Fourteen students in a Rhode Island lawsuit say the state provided such a substandard education that it “violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution.” Our current political polarization brings the state of civic education to the public debate. How do everyday citizens continue their civic education after their public education? How can we enlist more citizens in healthy, constructive public participation?

A healthy democracy requires an educated populace committed to defending the basic principles of democracy when they weaken or come under attack. Recall the French Revolutionary slogan Vivre Libre ou Mourir (“Live Free or Die,” also the U.S. New Hampshire state motto) and “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.” At some time in our lives, we must ask, “What would we be willing to fight and die for?” Most of us would defend ourselves and our families, but how often do we face the question: Would you be willing to fight and possibly die to defend democracy?

Suppose we define a healthy democracy as one in which the rule of law, separation of powers, and the freedom of the press are sacrosanct. In that case, we must acknowledge that the body politic is afflicted. Suppose our daily commerce is enabled with the secure foundations of predictable structures and reliable partners, where problems are met with impassioned yet respectful debate. In that case, our polarized culture is fractured. When our primary measure of societal success is GDP, which includes negative contributors such as $300 Billion in treating stress and the wasted costs of treating unnecessary diseases and poverty-related disabilities, how can we direct our society toward more excellent health? Democracy does not die all at once; it results from a gradual breakdown of mutual tolerance and respect for the opposition, the slippery slope of democratic backsliding

Nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan has not worked; the strategy of imposing democracy from the top down is highly questionable. Previously stable democracies are backsliding towards autocratic rule in Brazil, Hungary, and the Philippines. The failure of democracy to take hold in the Arab Spring teaches us that a deep commitment to democratic values and institutions from the citizens in the face of eroding civility and fear from autocratic rulers is necessary for democracy to develop and thrive.

Economic Security and Stability

Beyond a personal commitment to democratic values and institutions, what does it take to sustain a healthy democracy? Maslow teaches us that when we are insecure, our higher motivations and civilized behaviors are undercut by survival needs. When we are in crisis, social norms are questioned or abandoned. As economic security and stability erode, so does our democracy.

Personal savings have declined dramatically. 58% of Americans have less than $1,000 or no savings, and only 16% can muster $20,000 or more. Some spend without thought to save, but most don’t earn enough and do not have stable enough work to feel comfortable embarking on a long-term savings plan. 

Economic stability is eroding: two earners in a family are the standard, and the loss of a single income can be devastating. Unpredictably erodes the confidence to save or purchase a home, student debt consumes potential long-term savings and discretionary income—44.2 Million borrowers, carrying 1.52 trillion in debt, defaulting at a 10.7% rate. Variable work schedules, the increasing frequency of job changes, and the rise of the contingent workforce undermine saving, home buying, and wealth creation. These numbers do not appear to improve as income inequality grows; only 10% of Americans saw their net worth increase over the last decade.

Our election system rewards the candidate who can tap into the current mood of the populace. When we are healthy and whole and able to navigate our lives successfully, we seek a steady hand. When we are in crisis, we are prone to seek demagogues: The downtrodden call a strong defender, the disenfranchised raise a heroic champion, the disempowered yearn for a spiritual guide. Declining economic stability and security leads to short-term, selfish voting decisions. And it follows from there: as go our citizens, so goes our society. Character is Destiny.

Empowerment and Access

According to FairVote, Americans vote at about a 60% rate in presidential elections and 40% in mid-term elections. A Pew Research Center report says that “by international standards, U.S. voter turnout is low.” In 2016, 55.7% of Americans voted. The U.S. ranked 26th out of 32 highly developed countries.” Below Mexico (66%), Greece (62%), and the Scandinavian countries (70-82%).

Factors impacting voter turnout include:

  • Education level – those with more education have higher voter turnout.
  • The competitiveness of the election,
  • Timing of the election, including early voting and the order of your state’s primary election day,
  • Voting laws can inhibit or enable voter participation,
  • Race, gender, and socio-economic demographics indicate that empowered populations vote more.
  • Political disengagement results from fatigue, resignation, and a sense that one’s vote does not matter. 

