“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell
Civic participation is one of the most important responsibilities of being an American. I’m old enough to remember when being selected to lead your homeroom class in the daily Pledge of Allegiance was a source of great pride. As kids, with our hands over our hearts, shoulders squared, we’d recite those venerable words, “…and to the republic, for which is stands…” with purpose. Unfortunately, the moral imperative of being a good steward of this great nation and understanding what it takes to preserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is an afterthought for many, if any thought at all.
Without question, the insurgent candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have jolted many Americans out of their normal political malaise. Bringing more citizens into the political fold is a good thing. But, what many of them are now realizing is that it takes more than just rolling out of bed to rage against the machine at big political rallies to select the next leader of the free world.
Surprise! There are rules involved. Rules governing the presidential election date back to our founding and the establishment of the Electoral College. The Constitution also gives latitude to the states in how to structure their nominating process. Electing the president wasn’t necessarily meant to be easy. Nothing worth safeguarding usually is. The founders deliberately designed our constitutional republic that way to avoid the tyrannical pitfalls of past societies like ancient Greece or the monarchies of Europe.
The Framers wanted multi-layered stakeholders invested in the best interest of the republic making it less vulnerable to the rash whims of a majority. They understood how pure democracy without checks and balances historically led to the subjugation of minority voices. It was true then and still rings true today. That’s why our Constitution does not allow for direct voting to elect the president.
The inconvenient truth is it’s our responsibility as citizens to be informed and understand how our voting laws work. And it’s the responsibility of any serious candidate for president to do the same. In this day and age, when the answers to almost anything are no more than a Google search or Siri question away, there’s no excuse for ignorance of the law/rules. With freedom comes responsibility by each and every one of us to pay enough attention to make sure those freedoms are protected.
The act of voting is one of the most fundamental rights and privileges of being an American, yet millions take it for granted and seemingly can’t be bothered to learn how their state voting procedures and deadlines work, i.e. Colorado or even New York for that matter. Just ask Trump’s own children.
It’s typical of not only Donald Trump’s personality to shift blame onto everyone and thing other than himself when he fails miserably, but it’s a growing characteristic of our society. Perhaps many are victims of their own uninformed apathy.
Perhaps there’s a lack of emphasis on the importance of civic engagement and what that entails.
Which brings me to a story shared with me by a former elementary school teacher of a charter school in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. She wanted to incorporate lessons on World War II into her curriculum. When she approached the principal about her plan, the principal scoffed and said, “What do we need to know about World War II for?” Seriously? If this is the attitude of some educatorsno wonder it’s so easy to throw slogans around like Make American Great Again when so many don’t even understand what made America great in the first place.
Unfortunately, this teacher’s experience is not isolated. It’s going on in school districts around the country. Federal education policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have shifted emphasis away from social studies and history to a focus on standardized testing. In 2012, 21 states required testing in history and only nine of them required it to graduate. Only one-third of Americans can name the three branches of government, much less say what each does.
As a result of this disheartening trend, the Civics Education Initiative was born. It seeks to require high school students, as a condition for graduation, to pass a test on 100 basic facts of U.S. history and civics similar to the United States Citizenship Civics Test. The national effort is gaining traction with Arizona, Utah, and the Dakotas now requiring the civic proficiency test for graduation. A dozen other states are considering the same. It’s a start.
A dumbed down electorate is more susceptible to the manipulation of charismatic figures willing to allegedly “tell it like it is” while preying on their fears and ignorance of the history and framework of the country. It allows for someone like Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders for that matter, to whip mobs of people into a frenzy believing they’ve been disenfranchised by a system they don’t even understand.
Scores of folks on both the Left and the Right complain that “This is not how democracy works!” They are right. This is how a constitutional republic works.
Is our system infallible? Of course not. Various changes have been made from the enactment of the 12th Amendment to the creation of the McGovern Frasier Commission after the tumult of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. If people are unhappy with the current rules, then by all means work to improve them.
However, the time to do that is not in the middle of an election cycle when the rules have already been set and agreed upon by all campaigns involved. There’s no whining in politics.
Albert Einstein famously said, “First you learn the rules of the game. Then you play better than everyone else.” Prior to running for president, Trump retweeted that very quote in 2014. Too bad in 2016 he’s chosen to kvetch about allegedly “rigged” rules instead of putting in the campaign work to finish the job and win. It’s much easier to play the victim than take responsibility. Nowadays, it’s always someone else’s fault.
It takes effort to become President of the United States. Just like it takes effort to be a good citizen. When something is important enough, we make it a priority. It’s not the government’s job to compel us to pay attention.
How far we’ve come from President Kennedy’s decree to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
Let’s start by learning how it works.