 years ago, and today’s high school graduates are no more knowledgeable than were high school dropouts of the past” (Galston, 2007).

Some of the available research argues that civic ignorance has remained relatively constant over time. During the 1990s, Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter reviewed thousands of questions from three groups of surveys administered over a four-decade period.

They concluded that there was statistically little difference among the knowledge levels of the parents of the Silent Generation of the 1950s, the parents of the Baby Boomers of the 1960s, and American parents today. (Shenkman 2008)

Other research suggests that civic literacy has, in fact, declined, particularly for twelfth grade students[1].  At the end of the day, however, whether our current low levels represent a decline is less important than the fact that they may be too low to sustain democratic governance. Data reinforcing that message is plentiful. As Niemi and Junn wrote in Civic Education and Knowledge,

More recently, demonstrating the ignorance of the public has become something of a cottage industry, with one researcher after another trying to find a more absurd example of what Americans do not know about politics and government or a more apt metaphor to express their collective ignorance. (1998)

Whatever its causes, the consequences of civic ignorance are profound.  Self-government in a liberal democratic state requires a civically educated citizenry. When a polity is very diverse, as in the United States, it becomes particularly important that citizens know the history and philosophy of their governing institutions; in the absence of other ties—race, religion, national origin—a common understanding of, and devotion to, constitutional principles is critical to the formation of national identity.  Devotion, however, must be based on genuine understanding of the history and context of our constituent documents if it is to enable, rather than impede, deliberative discourse.

Furthermore, although deficits in civic literacy are widely understood to be corrosive to civic life and democratic institutions, scholars have increasingly recognized that such deficits have real and deleterious consequences for fields as diverse as science[2], religion, and public education, as well as for the personal empowerment and agency of individuals (Parker, 2006; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004; Shoemaker, 1998; Ferris, 2010; Prothero, 2007).

As the foregoing paragraphs indicate, scholars and educators have expressed concern over inadequacies in civic literacy and citizenship education for a very long time. Periodically, efforts are mounted to increase requirements for civic and constitutional content, generally in the context of government or “social studies” classes. Most recently, in 2003, the Alliance for Representative Democracy launched the Congressional Conferences on Civic Education[3], an annual meeting funded by the U.S. Department of Education, designed to galvanize stakeholders into improving civic education in the states. Evidence indicates it did originally have an effect.  Between 2005 and 2007, 26 states proposed initiatives related to improving civic education, primarily through the creation of task forces, commissions and councils and/or curriculum development (Representative Democracy in America, 2007). However, these efforts followed the typical trajectory of such reform movements—an initial burst of enthusiasm followed by limited implementation. A handful of these endeavors resulted in new state standards of instruction and/or curricular innovations[4].

As we explain in Section II, one of the problems with these well-intentioned efforts is that there is little or no agreement on what constitutes “civics education.”  Another is that there has been little or no accountability for actual implementation of the standards that do exist, with the result that the vast majority of new initiatives have had a very limited impact.  Worse, despite the plethora of evidence showing a deficit in basic civic knowledge, several states are now reducing social studies and civics requirements in order to focus on subjects tested under the No Child Left Behind Act, and the federal government’s fiscal deficit reduction efforts have included withdrawal of funding for programs with demonstrated efficacy, including but not limited to the much-lauded We The People: The Citizen and the Constitution program.

Civic Literacy, State Standards and Curricula

Any effort to compare the efficacy of various approaches to civic literacy founders first upon a basic problem in communication: Civics means very different things to different people. If one explores the reams of data and research available, it soon becomes apparent that people are not identifying the same deficits, nor concerned with the same criteria. So we have articles bemoaning low levels of “community engagement” and volunteering (Walling 2007), and others trying to assess “civic skills,” defined as “the ability to gather and interpret information, speak and listen, engage in dialogue about differences, resolve conflicts, reach agreements, collaborate with peers, understand formal government, and advocate” (Civic Youth, 2010). In the process of our literature review, we came across multiple terms that are used interchangeably in discussions of civic education: civic education, civic learning, civic literacy, government, social studies, law-related education, U.S. History, citizenship education and others.

A survey of social studies teachers found broad agreement on five priorities for citizenship education: internalizing core values like tolerance and equality; promoting civic behaviors like voting and community service; instilling good work habits; understanding the key principles of American government; and teaching key facts, dates and major events (Schmitt, Hess, Farkas, Duffett, Miller & Schuette, 2010). Interestingly, from a list of twelve items, 83% of social studies teachers believe it is essential for high schools to teach students to “identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights”. When fewer than half the country’s eighth graders can identify the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and only 6% of participants in a National Constitution Center survey can name all four rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, we are clearly not achieving this essential goal.

Whatever the merits of these broader understandings and skill sets, our focus in this paper is considerably narrower. We define the essential core of civics education as civic literacy, by which we mean an acquaintance with, and an understanding of the history, philosophy and text of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. As we explain in more detail in Section III, we view this core knowledge in much the same way as we might view a common language or common frame of reference—as a necessary condition for genuine communication.

In an effort to find out what the various states are doing to transmit civic literacy, we called the Departments of Public Education in all fifty states[5]. The complete results of that inquiry are attached in chart form and can be found in Appendix 3. The left-hand column lists the states in alphabetical order, the second column describes the graduation requirements in Social Studies generally, and the fourth column notes graduation requirements in civics, specifically. Perhaps the most noteworthy information, however, appears in the third and fifth columns, which note whether there is any state assessment of the achievement of those requirements.  In other words, columns three and five indicate whether a given standard is taken seriously enough for its success to be assessed, or whether the standard is essentially aspirational.

As the chart rather clearly shows, there is very little assessment of either the broader “social studies” requirements or the more specific “civics” requirements. The chart also lays out, in rather stark fashion, the variance in courses considered to be part of “social studies” or “civics” curricula.  While many states offer, and often require, a course in American Government, which frequently includes civic education topics, very few states require students to take a course dedicated exclusively to civic education. Even when accounting for states that offer civics as part of another course, or as standards within the curriculum, less than half the states have graduation requirements in civics courses specifically. Only 14 states provide a course dedicated to civics in some way, and it is most often listed as “civics or government”[6]. Only eight states actually require their students to demonstrate civic literacy through state assessments. In an educational climate teaching largely to the test, this is cause for further concern.

E Pluribus Unum?

If, as many scholars assert, American citizens have always displayed low levels of civic literacy, why the current alarm? Is it really important that citizens recognize, for example, the Enlightenment roots of our constituent documents?  Is it not sufficient that our legal system has fostered what some have dubbed a “Constitutional culture,” (Kennedy, 2007, 2010) in which citizens have internalized values like free speech, religious liberty and equality before the law? Is it really necessary that citizens recognize the Constitutional and historical roots of those values?

We submit that it is, and that the toxic nature of contemporary political discourse is evidence of what happens when different groups of citizens inhabit quite different realities. In 2003, the University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes (Kull, Ramsay, Subias, Lewis, & Ward, 2003) conducted a study that revealed a majority of Americans had significant misperceptions about the war in Iraq. 48% incorrectly believed that links between al Qaeda and Iraq were found, 22% believed that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, and 25% believed that world public opinion favored the United States going to war in Iraq.