Some parties and candidates try to “lock in” their base by creating emotional triggers; they intentionally fan emotional responses for short-term accolades. When we are emotionally marginalized or compromised, we abandon the tenets of reason, care less and withdraw, and are not available for constructive discourse. When emotionally compromised, we overlook the fallacies of obviously unworkable propositions, such as all taxes are bad, or corporations are inherently evil. If a reasoned discussion is how we conduct our discourse, it is unethical to lock in your base by inflaming passions and creating emotional triggers. 

The legal principle of one person, one vote grows murkier as the influence of organizations and dark Money inflate campaign spending and stakes. Dark Money is Money donated by individuals and organizations without the requirement to disclose the donor’s identity. The debate over Money in politics and Citizen’s United is complex. Do we ban political speech for organizations? You might be surprised to learn that the ACLU disagrees. Here are positions from the League of Women Voters, the Brennan Center, and Fox News.

Voter suppression and gerrymandering reduce empowerment and access. Sidestepping arguments over political motivation and blame, is voter manipulation and suppression easier than voter education? Shouldn’t we seek to empower and enable, not to restrict? Economic stability, opportunity, and the fair enforcement of justice are necessary conditions. Necessary, but not sufficient. These are the barriers to participation. How do we raise the quality?

Education and Civic Engagement

Civics education and participation are the cornerstone of a civil society, for only an educated and committed populace will sustain a vibrant democracy. According to Richard Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey in their Century Foundation report and described in the Atlantic, “Civic Literacy levels are dismal.” Civics education in the U.S. is primarily relegated to K-12 public schools and typically as a required Poly Sci and Government course in Colleges/Universities’ general ed requirements.

Each state publishes or adopts educational standards defining which learning objectives should be taught at what grade level. The Common Core standards, adopted by forty-two states, do not have a civics component—analysis of the state of civics education points to the declining capabilities of our high school graduates. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) showed a roughly 25% proficiency rate across grades 4, 8, and 12. In 2013, the NAEP discontinued measuring 4th and 12th grades  “to save money.” There has been no significant change in 8th-grade performance between the 2010 and 2014 assessments.

Beyond this, for the general citizen, civic education is up to the individual. It is available by keeping up with current events and services and participating in cause-related groups and non-profits. Service clubs, such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, etc., whose membership is in steep decline (58% from 1975-2000 with continued decline across the board since). As our population ages and time demands on working families multiply, these trends will likely continue.

Social media discussion boards and special interest groups are generally unsatisfying experiences. Surrounding the occasionally insightful comment, one needs to wade through irrelevant and reactive comments only to have the thread leave your mind’s eye without satisfactory resolution or closure.

Requirements for A Contemporary Civic Education Program

Without discussing who might benefit from a civically illiterate society (though a worthy discussion), what would a revitalized civic education model look like? Here are a few notes on requirements; we encourage the reader to join this conversation as a member of the PSA.

  1. Ensures that our public education system provides the background knowledge and skills for effective citizenship,
  2. It goes beyond K-12 to provide a continuous learning model throughout our lives.
  3. Is cost accessible for all citizens, regardless of economic ability, age, gender, and race,
  4. Provides flexible access and delivery to meet various scheduling and geographic needs,
  5. Meets the ever-diversifying and changing needs of our population,
  6. Accommodates the continuous and evolving nature of information and current events,
  7. Develops a commitment to civilized behavior – a good neighbor ethic – and a respect for and ability to address divergent views and complex problems and difficulties.
  8. Fosters critical thinking skills and an independent commitment to democratic values.
  9. Recognizes that democratic commitment is an evolutionary process, susceptible to devolution if not nurtured.
  10. Teaches the lessons of history and their application to the challenges of today
  11. Develops the mettle of our character
  12. Stickiness to keep participants engaged over the long haul

Conclusion

There are eternal conflicts that have no clear answers: competition for resources, balancing individual freedoms versus attending to the common good, the centralization and decentralization of power, and making decisions on cost alone have consequences for our quality of life. An emotionally triggered or marginalized population is not in our best interest. An ideal state consists of informed, rational, caring citizens who work collaboratively to establish structures that provide security and enable economic opportunities while ensuring justice.

Every citizen needs to be the ‘adult in the room;’ though we may not be 100% successful, we are 100% responsible. Let’s revisit the last sentence of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which calls for the mutual commitment of our lives and resources to work together to protect and build our democracy through civilized education and mutual support.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

What are your thoughts? What requirements do you have for revitalizing civic education? Will you stand up for democracy?

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