Pew research conducted in the Fall of 2015 showed that trust in Washington was at an all-time low of 19%.
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In case you missed it, the United States of America just held a presidential election. One of the biggest stories from that election is that around 40% - over 90 million voters - of the voting eligible population did miss it. They did not cast a ballot.

What does that say about the state of our American democracy? Is it doomed or in grave danger, as some commentators such as author Neil Gabler and former CIA officer Evan McMullin who was a conservative independent presidential candidate in 2016 have written based upon the outcomes of this presidential election.

We think not. But, this fragile crucible appears to be becoming increasingly more fragile and may become even more so over time unless some corrective actions are taken. Let’s look at why and what needs to be done.

In 1954, in his first term as President, Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage.”

In the 50’s, members of the voting eligible population turned out in the low 60%’s to exercise their right to vote to practice that “part-time profession”. And, in the years since, according to Michael McDonald, associate professor at the University of Florida, the vote has typically been in the mid-50% to low 60% range.

So, looking at the 2016 turnout, it was not an aberration but a typical reflection of the American democracy at work. That might be the case. But, nonetheless it is not a good thing for a healthy and vibrant democracy.

As Drew Desilver of the Pew Research Center, pointed out in a piece before this most recent election, “ …the U.S. lags most of its peers (in terms of turnout), landing 31st among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, most of whose members are highly developed democratic states.” Desilver further notes that “Only about 65% of the U.S. voting age population…was registered in 2012, according to the Census Bureau…”

In a phrase, many American citizens have been and are currently sideline-sitters. For whatever reason, they don’t even come onto the political playing field. This failure to participate and to exercise one’s fundamental right and responsibility in a free country is harmful to the nation and the future of American democracy.

Discontent with Democracy

Unfortunately, based upon new research, it appears that this bad thing could be starting to get worse. That is because a large percentage of the millennial generation does not even want to be in the stands. They are inclined to go AWOL (Absent without Leave) from democracy and the American political process.

Drawing upon research by Yasha Mounk of Harvard and Roberto Stefan Foa of the University of Melbourne to be published in the January edition of Journal of Democracy, Gwyn Guilford highlights that:

  • More than a quarter of U.S. millennials dismiss the importance of free elections to a democracy.
  • Only around a third of millennials see civil rights as “absolutely essential” in a democracy.
  • Back in 1990, majorities of younger and older people reported being interested in politics. For millennials, that’s no longer true.

Mounk and Foa have similar findings for attitudes in other “stable liberal democracies” in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. That should be no comfort for Americans though.

That’s true because in 1995, only 16% of American youth in their late teens and early 20s thought having a democratic political system was a “bad” or “very bad” way to “run this country.” By 2011, that number had grown to almost 25%. We don’t know what that percentage would be today – five years later. But believe it could be a considerably higher percentage.

Another depressing comparative frame of reference is that 75% of the people born in the United States in the 1930’s felt it was “essential to live in a democracy.” By the 1990’s only slightly more than 25% of those born in that time period felt the same way.

As Bob Dylan would put it, “the times they are a changin”. And, in terms of support for democracy and the American way of governing, they are not changing for the better.

It might be easy to dismiss one piece of research. But, there is a considerable body of data that supports the type of discontent with democracy disclosed through Mounk and Foa’s study.

Pew research conducted in the Fall of 2015 showed that trust in government in Washington was at an all-time low of 19% and that only 29% of respondents said that the word “honest” described politicians fairly or very well.

When Pew first conducted its survey of governmental trust in 1958 the trust level was above 70% and reached an all-time high of 77% in 1964. The public’s trust level has fluctuated considerably since then but has been consistently low since 2007.

Millennials reflect the dissatisfaction of the public in general. A poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University in the spring of 2016 showed that trust for the federal government was at 23% and trust for Congress was at 18%

The Civic Education and Knowledge Chasm

There are a variety of reasons for the general public’s negative attitudes toward government and the political process including increased partisanship both of politicians within and citizens outside of the Beltway and the poor performance of and governmental failures in certain areas. But, one of the underlying sources for the dissatisfaction of the current generation is a basic lack of knowledge regarding the functions, operations and positive contributions of government to the American way of life.