However, the study also revealed that the frequency of these misconceptions increased significantly depending on the participant’s primary news source. Fox News viewers had the highest frequency of misperceptions, with 80% of its viewers having one or more. Fox News was followed by CBS (71%), ABC (61%), NBC and CNN (55%), and Print media (47%). PBS-NPR viewer-listeners had the lowest frequency of misperceptions at 23%. Examining the misperceptions individually, Fox News viewers consistently had the highest level, with PBS-NPR viewer-listeners consistently having the fewest (Kull, et al. 2003)

America has always been among the world’s most diverse countries; we are a polity composed of many different ethnicities, races and religions, with different histories, different cultural antecedents. In prior times, those differences were countered to some extent by widely shared cultural experiences: reading the daily newspaper, discussing programs that aired on one of three television broadcast networks, attending public schools, registering for the military draft.  In our increasingly differentiated, “niched” and privatized social landscape, citizens no longer have those or many other avenues of shared communication and experience.

At the same time, the nation’s diversity has grown exponentially.

As recently as 1970, the U.S. population was nearly entirely classified as either White or Black, and the population of races other than White or Black was only 2.9 million, or 1.4 percent of the population. By 2000, the number of people in the United States who were of races other than White or Black had grown to 35 million, comparable in size to the Black population. (Hobbs & Stoops, 2002)

Hobbs and Stoops go on to report that the United States in 2000 is much more racially diverse than in 1900.

At the beginning of the century, just 1 out of 8 Americans was of a race other than White. At the end of the century, the proportion was 1 out of 4. The decade-to-decade trend shows that this increasing diversity is largely a phenomenon of the second half of the century…The Minority population grew 11 times as rapidly as the White non-Hispanic population between 1980 and 2000.

The Bureau of the Census also notes the growth of the Hispanic population. In Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010 Census Briefs, it reports that

Growth in diversity is evident in every region of the United States over the last 10 years.  The Western region tops the charts with nearly 50% of its population identifying as minority in the 2010 census.  In our neck of the woods, the minority population makes up nearly a quarter of residents in the American heartland…Texas, D.C., Hawaii and New Mexico have a “majority-minority” population.

The examination of racial and ethnic group distributions nationally shows that while the non-Hispanic White alone population is still numerically and proportionally the largest major race and ethnic group in the United States, it is also growing at the slowest rate. During the past 10 years, it has been the Hispanic population and the Asian population that have grown considerably, in part due to relatively higher levels of immigration.

There has also been a massive increase in the number of people responding to census inquiries by identifying with more than one race, an option that has only recently been available to them.

In 2008, the Census Bureau issued “An Older and More Diverse Nation by Midcentury,” a report predicting that “Minorities, now roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050. By 2023, minorities will comprise more than half of all children.”  (Recently, the predicted date by which the country will become majority-minority has been moved up.)

Of course, it isn’t only racial identity that differentiates Americans. Religious diversity is growing as well. In 2008, Kosmin and Keysar published the “American Religious Identification Survey”, which found among other things that during the period between 1990 and 2008, the percentage of persons who self-identified as belonging to a religion other than Christianity grew slightly while the number of those self-identifying as Christians declined nearly 10 percent. One of the most significant changes in religious self-identification came from the “none” category, which increased by nearly 7 percent. Furthermore, those statistics ignore the significant differences among Christians, whose allegiances are spread among nearly 2000 reported Christian denominations.  There is a very robust literature detailing the stark differences between the more literalist and modernist Christian denominations, to choose just one example. Those differences have long constituted a fault-line in American politics.

If Americans are to constitute a polity, rather than a collection of tribes—if we are to forge unum from our ever-increasing pluribus, we need an overarching national mythos to which all of our disparate communities can subscribe. If ever-growing diversity poses a significant challenge to America’s social cohesion, we must identify commonalities that enable and define the collective civic enterprise, that define what makes one an American.  The United States’ national motto is e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one.” Prominent social and political theorists have long argued that a common belief structure, or “civil religion,” is required in order to turn the many into the one.

The term “civil religion” was first coined in 1967 by Robert N. Bellah, in “Civil Religion in America,” an article that remains the standard reference for the concept. The proper content of such a civil religion, however, has been the subject of debate since the Revolutionary War. Over the past decades, as the nation’s diversity has dramatically increased, that debate has taken on added urgency, with political theorists, sociologists and scholars of religion all offering their perspectives to political and religious leaders.

In a culture as diverse as that of the United States, a “civil religion” or common value structure is what provides citizens with a sense of common purpose and identity. Despite the claims of some conservative Christians, Christianity does not provide that social glue; the United States is not and has never been an officially Christian Nation, although it has historically been culturally Protestant.  The U.S. Constitution contains no reference to deity, and specifically rejects the use of any religious test for citizenship or public office. In order to be consistent with the Constitution, any civil religion must respect the nation’s commitment to individual autonomy in matters of belief, while still providing an overarching value structure to which most, if not all, citizens can subscribe. This is no small task in a nation founded upon the principle that government must be neutral among belief systems. This constitutionally-required state neutrality has long been a source of considerable political tension between citizens intent upon imposing their religious beliefs on their neighbors and those who reject efforts to enforce religious hegemony. Thus far, no theorized civil religion has been entirely able to resolve that conflict.

But Americans do endorse an overarching ideology or “civil religion.”  It is a belief system based upon the values of individual liberty and equal rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Informed adherence to that belief system provides the mythos essential to national identity. In order for our constitutional system to fulfill this role, however, there must be a shared understanding of American history and Constitutional principles. At the 2009 Opening Assembly for the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting, retired Associate Justice David Souter challenged the organization’s members to “take on the job of making American civic education real again”, and identified the current lack of civic literacy as “a risk to constitutional government” (American Bar Association, 2009). As we have seen, despite the fervent public embrace of the Constitution by various partisans, Americans are woefully, embarrassingly ignorant of the history and philosophical premises of our system. (A 1997 poll conducted by the National Constitution Center concluded that Americans “revere” the Constitution, but have absolutely no idea what is in it. Much, one suspects, like the Bible.)

One of the unfortunate consequences of that profound ignorance is that—rather than operating to bring Americans together—inadequate understanding produces unnecessary conflict. In some cases, constitutionally-required state neutrality is seen as “bias” favoring “the other side.”  Failure to allow government to shut down a “dirty” bookstore or remove an “indecent” book from the local library is seen as an endorsement of smut; failure to prevent a Klan rally is decried as promoting hatred; allowing students to pray around the flagpole before school is trumpeted as evidence of the erosion of separation of church and state. Without a basic understanding of the limits on state action and majority preferences imposed by the Constitution, citizens misunderstand both the role of the judiciary and the context and meaning of judicial decisions.

