Thursday, December 4, 2008

America's Civic Literacy: The Electoral College is Not a University

While some people think it's a "problem" that non-Christians, atheists, and agnostics are allowed to vote in our nation, I think that such a belief is indicative of extreme intolerance. After all, the very reason we have elections is because people hold different beliefs. If everyone held the same beliefs, there wouldn't really be a point to voting, would there? I don't throw around the "fascism" very much on my blog. In my opinion, the word is overused and therefore, like the good old argumentum ad nazium, virtually meaningless. However, if we do have fascists in our society, they are religious folk who see it as a "problem" that people of faiths (or non-faiths) different from their own are allowed to vote.

What I see as a real problem with respect to voting is that the American electorate is woefully ignorant when it comes to basic civic literacy. In short, civic illiteracy is a threat to democracy.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has found that most people, including college graduates and elected officials, are civically illiterate (PDF). Specifically, 68% of a random sample of 2,500 Americans failed a 33-question basic civic literacy test. The average score was a 49%. Only 0.8% of people scored an A. The scores of self-described conservative and liberals were about even, with conservatives scoring a few points higher.

I suppose I should be really clear here and say that I'm not arguing that we should impose civic literacy tests as a requirement for voting. Such a thing would be problematic on many levels, not the least of which would be ensuring that all people, regardless of social class and resources were given the opportunity to learn civic test material. What I am saying is that it's unfortunate that so many people in our nation either do not care to learn about the basics of our political and governmental process and/or that our educational system is failing these people in a major way. For, these uninformed people, through their votes, make decisions that affect all of us and the rest of the world.

This mass ignorance also makes me wary of simple majority rule when it comes to ballot initiatives affecting other people's civil rights. Simply put, "the people" have not shown that they are knowledgeable enough to make good, reasoned judgments.

It's frightening. The anti-gay crowd lambasts "elite" judges for countering the will of the people even though these judges play a vital role in our democratic system of protecting minority rights even if the majority of people do not deem these rights worth protecting. Personally, I take comfort in knowing that "elite" judges, no matter what they end up deciding, usually present more sophisticated legal and political arguments than "a whole buncha people think only a man and a woman deserve marriage, therefore only a man and a woman can get married." Many voters, whether due to their own laziness or apathy or because of failings in the educational system, are too ignorant to use their blunt power of the masses in an informed, reasoned manner. As Kathleen Parker recently wrote (at of all places!) our Founding Fathers "understood that an ignorant electorate was susceptible to emotional manipulation and feared the tyranny of the masses."

I have thought about this susceptibility many times during the 2008 election. As I much as I supported Obama, I do wonder how many people got swept up, not by his policy positions, but by his HopeDreamChange persona. Along those lines, I have always wondered what John McCain's appeal-to-heroism oft-mentioned POW status had to do with his policy positions. Americans, I fear, care about the wrong things when it comes to politics and it's not entirely their fault. The press encourages us to treat campaigns like an interactive reality show contest bringing us gossipy he-said he-said New Exciting Developments Every Evening!

We have been privileged in that our elections and political system are relatively stable and uncontested. That privilege has allowed many people to choose not to care too much about politics. In their minds, someone else will take care of things. What these people may not understand is that our political system is always evolving. Constitutional matters, for instance, are not "settled" just because we have had a Constitution for a couple hundred years. The powers of each branch of the government continue to be debated, stretched, and constricted. The decisions that we, the people, make and that our elected officials make matter in profound ways.

Anyway, I have a hunch that those who regularly read and write political blogs have higher levels of civic literacy than the dismal American average of 49%. In fact, the ISI found that those who regularly engage in conversations about (non-American Idol-related) public affairs, read about current events and history, and participate in civic activities have higher levels of civic literacy.

You can take the quiz here. Just to toot my own horn a little, I got a 32/33.

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