Discover more from Democraticus- The Democratist
WE ALONE CAN FIX IT
But We Can't Fix A Problem Until We Decide We Have One
A Time Like No Other, to Say the Least
These years have been a kind of living laboratory of American democracy where we have witnessed both triumph and tragedy as it relates to preserving and protecting the governance, institutions, practice, and in some cases, observing the failure, of American democracy. Much of what has happened had been brought to our attention long before the events of the last four to five years. But happen, it did.
Think about it- did the reader ever think for a moment that we would have an American president that not only would ignore and fail to observe our democratic norms and values, but openly flaunted not abiding by them? Further, did the reader ever imagine that thousands of angry Americans would descend on our Capitol, vandalizing it, assaulting and injuring police officers, as well as breeching the Capitol chambers in an attempt to apprehend the Vice President and stop members of Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election results? Above all, did the reader ever imagine that this insurrection was based on a Big Lie, promulgated by a former president, and promoted by a large portion of his political party?
Thanks for reading Democraticus- The Democratist! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
On July 21, 2016, then candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Donald Trump ascended to the podium at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland to accept his party’s nomination. The words of his acceptance speech were, in part:
“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, (dramatic pause with audience laughter), which is why I alone can fix it.” (emphasis mine)
Contrast those words with those of President Joe Biden spoken on July 13, 2021 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:
“…We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War…I’m not saying this to alarm you; I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.”(emphasis mine)
These are not the words of a president of a fledgling democracy, or the president of a nation that is viewed as still experimenting with democracy. These are the words of the President of the United States, one of the oldest continuously operating democracies in the world, one that has been held up to the rest of the world as a stalwart example of democratic principles and democratic responsibilities. But, in one day, on January 6, 2021, “chinks in our democratic armor” were laid bare for all Americans to see- and for all the world to see as we watched Americans, at the urging of a sitting U.S. president, storm and assault their own Capitol attempting to thwart Congress’ ratification of the 2020 presidential election results.
Many signs of weakness in American democracy were on display long before January 6, 2021. We simply chose to ignore them or pretend they did not exist. Carl Sagan saw it coming over twenty-five years ago when he wrote these words in his book, The Demon- Haunted World:
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or my grandchildren’s time —when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantiative content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.” (emphasis mine)
Prophetic words, are they not? And now these signs are manifesting themselves in “alternate facts”, conspiracy theories, gas lighting, big lies, and radicalization of a significant part of a major American political party. Since Sagan wrote these words, various causes of these consequences from weaknesses in our democracy have been identified by historians and political scientists. Historian Heather Cox Richardson describes our struggles as a democracy as a “vision conflict”.
“Throughout our history, adherents of these two different visions of what constitutes the best government for the U.S. have struggled. On the one hand are those who say that the country operates best when the government is controlled by a few wealthy, educated, well-connected, and usually white and male leaders. The argument goes that they are the only ones with the skills, the insight, and the experience to make good decisions about national policy, particularly economic policy. On the other side are those like Lincoln, who believe that government should reflect the will of the majority, not simply on principle, but because a wide range of voices means the government has a better chance of getting things right than when only a few people rule.” (emphasis mine)
Author Michael Tomasky takes this diagnosis of the condition of American democracy today a step further saying:
“…We are in trouble. Our political culture is broken, but it is not broken for the reasons that you read that it is broken- because “Washington is dysfunctional”, or because politicians have no “will”. No. It’s broken because some people broke it. It was broken by people who pushed an economic theory on the rest of us that has driven trillions of dollars that were once in middle-class pockets to a comparative few at the top. Who refused to invest in the country anymore. Who will not even negotiate real investment. Who have been telling us for years that the market will take care of our needs…” (emphasis mine)
Democracy scholar and Stanford political science Professor Larry Diamond points to the low speed that a democracy’s downward trajectory can take before our very eyes:
“Slow descents have a way of lulling us into complacency. Things aren’t so bad, we tell ourselves, they’re just slipping a bit. But we ignore gradual decay to our peril. In Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the freewheeling, hard-drinking Mike Campbell is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he says. “Gradually and then suddenly.” The demise of democracy is often like that too.” (emphasis mine)
A Root Cause
These problems with our democracy, while not new, are multi-causal. Other reasons for our current struggles with American democracy are structural with, for example, the Electoral College, while others are systemic like gerrymandering of federal and state election districts. Another causal factor weakening our democracy has been the Americans’ shift away from thinking of themselves first in their role as citizens, with citizenship’s attendant civic duties and responsibilities, to an identity of viewing themselves first and foremost as “customers and consumers” of governmental services.