When citizens do not understand the rules, they are susceptible to arguments that those rules have been broken. The use of so-called “wedge issues” by politicians pandering to various constituencies is enabled and abetted by widespread public ignorance of very basic constitutional principles. It is not necessary that citizens be constitutional scholars, or that they agree with prior court interpretations of constitutional principles, or even that they agree with the principles themselves. But it is critical that they understand them.  We need a balanced, historically accurate conversation that acknowledges the legitimacy of grounded political and philosophical disputes, a conversation that grows out of a shared understanding of the basic architecture of our constitution.   Widespread historical ignorance abets the growing number of partisans who have a vested interest in disinformation.  We see this in the fulminations of politicians pandering to Tea Party activists, and perhaps most clearly in the claims and counterclaims of so-called “culture warriors,” where we get fabricated—or at best, distorted—history from all sides,

Contemporary literalists insist that the Founders were all pious Christians who understood themselves to be writing a Constitution for a specifically Protestant culture, while modernists insist the Founders were all Freethinkers and Enlightenment rationalists whose decision to draft a secular Constitution was an effort to free the new country from the superstitions of the Old World.  An honest civic education would stress the importance of religion to the early settlers, and its continued relevance to the context within which our Constitution was drafted. It would acknowledge the “Godless” nature of the federal constitution, but it would also acknowledge that the Constitutional silence on religion was prompted as much by political considerations as philosophical commitments, and that the document’s secular nature was offset by state constitutions that “established” religion.

An adequate civic education would also help citizens understand the importance and consequences of the Fourteenth Amendment, which some scholars (most notably Akhil Amar) call America’s “second founding.” Partisans are certainly entitled to debate “states’ rights” and local control, but those arguments should at least begin with an understanding of the historical evolution of America’s constitutional system, and should acknowledge that, like it or not, the limits on government action in the Bill of Rights do apply to state and local governments.

Conclusion and Recommendations

There is more than adequate evidence of a deficit in American civic literacy. There are more than enough individuals and organizations trying to address that deficit. (Even an incomplete list would be several pages long.) We even know what curricula have been demonstrated to be effective in promoting constitutional literacy. (See Appendix 4 for a summary of research on educational and behavioral outcomes of the We The People curriculum, for example.)

What we do not have is

  • A nationally agreed-upon definition of the essential elements of sound civics education and civic literacy,
  • a sound understanding of why prior efforts to improve civic and constitutional knowledge have failed to demonstrate staying power,
  • a working hypothesis identifying achievable, sustainable measures to remedy the situation.

It is to those tasks that we must now turn.


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2010 Census briefs: Overview of race and Hispanic origins. (2011, March). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-02.pdf

Enacted Legislation on Civic Education. (2007). Representative Democracy. Retrieved May, 2011, from http://www.representativedemocracy.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=vHBkjVSpwrM%3d&tabid=61&mid=400

Galston, W. A. (2007). Civic knowledge, civic education, and civic engagement: A summary of recent research. International Journal of Public Administration, 30, 623-642


Helping State Leaders Shape Education Policy–Education Commission of the States. (n.d.). Education Commission of the States–Helping State Leaders Shape Education Policy. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from http://www.ecs.org/ecsmain.asp?page=/html/educationIssues/CitizenshipEducation/CitEdDB_intro.asp

Highlights of Survey – National Constitution Center. (1997, September). National Constitution Center – Near Independence Hall in Historic Philadelphia. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from http://ratify.constitutioncenter.org/CitizenAction/CivicResearchResults/NCCNationalPoll/HighlightsofthePoll.shtml

Hobbs, F., & Stoops, N. (2002). Census 2000 special reports: Demographic trends in the 20th century (Rep. No. Series CENSR-4). Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Knight, D. B., Mappen, E. F., & Knight, S. L. (2011, January 18). A Review of the Literature on Increasing the Representation of Women Undergraduates in STEM Disciplines Through Civic Engagement Pedagogies. Science Education and Civic Engagement. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from http://www.seceij.net/seceij/winter11/women_undergrad.html

Kosmin, B. A., & Keysar, A. (2008). (Rep.). Retrieved May 30, 2011, from Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut website: http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/reports/ARIS_Report_2008.pdf

Kull, S., Ramsay, C., Subias, S., Lewis, E., & Warf, P. (2003, October 2). Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War. World Public Opinion. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/international_security_bt/102.php?nid=

NAEP – Civics 2006: The Nation’s Report Card. (2006). NAEP – Nation’s Report Card Home. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from http://nationsreportcard.gov/civics_2006/

NAEP – Nation’s Report Card Home (Rep.). (2011, May). Retrieved May 30, 2011, from National Center for Education Statistics website: http://nationsreportcard.gov/civics_2010/

Newsroom: Population: An Older and More Diverse Nation by Midcentury. (2008, August 14). Census Bureau Home Page. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb08-123.html

Resources. (2010, May 29). Representative Democracy in America Home. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from http://www.representativedemocracy.org/Resources.aspx

Schmitt, G. J., Hess, F. M., Farkas, S., Duffett, A., Miller, C., & Schuette, J. (2010, September 30). AEI – Papers. Welcome to AEI. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from http://www.aei.org/paper/100145

Souter challenges ABA: ‘Make civic education real again’. (2009, August 3). American Bar Association Division for Media Relations & Communications Services. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from http://www.abanow.org/2009/08/souter-challenges-aba-%E2%80%98make-civic-education-real-again%E2%80%99/

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Stedman, L.C. (2009). The NAEP long-term trend assessment: A review of its transformation, use and findings. Paper commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the  National Assessment Governing Board. Retrieved from http://www.nagb.org/who-we-are/20-anniversary/stedman-long-term-formatted.pdf

Appendix 1: NAEP Results: Comparison of Civics Assessments

NAEP civics results

comparison of available Recent data from the nation’s report cards

About NAEP:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a biennial, Congressionally mandated survey, and is considered the nation’s largest test on a range of subjects, including civics. The tests stay virtually the same year to year, allowing decent comparisons. NAEP began in 1964 by an endowment from the Carnegie Corporation, with the first assessment taking place in 1969. States could voluntarily participate as of 1990, a feature that became permanent every two years for NAEP.

NAEP frameworks:

Each NAEP assessment is built around a framework.  Currently, there are frameworks in art, civics, economics, foreign language, geography, math, reading, science, U.S. history and writing.