Students going to middle school and high school from the 1950’s into the 1990’s likely had some classroom exposure and requirements in civics/government/U.S. history. Beginning in the first decade of the twenty-first century until today, however, with the increasing emphasis placed on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and the significant decrease in educational funding in many areas across the nation, that is no longer the case.

Is it any wonder then, that the Nation’s Report Card prepared by the National Assessment of Educational Progress conducted in 2010 showed that only approximately 25% of 4th, 8th and 12th-grade students were proficient in civics with:

  • Less than 50% of eighth grader knowing the purpose of the Bill of Rights
  • The majority of students not being able to explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence
  • Only 1 in 10 demonstrating acceptable knowledge of checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches

A new report, Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, from the Stanford History Education Group (Group) indicates that this lack of civic knowledge and understanding extends to and impacts students’ ability to differentiate “fake news” from “real news” in the social media.

From January 2015 to June 2016, the Group administered 56 tasks to students at the middle school, high school and college levels from 12 states and a variety of institutions. They tried to establish a passing score of a “reasonable bar that would be within reach of most of these students.”

Based upon the assessments they conducted, however, that “reasonable bar” was not reached. The Stanford researchers note in the Executive Summary of their report, “But, in every case and at every level we were taken aback by student’s lack of preparation.”

These findings caused the researchers to conclude, “At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation is allowed to spread and flourish.”

Closing the Gaps to Save American Democracy

We worry too. We worry about the social media civics skill gap, the civics knowledge gap, and the civics attitude and involvement gap.

But worrying is not enough. These gaps need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Our democracy is at risk.

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson cautioned the citizens of a very young American democracy, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”

In 2016, it is time – well past time – to inform our younger citizens’ wholesome discretion. It is time to close the existing civics gaps. To accomplish this we recommend the following actions:

Prepare future generations of citizens by beginning the teaching of civics and civic engagement in middle school. The federal government in conjunction and collaboration with the states should make civics a requirement and provide adequate funding to support scalable and replicable civics and civic engagement programs nation-wide.

The programs should be designed to build the student’s knowledge, attitudes and skills. They should be targeted to middle school, in school and after school classes, because educational research suggests that formation of a positive orientation toward an area earlier in a student’s career increases the potential for sustained interest and participation. (For more of our thinking on this topic, go to this link.)

Enhance the online civic reasoning competence at all levels (middle school, high school and college). Based upon the results and findings from its studies, the Stanford History Education Group is contemplating the following next steps: developing a series of videos to call attention to the problem and to mobilize educators, policy makers and others to address the “threat to democracy” caused by a lack of digital content literacy as it relates to citizenship; creating new “formative assessment” tools and materials that teachers can use to guide and track learning; and, developing new curriculum and lesson plans that can be used in conjunction with the assessment tools.

We endorse all of these steps. In a world in which social media dominates communication – especially for our youth, fake news represents an existential crisis for this country. It must be controlled. And, the best way that can be accomplished is through informed and knowledgeable consumers who can differentiate fiction from fact. (For more details on this topic, go to this link.)

Require mandatory national service. Over the past quarter of a century, the United States citizens in states across the nation have become more disconnected from each other. On its cover naming Donald Trump its person of the year, Time magazine described him as “The President of the Divided States of America.” One of the reasons for this divide is that in our country for many young citizens there are few, if any, shared experiences that cross neighborhood, local or state boundaries.

National service provides a basis for sharing and potentially bridging our divides. In the United States today, service is somebody else’s business.

We need to make it the nation’s business – service to our country and our fellow citizens. That is the measure of true patriotism.

It is not about waving the flag or pledging allegiance. It is about standing up and doing what is required to make America the very best it can be.

A program of national service provides the means for accomplishing that. This is why we are advocates for it. (For more of our thinking on this topic, go to this link.)

In his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously said, “… Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

In the United States today, too many citizens have answered that question by saying “Nothing!” and too many others have responded by asking “Why ask?”

American democracy is not doomed. But, it is in the doldrums. It will be up to the next and future generations to lift America up again and to build the bridges to a better and more unified nation for all.

We are confident that they will do that if they are given the proper tools and resources. They will be able to answer President Eisenhower call to participate as informed, interested and invested citizens in their part-time profession of politics.

They need a helping hand in order to do that. We’ve been hands off when it comes to citizenship for far too long. In 2016 and going forward, it is time for hands on.

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