All these societal forces, and likely more, have weakened American democracy. Arguably, perhaps one of the most important causes of our democracy’s struggles is our civic literacy. Or more accurately, our lack of civic literacy- our civic illiteracy. Our founders knew from the outset of our democracy that citizens’ civic knowledge is learned, and that it is essential for a democracy’s survival.
Yet, our nation’s civic literacy has been on a steady decline. But, it is not for lack of being told that this decline was occurring. To their credit, perhaps some of most important monitors of American civic literacy have been members of our non-profit and educational sectors. They have been sounding the alarm about Americans’ civic knowledge for some time now, but few champions have emerged able to create the shared sense of alarm we all should have about this. Examples of these “watchman on the wall” regarding our civic literacy decline include educator E.D. Hirsch, Jr. who demonstrates how the change in how we educate our children away from a shared knowledge-based approach to a child centered, constructivist approach (where the child identifies what they are interested in learning) has eroded teachers’ ability to create a sound approach to citizen building. As Hirsch points out, “…Schooling in a democracy is not just schooling. It’s also citizen making…” At least it was, as Hirsch contends, until the late 1940s. Until then, the American public school was at the vanguard of our “citizen making” with our teachers leading the way, but today our education system is more focused on equipping our youth to function in an economy focused on math and technology. Civics education is for the most part, an afterthought for most of us.
Others sounding the alarm are task forces that have been formed of experts in civic education and government by such esteemed organizations as the Annenberg Foundation, Brookings Institute, and others. Their reports all show Americans’ civic knowledge is not only abysmal, but cannot sustain a democracy effectively. Some of these same organizations regularly administer statistically valid surveys of Americans which confirm this American deficit in civic knowledge for citizens of a democratic republic. In many cases, these surveys show that native-born Americans cannot pass the same citizenship test required of those immigrants who wish to become naturalized American citizens.
At the same time, our practice of democracy at the grassroots, local level has decreased as Americans have steadily turned away from their practice of democracy by no longer involving themselves in civic organizations as Robert Putnam has demonstrated in his classic work, Bowling Alone. By contrast, Yoni Applebaum stresses that our history shows that practice of democracy at the local level in civic and church organizations had been prevalent saying, “…For two centuries, the United States was distinguished by its mania for democracy…” That practice has been usurped by other interests and activities, most of which do not involve interacting with our fellow community members.
Deconstructing and Reconstructing Civic Literacy
The former practice of democracy by Americans in their everyday life does not seem to be prevalent anymore. Instead, it has been replaced by a “counterfeit”. It is a counterfeit “supposed civic knowledge” of American democracy formed on false realities and false narratives, “alternate facts”, cynicism, mistrust, lies, misinformation, op ed news media disguised as news, economic inequities, and low expectations of autocratic leaders who have no interest in or desire to adhere to our democratic norms and values. This leaves us unable to critically think, detect lies, and recognize major change in the public square. All of these elements of counterfeit civic knowledge combine to make us civically illiterate and unable to handle the complexities of American democracy in the 21st century. That is a dangerous place for Americans to find themselves in a world that increasingly gravitates toward fascism and strong man rulers rather than democracy and consent of the governed.
We can recite cartoon character Pogo’s mantra, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”, as the base cause of our civic illiteracy, but the real enemy is ignorance born out of poor civic education. Kentucky’s former Poet Laureate Richard Taylor describes the January 6th insurrectionists being “…as much victims as perpetrators. They are victims of a national complacency about educating an informed citizenry, a sustaining element in any democracy.” Our national civic ignorance can only be addressed through education. One cannot learn and then practice what they have not been taught. And, there is much we do not teach today in civics curriculum across this country that is foundational to maintaining democracy in the 21st century.