  • NAEP civics assessment framework: The first national assessments, administered in 1969-1970 tested science, writing and citizenship. Civics has been assessed seven other times, 1972, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1998, 2006 and 2010. Two of these assessments (’76 and ’82) were only part of a larger assessment of social studies. However, in 1988, the assessment focused solely on civics, as did the 2006 and 2010 assessments.
Subjects Years
Citizenship 1969–70
Social Studies (including Citizenship) 1971–72
Citizenship/Social Studies 1975–76
Citizenship and Social Studies 1981–82
Civics 1988
Civics 1998
Civics 2006
Civics 2010
Civics next scheduled to be tested in 2014

Determining trends in the NAEP civics assessments is a complicated task. Throughout the years, the assessments have “shifted from ages to grades, from percent correct to scale scores, and used different scales. Putting them together, however, reveals a rough pattern of a modest decline over several decades followed by level performance” (Stedman, 2009, p. 14). This statement was made prior to the 2010 results being released, however. Those results indicate a statistically significant decline in a number of areas regarding civic literacy. Table is from Stedman’s 2009 report with 2010’s recent results added:

Civics Achievement, Age 17 and Grade 12
Age 17 1969 1972 1976 1982 1988 1998 2006 2010
Citizenship Knowledge (Percent Correct) 73 65*
Social Studies Knowledge (Percent Correct) 64 59
Civics Proficiency (scale score 0 to 100) 61.7 61.3 59.6*
Grade 12
Civics Performance (Percent Correct) 68 66
Civics Proficiency (scale score 0 to 300) 150 151 148*
Civics Achievement, Age 13 and Grade 8
Age 13
Citizenship Knowledge (Percent Correct) 65 62*
Social Studies Knowledge (Percent Correct) 50 48
Civics Proficiency (scale score 0 to 100) 49.1 49.1 50
Grade 8
Civics Performance (Percent Correct) 64 62*
Civics Proficiency (scale score 0 to 300) 150 150 151
*A statistically significant change at the .05 level. Other changes were not significant.

The results of the 2010 Civics Assessment were released in May of 2011. Here is a summary of the findings, taken directly from the report.

  • Fourth graders have significantly increased scores on each of the exams.
  • Eighth graders have not significantly changed since 1998.
  • Twelfth graders significantly declined since 2006.
  • Eighth grade Hispanic students’ scores showed gains. The average score in 2010 for Hispanic students was 5 points higher than in 2006 and 10 points higher than in 1998.
  • At the twelfth grade level, only 24% of students scored at the Proficient level (a decrease from 2006).
  • At the twelfth grade level, the average score for female students declined significantly (p < .05).
  • Despite these results, 97% of twelfth graders reported studying civics or government in high school.
  • The percentage of students studying the U.S. Constitution significantly (p < .05) decreased between 2006 (72%) and 2010 (67).

Appendix 2: Enacted Legislation on Civic Education, 2004-2007

Introduced by Legislator attendees (and others) to the Congressional Conferences on Civic Education. As reported by the Alliance for Representative Democracy.



Kentucky: SJR 80 Introduced by Sen. Jack Westwood*

Urges the establishment of a committee to evaluate existing school civic literacy programs, determine a strategy for enhancing long-term civic education and recommend a plan for implementing a civic education program.

Maine: LD 1915, LR 2688B Introduced by Rep. Cummings.

Resolves to implement the recommendations of the Maine Task Force on Citizenship Education to strengthen civic learning.

Utah: HB 22 Introduced by Rep. LaVar Christensen*

Provides legislative recognition that civic education are fundamental elements of the public education system’s core mission and constitutional responsibility and are required to be

included in the curriculum of the public education system; requires that such education to be

included in social studies curriculum for grades 1-12; consolidates teaching requirements.


California: Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 30 Introduced by Assemblyman Kevin


This measure would urge the State Board of Education and all local school governing bodies to

examine current practice and develop plans to increase and broaden emphasis on principles of

democracy in the schools of California.

Colorado: SB05-200 (amendment to budget bill) Introduced by Sen. Stengel and Sen. Sue


Allocates $200,000 from the State Education Fund to promote the teaching of the US Constitution to Colorado Schoolchildren. Funds allocated to Center for Education in Law and

Democracy (Congressional Conference State Facilitator) to develop professional development

in civic learning.

Illinois: HB 1336 Introduced by Rep. Suzanne Bassi*

Amends the School Code. Requires teachers to teach students character education, which

includes the teaching of respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, trustworthiness, and citizenship, in order to raise pupils’ honesty, kindness, justice, discipline, respect for others,

and moral courage for the purpose of lessening crime and raising the standard of good character (now, requires teachers to teach pupils honesty, kindness, justice, discipline, respect

for others, and moral courage for the purpose of lessening crime and raising the standard of

good citizenship)

Kentucky: HR. 109 Introduced by Rep. Tanya Pullin*

Designates October as “Civic Literacy Month;” calls on Delegation and Workgroup to publicize and promote teacher’s civic education activities.

Louisiana: SB 39 Introduced by Sen. Gerald Theunissen*

Creates an 18 member Louisiana Commission on Civic Education. Provides for specific

Commission membership and duties to promote civic education, act as a clearinghouse for

civic education in the State and to promote communication among entities providing civic


Montana: SJR 12 Introduced by: Sen. Sam Kitzenberg*

The Board of Public Education & Superintendent of Public Instruction are encouraged to

promote instruction in government, law, history and democracy; incorporate discussion of

current events into the classroom; provide students with service learning opportunities; offer

extra-curricular activities that provide for involvement in school and the community and

encourage student participation in school governance.

North Dakota: HB 1013 North Dakota Schools Funding Act

During markup on the ND Schools Appropriations measure, ND Senate Appropriations

Committee Chair (and Cong Conf Facilitator) Ray Holmberg* added an amendment

appropriating $150,000 to the State Dept. of Education to develop, publish, and distribute a

North Dakota studies textbook and workbook including civic education for both grades four

and eight.

Rhode Island: Senate Bill 864, House Bill 5748 Introduced by: Senator Hanna Gallo* and Rep.

Susan Story*

Directed the Rhode Island Board of Regents for elementary and secondary education to

develop a curriculum for civic education and to disseminate the curriculum.

Vermont: S.119 Introduced by Sen. Matt Dunne*

Directs the VT Legislative Council to develop and implement civic ed programs, materials and

activities which facilitate connections between legislator’s the and young people of VT. List

types of programs, materials and activities envisioned; calls for a website listing these

materials and provides a $70,000 appropriation to carry out provisions.

Virginia: HB 1769 Introduced by: Delegate James Dillard*

Creates a 21 member Virginia Commission on Civic Education (members are specified and

include the two VA Facilitators); calls for the Commission to identify civic education projects

in the state and offer technical assistance to same, build a network of civic education

professionals to share information and build partnerships and to make recommendations to the

state Dept. of Ed regarding revisions to the Standards of Learning for civics and government.

This measure carries a $50,000 per year appropriations for expenses of the Commission.


Arizona: SB 1562 Introduced by Sen. Tim Bee* (State Facilitator) and others.

HB 2788 Introduced by Rep. Jennifer Burns* and others.

These identical measures created the Arizona Commission on Civic Education and Civic

Engagement. The Commission has 13 appointed members. The Commission is empowered to

promote civic engagement; collaborate with public, private and non profit sectors to develop

and coordinate outreach programs with schools to provide civic education; to identify and

provide technical assistance to civic education programs in the state; to build a network of

civic education professionals and programs to share information and establish a database of

civic education resources, best practices and lesson plans; and make recommendations to

improve civic education to the appropriate officials. The Commission will have a ten-year life.

Idaho: HCR 33 Introduced by Rep. Tom Trail* & Reps. Nielson & Kemp.

