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OUR NATIONAL SELF-INFLICTED WOUND by Thomas E. Brymer
It's Time to Face One of the Root Causes of Our Political Turmoil
We Have Forgotten What Our Founders Knew All Too Well
Historians have produced a plethora of documentation indisputably proving up the fact that our nation’s founders believed strongly in the importance and value of education, especially civic education, for sustaining our democracy. A perusal of the letters and works of founders Jefferson, Rushing, Madison, and others result in finding many quotations from them affirming this fact.
Yet, on January 6, 2021, a lack of civic knowledge of gigantic proportions with enormous consequences was displayed for our nation to see. In fact, it was displayed for the world to see. Many of us were gob smacked as hordes of Americans, visibly seething with anger, assaulted our Capitol attempting to halt the peaceful transfer of power by Congress following a presidential election where the incumbent president had lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Their palpable anger was based on being utterly convinced by the incumbent president and others in his political party that the election had been “stolen” from him. To them it meant that he did not actually lose the 2020 presidential election which justified this armed insurrection.
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This was this the first time in United States’ history that the peaceful transfer of presidential power, a hallmark of our democracy, was attempted to be halted (and it was temporarily halted until Congress reconvened in the early morning of January 7th after the assault was stemmed). And, it was the first time since 1814 that our Capitol had been stormed. However, unlike the first time over two hundred years ago when our Capitol was attacked by soldiers from a nation we were at war with (Britain), this time it was assaulted by Americans.
What may have been most remarkable about this event was that their actions apparently gave none of the insurrectionists pause as they were roaming the Capitol halls looking for the Vice President to chants of “hang Mike Pence”. They had even erected gallows on the Capitol grounds! These chants were in reaction to a social media posting by the lame duck president as the Capitol attack unfolded saying that Mike Pence “…didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.” This was a reference to the Vice President accepting for Congress’ certification the Electoral College’s elector vote count, something the former president wanted Pence not to do. Later, a Trump aide testifying before the House committee investigating this insurrection described Trump’s Tweet has having given a “green light” to the insurrectionists. Yet, the reality was that our Constitution and the law provides that the Vice President only presides over the opening, reading, and recordation of the Electoral College’s approved electoral delegate vote count for Congress’ certification.
This is a ministerial act only. Nonetheless, these rioters did not believe that the Vice President’s role in this situation was indeed that simple. Instead, they believed what they were told by their party leader- that the Vice President had the discretion and thus, the power not to accept these Electoral College results. Instead, the scenario would be that by not accepting the Electoral College’s results, Pence could then send these results back to the states (especially the states with Republican controlled legislatures with many “election deniers”) which had been carried in the election by the president elect, not the incumbent. Those states Republican controlled legislatures could then designate new electors that would instead vote for the then incumbent president. and he would win the election. This is what many attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 had been told by their leader, and they believed it.
But they were wrong about that.
How Could This Happen?
With the events of “January 6th”, many pundits, elected officials, and Americans in general, have identified what in their minds was the cause, or more accurately perhaps, the causes of it. To be sure, it is reasonable to assume this event had multiple causes, the signs for many of which were visible before January 6, 2021. Americans not having a shared sense of reality clearly lie at the root of this insurrection. For example, when can the reader remember a sitting U.S. president saying well before the general election that the only way he could lose is if the election is rigged? Or, another example- numerous Americans throwing what amount to temper tantrums in public meetings about wearing face masks during a pandemic that killed thousands of their fellow Americans? As many of these mask refusers said, they were invoking their “rights” not to be required by government to wear a mask.
However, as many causes as this insurrection had, such as no shared sense of reality, perhaps one of the most significant and fundamental causes of this event (and the events that have followed January 6th) is our nation’s collective civic literacy, or more accurately, our collective civic illiteracy. Yet arguably, it may be one of its most easily overlooked causes that does shape and chance we have of having a shared sense of reality as American citizens. For all intents and purposes, this is a “self-inflicted wound” as it relates to effectively governing a democracy. When it comes to the structure, processes, norms, values and all the other dimensions of American representative democracy, we Americans truly do not know what we do not know. This lack of civic knowledge is to our detriment as the events of and since January 6th testify. Yet, if civic literacy is so critical, what is it that makes it so important?
While our founders certainly did emphasize and promote the importance for effective democracy to have Americans educated with civic knowledge, fast forward to today and one will find that there is no shortage of prominent and knowledgeable people in the civic square who have been reminding us of that importance as well. As an example, retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said:
“One poll from a few years ago tells us that less than half of Americans can name the three branches of government- yet three-quarters can name each of the Three Stooges. These days not many Americans are even inspired to take a closer look. In another poll 57% of Americans admit to having little to no confidence in Congress”.