There is no way around the fact that our civic education platform needs to be totally overhauled. The shared skills and knowledge necessary for Americans to be effective 21st century citizens in our democracy are far more complex than they were even ten years ago. Equally important, the forces attacking democracy here and abroad are more sophisticated and as relentless as they have ever been. Understanding what those attacks are and how they undermine democracy must be taught and understood by Americans as well. Make no mistake, our country is at a critical moment. As Diamond puts it:
“This is an existential moment for American democracy. We could rescue it from the howling gales of bigotry, fear, nativism, prejudice, and misinformation. But we could also lose it.”
Back to “We the People”
Yet, we can “fix” this civic knowledge gap. It is a solvable problem. However, we cannot address this problem until we recognize and declare that we have a problem. But, if we can come to the point where we recognize the danger civic illiteracy puts us in, and the futility of continuing to try to address our civic illiteracy only with learning approaches that do not reflect our current civic reality, it is at that point that we can come together with “new civics” for American citizens of all ages.
We must construct a new civics that not only teaches the structure of American democratic government, but covers many other topics that will help sustain our democracy in the 21st century including truth, trust, and freedom. Topics such as understanding that there is far more to learn when it comes to American history than what is presently taught. Without this additional historical knowledge, Americans’ ability to understand and effectively navigate our democracy’s public square is severely impeded. Topics such as leadership, democratic norms and values, as well as how to recognize autocratic, fascist leadership from true servant leadership. Subjects such as critical thinking so we can avoid manipulation, “alternative facts”, gas lighting, conspiracy thinking, lies, and radicalization by our political leaders and parties. Topics such as restoring a high view of public service to our country and the criticality of restoring our news media to being an arbiter of truth as opposed to what we have today which in many instances amounts to de facto “state TV”. All these topics, and more, must be included in our “new civics”.
It is with enhanced civic literacy that we can exercise the most important role of citizens in a representative democracy- constructive civic awareness and engagement. It is the vital democratic role of “We the People”- utilized with discernment in the public square along with the concept of an “the consent of the governed”. Without the adequately informed consent of the governed exercised thoughtfully and with the common good in mind, our democracy is in peril. Yet, American democracy does not have to be at risk if we come together to see our most fundamental, collective duty as American citizens- to be civically educated to effectively function in a 21st century representative democracy.
We alone, We the People, We can fix it. The time to begin fixing it is now.
 Excerpt from Donald Trump 2016 Republican Nomination Acceptance Speech, July 21, 2016, Politico, https://www.politico.com/video/2020/08/20/trump-at-2016-rnc-i-alone-can-fix-it-085403
2 Remarks by President Biden on Protecting the Sacred, Constitutional Right to Vote, July 13, 2021, National Constitutional Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, www.whitehouse.gove/brief-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/13/remarks-by-president-biden-on-protecting-the-sacred-constituional-right-to-vote
3 “Carl Sagan Saw Today’s ‘Demon-Haunted’ America Coming Over 20 Years Ago”, by Shawn Langlois, August 13, 2017, 12:02 p.m. ET,
4 Letters from an American, by Heather Cox Richardson, April 7, 2021, All Rights Reserved
5 If We Can Keep It, How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved, by Michael Tomasky, pp 235-236, Ibid.
6 Ill Winds, Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, by Larry Diamond, Copyright 2019, pg. 288, Ibid.
7How to Educate a Citizen, The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., pg. 9, Copyright 2020, HarperCollins Publishers, 195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007
8 “Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy”, by Yoni Applebaum, The Atlantic, October 2018, pg. 2 of 10, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/losing-the-democratic-habit/568336
10 “Ignorance In All Its Strains’ Is Another U.S. Pandemic. It Must Be Overcome”, by Richard Taylor, Lexington Herald Leader, January 21, 2021, 5:13 PM, https: www.kentucky.com/op-ed/article 248662175.html
11 Ill Winds, Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, by Larry Diamond, pg. 305, Ibid
Thanks for reading Democraticus- The Democratist! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.