Short Description: This measure urges the Secretary of State with the assistance of the State

department of education to convene a state summit on civic learning and to form a committee

to plan and carry out the summit. The bill also calls for a report of the findings of the summit

to the secretary of State and State Superintendent of Education ‘…for future action.’ The bill

calls for the Office of Civics, Service Character and International Education (directed by

Facilitator Dan Prinzing) to ‘facilitate the summit planning committee’.

Legislation passed, not signed by Governor, Summit was held 12/06.

Maryland: SB 47, Introduced by Sen. Gwinn Britt *

Short Description: Recognizing the importance of civic literacy and engagement; encourages

State Officials to convene a summit on civic literacy; tasks CIRCLE and Cong Conf delegation

for assistance with Summit; requires report from summit to state officials.

Massachusetts: S.340 & H5374 by Sen. Richard Moore* and Rep. Mike Rush*

A bill establishing an official state commission on civic education. Note this bill was passed

twice during the 2006 Legislative Session and was vetoed by the former Governor. The

introducers are re filing the bill in the 2007 Session.

New Hampshire: SB 323, Introduced by Sen. Bob Odell* and others, House version sponsored

by Rep. Debra Naro* and others.

Short Description: Establishes a Legislative Youth Advisory Council of 21 members between

the ages of 15-22, one of whom shall be a member of the senate, one a member of the House.

The Council would advise the General Court (legislature) on proposed legislation affecting


Rhode Island: Identical measures H 7620 and S 2990 introduced by Sen. Juan Pichardo, and


Short Description: Both H 7620 and S 2990 creates a commission to examine legislation

relating to youth and would require the general assembly to have an opinion from the

commission prior to acting on the legislative proposal.

Tennessee: SB 2586 and companion HB 2808, Introduced by: Sen. Jamie Woodson); House –

Rep. Les Winningham*

Short Description: This Bill establishes the Tennessee Commission on Civic Education. The

Commission has 15 appointed members. The Commission is empowered to 1. research current

policies and practice; 2. make recommendations to the governor and Legislature of any policies

it deems necessary to correct and deficiencies found; 3. to make a report to the Legislature

within one year of its establishment.

Utah: H.B. 339 Introduced by Rep. LaVar Christensen* ; Senate Sponsor: Sen. Chris Buttars*

Short Description: This bill establishes a seven member Utah Commission on Civic and

Character Education, chaired by the Lt. Governor. The Commission is empowered to promote

supportive coalitions and collaborative efforts to develop public awareness and training

regarding (civic and character education); and to provide leadership to the state’s continuous

focus on civic and character education in the public schools and institutions of higher

education and to make recommendations to local school boards and school administrators. The

Bill calls for the Commission to receive a $50,000 appropriation.

Vermont: H425 (and H867 by amendment), Introduced by Rep. Kathy LaVoie*

Short Description: This measure creates a Council on Civic Education chaired by the

Commissioner of Education with the Secretary of State and other members identified in the

Bill. The Council is empowered to continually assess the status of civic education in Vermont

schools; to make recommendations to policymakers to enhance civic education; maintain an

inventory of civic education resources; assess and recommend best practices in civic education;

build and maintain a network of civic education professionals to share information; help

coordinate an alignment of civic education curricula at all levels including higher education

and prepare an annual report of its activities.

Washington: HB 2579 introduced by Rep. David Upthegrove* and Sen. Stephen Johnson*.

Short Description: This was one of two measures introduced to support the Classroom Based

Assessment in Civic Education developed by the State Department of Public Instruction . This

Bill adds legislative consent to the CBAs and provides financing for the DPI to implement


Enacted legislation.

Wisconsin: SJR 41 Introduced Sens. Luther Olsen* & Bob Jauch* (and others).

Short Description: This Bill calls for an officially recognized state summit in partnership with

the State Department of Public Instruction; and that the Summit prepare a report and list of

recommendations for improving civic education.


Alaska: HCR 06 Introduced by Speaker of the House John Harris

This legislation established a citizens’ advisory task force to review Alaska’s civics content

standards, recommend and develop effective civics curricula, and propose strategies for the

professional development of teachers. Includes appropriation.

Georgia: HR 855 Introduced by Representative Tom Dickson

A resolution recognizing and expressing support for civic education in our public schools,

endorsing continued participation in the Congressional Conference on Civic Education and the

work of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies.

Illinois: HB 2787 Introduced by Rep. William Davis* and others

This measure authorizes Regional Superintendents to make grants from the grant fund

established by HB 606 to schools that complete a ‘Civic Education Audit’ of their school. The

audit will be designed by the Illinois Civic Mission of Schools Coalition (the IL Campaign)

and will be used to fund professional development for civics teachers.

Maryland: SB 492 Introduced by Sen. Gwendolyn Britt*

This bill established a Commission on Civic Literacy, set the membership of the Commission,

and required the State Dept. of Education to provide staff and support to the Commission. The

assigned tasks of the Commission are to develop and coordinate programs in collaboration

with schools to educate students in the importance of, among others: 1) reasoned debate, good

faith, negotiation, and compromise in representative democracy; 2) individual involvement in

creating successful communities; and 3) build a network of education professionals to share

information and strengthen partnerships.

New Hampshire: HB 167 Sponsored by Rep. Tim Dunn

This bill adds civics and economics to the required areas of assessment in the statewide

improvement and assessment program, and specifies that the assessment shall be conducted in

grades 3 through 8 and one grade in high school.

New Mexico: S724, Introduced by Sen. H. Diane Snyder*

This bill creates a $30,000 civic education professional development fund within the State

Department of Education. The New Mexico Campaign will be involved with the establishment

of criteria for the fund. Originally passed by both houses in 2006 and vetoed by the governor,

this bill was reintroduced and passed successfully in 2007.

North Dakota: Appropriations measure for Dept. of Public Instruction

Sen. Ray Holmberg (Facilitator for ND)* introduced and passed an amendment to the

Department’s Appropriation providing $30,000 to “enhance civic education programs in North

Dakota. Last year Sen. Holmberg passed an amendment to the Department’s Appropriations

providing $50,000 for a new civics text and other civic ed projects

Oregon: HB 2584 Introduced by Rep. Buckley, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici*, and others

Creates a Task Force on Civic and Financial Education that will study and make

recommendations about how to increase and improve civics and financial education in K-12

public schools.

Oregon: SB 2584 Introduced by Rep. Buckley, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici*, and others

Increases the appropriations to the Dept. of Education for civic education to $160,000.

Virginia: HR 627 Introduced by Del. Robert Tata*

A joint resolution designating the third week in September as Civics Education Week in


Washington: SB 5969 Introduced by Senators Kilmer, Devlin, Kastama and others

Creates a Civic Education Travel Grant Program within the State Department of Public

Instruction designed to assist school teams competing in state, national and international civic

education programs. This measure was amended onto HB 1052 (introduced by Rep. Dave

Upthegrove*), a measure creating a ‘Legislative Youth Advisory Council’ and passed with an


West Virginia: HR 33 Introduced by Del. David Perry*

This measure established the West Virginia Civic Literacy Council under the Co Chairmanship

of the WVA Secretary of Education & Arts and State Superintendent of Schools; names the

membership of the Council and states that the Council shall assess the status of civic education

in West Virginia, compile an inventory of civic engagement and service-learning opportunities

available to West Virginia students at all levels of education, make recommendations to

enhance civics education, and promote a network of civics education professionals to share

information and strengthen partnerships.