Following the January 6th insurrection, Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center, commented on the increased traffic to his Center’s web site by Americans wanting to refresh their memories about a document foundational to our country saying:
“We are living in unprecedented times. There’s no doubt that we are in a crisis of civic education…the framers knew that the consequences of constitutional ignorance and being guided by passion rather than reason were armed mobs. Well, we just saw that they were right about that. What worries me the most about constitutional ignorance is the same worry that the framers had. That without constitutional education, the Republic will collapse.” (emphasis mine)
Around that same time, Raj Vinnakota, president of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars (formerly the Woodrow Wilson Foundation) remarked about the need for civic education in a democracy:
“You need to understand how government works in elections and so on. But you also need to understand why it was set up that way. And if don’t understand both of those pieces, you are going to be in trouble. And you can’t function effectively in our society.” (emphasis mine)
Why Does It Matter?
A good question before we go much further delving into the subject of civic literacy is- why? Why, in the final analysis, is civic literacy important to a democracy? After all, if one does not know the names and functions of the branches of the Federal government, why does it matter? If one cannot name the number of United States Supreme Court justices, or cannot explain the concept of judicial review, or name who is the Chief Justice of that court, why does it matter?
The short answer- it matters a lot. It matters for the reasons already mentioned, including that civic illiteracy can create a level of ignorance, misunderstanding, and frustration that can foment and lead to civil unrest and violence. There is another important answer to this “why” question as to the importance of addressing our national substandard civic literacy. The answer to this “why” question is trust. In a democracy, trust, more specifically citizens’ trust, is paramount. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Ph.D. of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania says:
“…those bewildered by such basics as the branches of government and the concept of judicial review are less likely to express trust in the courts, and, as trust declines, more likely to say that courts are too powerful and, judges should be impeached or court jurisdiction stripped when unpopular rulings are issued and that, under some circumstances, it might simply be best to abolish the Supreme Court. Importantly, those who have taken a high school civics class are more likely to command key constitutional concepts…”
Trust could be likened to a kind of “bank”. With trust it takes a long time to build up “deposits”, but “withdrawals” can happen very quickly. An arena of life where one can witness firsthand how quickly trust can be eroded or completely lost is the relationship between citizens and their government, especially in a democracy. The longer we take to address our civic literacy, the more lack of knowledge and misunderstanding of one’s government we have. As that civic knowledge deficiency and misunderstanding accumulates, citizens’ trust in their democratic government is diminished.
As the events of January 6th and since demonstrate, trust matters greatly. Trust in a democracy is powerful. It can cause a democracy to flourish for its citizens. Conversely, lack of trust can cause a democracy to tumble. In its place autocracy and authoritarianism will readily fill the gap formerly held by We the People. These authoritarians are more than willing to make decisions for the citizenry. Decisions that, when their government was a democracy, citizens had previously made. Without civic literacy, democracy and all its facets cannot be understood and it then becomes a matter of time before the role of We the People evaporates. Without democratic understanding there can be no trust. Without this understanding, trust cannot be maintained. It is the “trust loop”- a closed loop. Civic literacy builds understanding and understanding builds trust. One must have both understanding and trust to sustain a democracy. They feed of each other. It is that integral to democracy’s existence.
That is why civic literacy matters. Civic knowledge builds trust in one’s government. It builds trust by equipping us to recognize when our democracy is operating properly. Just as importantly, civically literate citizens are able to recognize when their democracy is not operating as it was designed. They are equipped to determine what can then be done to remedy it, and trust in the remedies that their democracy’s framework and structure legally offers them to make course corrections and reforms.
As they build their understanding of their democracy and in turn are building trust in their democracy, something else happens. Citizens come to believe first and foremost in their democracy and their country, not in a particular leader or leaders or party. They understand the importance of leaders and parties, but their first allegiance is to their democracy and their country, not the other way around. They understand that leaders and political parties must first support democracy above all else. Leaders and even parties come and go, but a civically literate citizen understands that democracy must live on regardless of who is in Congress, the White House, or the judiciary. The consent of the governed, “We the People”, is understood, valued, and activated.
As important as civic literacy is, the concerned voices that have already been raised sounding the alarm about Americans’ lack of civic knowledge, have been largely unheeded. We have not been paying close attention to them, something that must change. Time is of the essence to begin to address this self-inflicted wound of civic illiteracy. If we fail to act, we only put our democracy at further peril. This is a journey that must begin now if we want to leave our children and grandchildren a democracy that is stronger than the one we now have.
 To Preserve and Protect” by Sandra Day O’Connor, Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice (1981-2006) pg. 6, from: The Constitution, The Essential Users Guide, Copyright 2016 Time Inc. Books, Published by Liberty Street, an Imprint of Time Inc. Books, 225 Liberty Street New York, NY 10281
2 “Most Americans Don’t Know What’s in the Constitution: A Crisis of Civic Education”, CBS News, January 19, 2021, 12:19 p.m., https://www.cbsnews.com/news/constitution-americans-civics-test/
3 Most Americans Don’t Know What’s in the Constitution: A Crisis of Civic Education”, CBS News, January 19, 2021, 12:19 p.m., Ibid
4 Guardian of Democracy, The Civic Mission of Schools, pg. 4, 2011, Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools in partnership with the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the National Conference on Citizenship, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, and the American Bar Association Division for Public Education.
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