* = Congressional Conference on Civic Education attendee

Appendix 3: State by State Analysis of Civics Requirements and Assessments

[Excel Spreadsheet Included]

Appendix 4: Summary of Survey on We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution

Retrieved from www.civiced.org.

This evaluation brief represents selected findings from the December 2007 RMC Research Study. For the complete study, contact the RMC Research Corporation at rmc@rmcresearch.com or visit the Center for Civic Education at www.civiced.org.

We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution promotes understanding of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and American democracy. We the People was developed by the Center for Civic Education and is implemented in all 50 states. We the People programs are administered

by the Center for Civic Education and funded by the U.S. Department of Education under the Education for Democracy Act passed by the United States Congress.

In 2006–2007, the RMC Research Corporation conducted a quasi-experimental study to examine the effects of the We the People program on students’ political knowledge, civic skills, and civic attitudes. The study included 822 program participants who were compared to 735 students in matching high school government classes with similar demographics. In addition, We the People students’ post-survey scores were compared with the scores of 119 political science students at two universities.


  • Participating students made significantly greater gains than comparison students in their understanding of
    • Core values and principles of democracy
    • Constitutional limits on governmental institutions
    • Rights and responsibilities of citizenship
    • Participants also improved their civic skills, including their ability to analyze issues, to debate, to persuade, and to achieve group consensus.



Number of correct responses on Civic Knowledge items (p < .05)

UPDATE: This year, funding for the Center for Civic Education and the We the People program was eliminated.

[1] The 2010 NAEP Civics Assessment results showed that average scores for students in the fourth grade improved from the 1998 and 2006 assessments, with a significant (p < .05) improvement from 2006. Students in the eighth grade have not shown significant change in average scores since 1998. For twelfth graders, average scores and percentage at or above proficient in civics dropped from both the 1998 and 2006 assessments, indicating an alarming trend. In both categories, the 2010 numbers were significantly lower (p < .05) than 2006.

[2] Knight, Mappen & Knight (2011) note that the lens of civic engagement could be used to inspire more female enrollment in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, by connecting STEM topics to societal issues and producing a more responsible citizenry in scientific fields. The authors highlight Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER), the signature program of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, a national effort to teach science through the framework of civic issues (www.sencer.net).

[3] The Alliance for Representative Democracy (www.representativedemocracy.org) is a partnership between the Center for Civic Education, National Conference of State Legislatures and the Center on Congress at Indiana University. The Alliance administered four Congressional Conferences on Civic Education from 2003-2007. The Conferences were canceled in 2007 when funding was eliminated.

[4] See Appendix 2 for a list of legislation on civic education enacted between 2004-2007 by Congressional Conference attendees and others.

[5] The information in the chart was largely compiled from the Education Commission of the States National Center for Learning and Citizenship’s (NCLC) State Policies for Citizenship Education Database (www.ecs.org). The collection and analysis of this database is supported by CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

[6] It is important to note that many states have civics standards throughout their curriculum. We were looking for states that (a) offered a course dedicated to “civics”, (b) required “civics” to graduate, or (c) assessed “civics” as students left K-12 schools. Defining what a state considers “civic education” is a limiting factor of the information compiled and reported by the Education Commission of the States. Further research into this area is necessary.

My Traditional Family

Like so many Americans, my family has developed a number of holiday traditions. We always have Thanksgiving at my house, with children, grandchildren, step-children and “adoptees”—friends without their own families nearby. The day after, we put up the Kennedy Christmas Tree, ornamenting it with a few dreidles, a small replica of the Bill of Rights, and the usual assortment of baubles. We top our tree with a fancy yarmulke from one of the boys’ bar mitzvahs.

This Thanksgiving, as I looked around our steadily-lengthening table, I saw what I believe will increasingly be the truly “traditional” American family.

My sister and brother-in-law are Jewish, as are their two sons, both gay. My older nephew’s partner of eleven years is Philippine, although this year we celebrated his new status as an American citizen. My husband of thirty years is a non-practicing Christian (unless you count buying Christmas presents as religious). I’m a non-practicing Jew (at least, until I encounter an anti-Semite). We’re a blended family, and each of us brought a disabled child (now a disabled adult) into our marriage. Of our other three children, our daughter married an immigrant who has never applied for citizenship, although—being English—he’s almost never confronted anti-immigrant bias. They are Episcopalian. Our oldest granddaughter is gay, in college in Wales and in what appears to be a good relationship. Her brother, our oldest grandson, is twenty; he has been seriously involved with his African-American girlfriend since they were sophomores in high school.

Our middle son was home this Thanksgiving from New York, where he currently lives. (He thinks it’s really funny that when he goes to one of our local gay bars, so many people he meets know his mother). His younger brother was absent for the first time in memory—he and his wife and two small children were with my daughter-in-law’s family this year. My daughter-in-law was raised as a nondenominational Christian, but she and my non-practicing, non-religious son are raising the children Jewish. All the women at our Thanksgiving table have careers; the older among us, careers of long duration.

In addition to the family, we included once again this year an informally “adopted” family member (white, gay) whose mother is in a nursing home in southern Indiana. It occurs to me as I type this that—despite a friendship of nearly two decades—I have no idea what his religion is or was. (I do know his politics!)

So there we all were—gay, straight, black, white, Asian, Episcopalian, Jewish, agnostic. But we were—we are—a family, in every way that counts. We share political attitudes (no Bush defenders in this bunch, I’m happy to report). We laugh—a lot. We love each other, and I think I can honestly say that affection has never been based upon bloodlines or genetic relationships. (My youngest son knows perfectly well that if he ever split from his wife, I’d go with her.)

When I hear the folks on the Christian Right pontificating about the importance of the “traditional” family, I know they aren’t talking about my family. They are talking about the white, Anglo-Saxon (preferably blond), heterosexual, middle-class and middle-brow people pictured by Norman Rockwell on old Saturday Evening Post covers. That family was “normal” and predictable: One dad, who works. One mom, who stays home and bakes apple pies and takes care of the two tousled, freckled children (one male, one female) and the obligatory dog.

I may finally have found something that the Christian Right and I agree upon: the Norman Rockwell family is on its way out. The difference is, while they bemoan its demise, I look around my Thanksgiving table, and give thanks for the vibrant, interesting, self-aware, self-accepting and all-around wonderful human beings who’ve replaced those cardboard cut-outs.

Happy holidays!

Our Current Mess–a recent rant

[The other night, I spoke to the Washington Township Democratic Club, and thought I’d post those remarks here.]                                               


When I labeled this talk “The Current Mess” it was because I hadn’t decided what to talk about, and I figured “mess” covered pretty much anything I might choose—locally, I might be talking about our Mayor. (People tell me we do have one, although I’m dubious…). Or I could be talking about the state’s budget crisis, Mitch’s privatization fixation, or the multiple failures of what Harrison Ullmann used to call the World’s Worst Legislature. Nationally, there’s our economic meltdown, the fact that we are mired down in two ill-conceived and mismanaged wars, the damage that has been done to civil liberties and the justice system…well, you all know the drill.


But when I thought about it, I decided that there is a deeper problem—one that is really at the root of all the others. That problem is Americans’ loss of confidence and trust in government. I don’t mean our longstanding political debates about what government ought to do; those are both inevitable and in my opinion, productive. I’m talking about the de-legitimization of the whole enterprise of government. It is one thing to say that government should or should not do X; it’s another to say, as Ronald Reagan did, that government is the problem, not the solution.


I think our multiple current messes all begin with that attitude, with that scorn for using government to address even the most challenging of our collective civic problems. In my most recent book, Distrust, American Style (now available at a bookstore near you!!), I spend a lot of time discussing why Americans lost trust in our governing institutions. I actually wrote the book to address a different issue: the country’s growing diversity.


Because America is—and has always been—a remarkably heterogeneous country, we have long been consumed by the question “what is it that holds us together?”  The proper answer to that question, in my own opinion, is what one writer has called “our American covenant” and what I have called “The American Idea”—allegiance to the ideals that gave rise to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.


Many of you are familiar with Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam was worried about what the decline of civic clubs and bowling leagues meant for civic engagement. Well, more recently, Putnam has published research that led him to an even more troubling conclusion: he found that people who live in more ethnically diverse communities are less trusting of their neighbors than are people living in more homogeneous neighborhoods. And he found that they are less trusting of everyone, not just of those who belong to other ethnic groups.


Putnam’s original findings were controversial, but this current research has set off an academic firestorm.  Opponents of immigration, multiculturalism, and interfaith dialogue have seized upon Putnam’s research as evidence for their most paranoid fears. The article has especially been cited by opponents of immigration as proof that a continued influx of “others” will corrode the social fabric and doom the civic enterprise. You can almost hear Pat Buchanan urging “real” Americans to dig that moat.


When I began my research, I wanted to investigate whether this decline in what scholars call “generalized social trust,” assuming it had occurred, was really an outcome of increased diversity, or whether other aspects of contemporary civic life might be equally—or more—responsible. I also wanted to research whether the kind of trust America requires at this particular juncture in our national evolution is different from the kind needed in simpler, more rural communities, and if so, why and how.   In simpler societies, for example, we could depend on reputation to decide who was trustworthy. Gossip actually used to be valuable because it gave people information about who they could trust—and who they couldn’t. The prospect of a bad reputation that would become the source of gossip often was all it took to discourage untrustworthy behaviors. In more complicated societies, however, trust itself becomes more complicated. 


Think about it. We deposit our paychecks and take for granted that the funds will appear on our next bank statement. We make a deposit with the gas company without worrying whether they’ll turn on our heat. We mail checks to payees on the assumption that the envelopes will reach their destination, intact and unopened (if not always on time). We call the fire department and expect their prompt response. We even engage in internet transactions with merchants who may be located halfway around the world, merchants we’ve never dealt with before, because we trust their representations that their sites are secure and their merchandise will be shipped—the volume of business done in cyberspace multiplies exponentially month after month.


That kind of trust not only allows necessary social mechanisms to function, it makes our lives immeasurably more convenient and comfortable. But that isn’t trust in our neighbors; that’s trust in our common social institutions. And that’s where government comes in. Government is the largest and most important—not to mention the most pervasive—of our collective social mechanisms.


As America has grown larger and more complicated, the government has had to assume added responsibilities. Especially after the Depression, we recognized that citizens needed an “umpire,” a trustworthy institution to police and regulate a variety of business practices. Even the most ardent contemporary advocate of limited government is likely to concede the need for FDA regulations of food quality, for example. (I’m pretty libertarian, but I personally do not want so much “freedom” that I have to test the chicken I buy at my local Kroger for e coli. I prefer to trust the FDA.) Americans today rely on government agencies to ensure that our water is drinkable, our aircraft flyable, our roads passable, and much more.


It would be difficult to overstate the importance of our being able to trust government agencies to discharge these and similar functions properly. When America goes through a time where government is inept or corrupt, or both, as we have these past eight years, that confidence is shaken, and our skepticism and distrust affect more than just the political system. That is because trust in government institutions sets the tone for our confidence in all institutions. When we perceive that our government is not trustworthy, that perception infects the entire society. There was a reason the United States experienced so much upheaval and social discord in the wake of the Watergate scandal.


In urban communities and complex societies, we will never know most of our neighbors, even by sight. The informal mechanisms people employed in simpler social settings—reputation, gossip, identity—can no longer carry the information we require, cannot give us the guidance we need. We don’t have many places like the bar in Cheers, places where everyone knows your name. We have no alternative but to put our trust in the complex web of institutions we have created—the police and other government agencies, Better Business Bureaus, watchdog industry groups and the like—to discharge their responsibility for maintaining the trustworthiness of our economic and social systems.


In my book, I identified two culprits responsible for our loss of trust: one unwitting, and one just witless. The unwitting culprit is privatization, and I spend a whole chapter on the Goldsmith administration. (You’ll need to read the book to see the connection between institutional trust and privatization, but it’s only $14 at Amazon.com) Now, advocates of government contracting aren’t intentionally trying to make government less trustworthy—that’s just an unintended consequence. That’s why I say the outcome is unwitting.


The witless culprit, of course, was the Bush Administration. Let me just read the introductory pages of the chapter I devote to Bush, titled “Betrayal of Trust.”


The past decade has produced an unremitting—and seemingly escalating—litany of unsettling news, emanating from virtually all the major sectors of American society. It sometimes seems as if each day brings a new challenge or scandal. We sustained a stunning attack on American soil, reminding us that the oceans no longer safeguard us from the hostility of others. We invaded another nation because we were told that it had weapons of mass destruction that made it an imminent threat, only to discover that no such weapons existed. News reports have brought daily warnings that our governing institutions are “off the track.” There has been visible, worrying erosion of our constitutional safeguards. Meanwhile, the imperatives of population growth and commerce, technology and transportation, as well as politics, have eroded local control and hollowed out “states rights,” leaving people powerless to change or even affect many aspects of their legal and political environments.

Old-fashioned corruption and greed have combined with political and regulatory dysfunction to undermine business ethics. Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton, the sub-prime housing market meltdown—these and so many others are the stuff of daily news reports. Newspapers report on the stratospheric salaries of corporate CEOs, often in articles running alongside stories about the latest layoffs, reductions in employer-funded health care and loss of pensions for thousands of retired workers. Throughout most of this time, business forecasters have insisted that the economy was in great shape—a pronouncement that met with disbelief from wage earners who hadn’t participated in any of the reported economic gains, and whose take-home pay in real terms had often declined. By 2007, the gap between rich and poor Americans was as wide as it had been in the 1920s.[1] Many of the business scandals were tied to failures by—or incompetence of—federal regulatory agencies; others were traced back to K Street influence-peddlers of whom Jack Abramoff is only the most prominent example.[2]

Meanwhile, American religious institutions have not exactly covered themselves with glory, heavenly or otherwise.  Doctrinal battles over ordination of women and gays have split congregations. Revelations ranging from misappropriation of funds to protection of pedophiles to the “outing” of stridently anti-gay clergy have discouraged believers and increased skepticism of organized religion. In that other American religion, major league sports, the news has been no better. High profile investigations confirmed widespread use of steroids by baseball players. At least one NBA referee was found guilty of taking bribes to “shade” close calls, and others have been accused of betting on games at which they officiate. Football players seem habitually prone to wind up on the front pages; Atlanta Falcon Michael Vick’s federal  indictment and guilty plea on charges related to dog fighting was tabloid fodder for several weeks. Even charitable organizations have come under fire; a few years ago, United Way of America had to fire an Executive Director accused of using contributions to finance a lavish lifestyle. Other charities have been accused of spending far more on overhead than on good works.

The constant drumbeat of scandal has played out against a background of gridlock and hyper-partisanship in Washington. And—more significantly, for purposes of the public mood—all of it has been endlessly recycled and debated by a newly pervasive media: all-news channels that operate twenty-four hours a day, talk radio, satellite radio, “alternative” newspapers, and literally millions of blogs (weblogs), in addition to the more traditional media outlets.[3] Political gaffes and irreverent commentaries find their way to YouTube, where they are viewed by millions; wildly popular political satirists like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert have used cable television to engage a generational cohort that had not traditionally focused on political news. Everyone who leaves government service seems to write at least one book pointing an accusing finger or otherwise raising an alarm; their exposes join literally hundreds of other books (most of them alarmist) cranked out by pundits, political scientists and scolds playing to partisan passions. The political maneuvering, cozy cronyism and policy tradeoffs that used to be the stuff of “inside baseball,” of interest only to political players and policy wonks, are increasingly the stuff of everyday conversation at the local Starbucks. In this hyper-heated media environment, if you don’t like the news, you can run—but you really can’t hide. Even partisans who limit their news sources to those likely to validate their opinions hear about the latest controversies, if only from their chosen perspective.

When you add to this constant din of revelations, charges and counter-charges the highly visible and widely reported ineptitude of the current administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, the drawn-out, inconclusive war in Iraq, the even more nebulous and worrisome conduct of the so-called “War on Terror,” and mounting questions about the nature and extent of government surveillance, is it any wonder American citizens have grown cynical?  Furthermore, all these miscues and misdeeds—and many more—are taking place in an environment characterized by economic uncertainty and polarization, as well as accelerating social, technological and cultural change (including but certainly not limited to the growth of diversity). Add in the so-called “culture wars,” and it’s not hard to understand why generalized trust has eroded.


We are not the only country to have gone through periods of turmoil, corruption or worse. I know of none that have escaped episodes of poor—sometimes disastrous—leadership. And as anyone who follows the news knows, democracy is no guarantee that you won’t get leaders who are ill-equipped to govern. All 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 not upon identity but upon covenant. Americans do not share a single ethnicity, religion or race. We never have. We don’t share a worldview. We don’t even fully share a culture. What we do share is a set of values, and when the people we elect betray those values, we don’t just lose trust. We lose a critical part of what it is that makes us Americans.


Policy prescriptions and ten-point plans are all well and good, but at the end of the day, our country won’t work unless our public policies are aligned with and supportive of our most fundamental values. The people we elect absolutely have to demonstrate that they understand, respect and live up to those values.


As we in this room know, the word “values” means different things to different people. In the wake of the 2004 election, I remember pundits telling us that Bush voters had come out on November 4th to vote for “values.” What they meant by values—opposition to reproductive choice and equal rights for gays and lesbians, and nationalistic jingoism masquerading as patriotism—was the antithesis of the American ideals most of us really do value.


Let me be quite explicit about what I believe to be genuine American values—values that have been shaped by our constitutional culture, values that are shared by the millions of Americans who have been dismayed, enraged and dispirited by the revelations of the past eight years. Real American values are the values that infuse the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the values that are absolutely central to the American Idea.

  • Americans value justice and civil liberties—understood as equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not they look like us, and whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their reading materials, religious beliefs or other life choices.
  • Americans value the rule of law. And we believe that no one is above the law— most emphatically including those who run our government. We believe the same rules should apply to everyone who is in the same circumstances, that allowing interest groups to “buy” more favorable rules or other special treatment with campaign contributions, political horse-trading or outright bribery is un-American.
  • Americans value our inalienable right to speak our minds, even when—perhaps especially when—we disagree with our government. We understand that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism, just as mindless affirmation of the decisions made by those in power can create untold damage. Those of us who care about America enough to speak out against policies that we believe to be wrong or corrupt are not only exercising our rights as citizens, we are discharging our most sacred civic responsibilities.
  • Americans believe that when politicians play to the worst of our fears and prejudices, using “wedge issues” to marginalize immigrants, or gays, or blacks, or “east coast liberals” (a time-honored code word for Jews) in the pursuit of political advantage, they are betraying American values.
  • Americans value reason and respect for evidence, including scientific evidence. We may go “off the reservation” from time to time, especially when the weight of the evidence points to results we don’t like, but eventually, Americans will place reason and compromise above denial and hysteria in the conduct of our collective affairs.
  • To use the language of the nation’s Founders, Americans value “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” (even European mankind).  
  • Finally, Americans value the true heartland of this country, which is not to be found on a map. The real heartland is made up of all the Americans who struggle every day to provide for their families, dig deep into their pockets to help the less fortunate, and understand their religions to require goodwill and loving kindness. The men and women who make up that heartland understand that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness. They know that the way you play the game is more important, in the end, than whether you win or lose. And they know that, in America, the ends don’t justify the means.


Americans’ ability to trust one another depends to a very great extent on our ability to keep faith with those values.


Life in a liberal democratic system is never going to be harmonious. Harmony, after all, wasn’t the American Idea. Despite the dreams of the communitarians, we aren’t all going to share the same telos; at most, we will have what the philosopher John Rawls called an “overlapping consensus.” 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 they aren’t all equal. When we argue from within our constitutional culture—when we argue about the proper application of the American Idea to new situations or to previously marginalized populations—we strengthen our bonds and learn how to bridge our differences. When our divisions and debates pit powerful forces wanting to rewrite our most basic rules against citizens who don’t have the wherewithal to enforce those rules, we undermine the American Idea and erode social trust.


At the end of the day, diversity (however we want to define it) is not the problem. And that’s a good thing, because the fact is that increasing diversity is inescapable. The real issue is whether it is too late to restore our institutional infrastructure and make our government competent and trustworthy again—whether it is too late to reinvigorate the American Idea and make it work in a brave new world characterized by nearly instantaneous communications, unprecedented human mobility, and the twin challenges of climate change and international terrorism.


The election of Barack Obama was a very hopeful sign, but the damage done during the past eight years to our most important national values and institutions is going to be very hard to reverse. As we lawyer-types like to say, the jury is still out.