In a recent column in USA Today, Naval War College professor and author of The Death of Expertise Tom Nichols makes a condescending but accurate observation. Donald Trump’s approval rating has hovered around 40 percent (which is the lowest approval rating of a new president since the advent of tracking presidential approval), but his approval has not significantly fallen below this number despite the daily (if not hourly) stories of the corruption, incompetence, and authoritarianism of the Trump White House. Nichols argues, correctly, that Trump’s supporters do not know enough about civics to understand that Trump using the presidency to enrich his business or casually threaten war with a nuclear-armed hermit kingdom is revolting and terrifying, respectively. And frankly, Nichols argues, also correctly, they do not care. As long as “coastal elites”—whatever that means—are upset, Trump supporters are happy.
Nichols argues this proud ignorance is a character flaw of many if not most Trump supporters, but on this point I disagree. American democracy has always been predicated on the idea that Americans would be engaged citizens who cared deeply about the well-being of the country. However, the American education system has been dedicated to ensuring that the vast majority of Americans are prepared to be good workers who can obey authority, not good citizens vested in the republic. Trump supporters are simply doing what they were educated to do, support the leader of their “team.” If we are to ensure that we never elect another Trump as president, we have to make civic education great (for the first time).
The tradition of American democracy was initiated by President Thomas Jefferson and his followers. To my knowledge, Jefferson is the only political philosopher to ever serve as president. Jefferson’s moral failure for owning hundreds of slaves is rightly criticized today, but his ideal of democracy is worth striving for. Jefferson believed in political equality (for white men in his time, but as suffrage has expanded to women and minorities the same principle still applies) and the notion of self-governance: the idea that we did not need paternalistic authorities to make political decisions for us. However, according to Jefferson, “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Democracy only works if citizens are educated in what it means to be a citizen.
Jefferson’s ideal of a country where citizens are educated in being good citizens has never been realized. As Richard Hofstadter explains in his classic history Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Americans, going back to colonial times, have been deeply distrustful of intellect. We are a society that puts a premium on “the practical” and ridicules anything deemed “impractical.” As such, Hofstadter argues, American public education has always been designed to prepare children for the workforce, not for being a citizen. Education “reform” usually means regearing education to adapt to changes in the economy, not changes in government. In his reflection on what has become of Ivy League education Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz points out this is true of college. College students are discouraged from pursuing an education in anything deemed impractical. Throughout my K-12 education, I was required to take courses in reading, writing, and arithmetic every semester (which is a positive thing). I was required to take civics for one semester of middle school and one semester of high school. The message we send students (and thus Americans writ large) is simple: civics do not matter (not to mention art, literature, and history); all that matters is getting a job. Your worth is measured not by the kind of person or citizen you are, but by how much money you make.
Our decision to downplay civics in education (and by extension daily life) has had consequences. A popular story in the aftermath of the 2016 election is that from 2012 to 2016, social media created political bubbles and polarization. In turns out that this is not true, as polarization is actually highest among people who use social media the least. Polarization has been caused by decades of cable news and talk radio (particularly but not exclusively on the political right) broadcasting what are essentially conspiracy theories and propaganda. Large swaths of people were susceptible to the propaganda, I believe, because they do not have the knowledge of American civics to think more critically about politics. This is not new, partisan propaganda goes back centuries in this country.
And Americans selecting terrible leaders also goes back centuries. Objectively, Donald Trump is the most corrupt, dishonest, and dangerous man to ever serve as president. But we have had some doozies. We remember our great presidents from before the Cold War: George Washington (the first one), Thomas Jefferson (the first democrat), Abraham Lincoln (who freed the slaves and kept the country united), Theodore Roosevelt (the first progressive), and Franklin Roosevelt (who saved Western civilization). We try to block out all of the terrible people who served as president in the meantime. For instance, there was James Buchanan who twiddled his thumbs while the South seceded. And Herbert Hoover who twiddled his thumbs while Americans starved. There was Warren Harding who was responsible for Teapot Dome and nicknamed his genitalia “Gerry.”
American democracy has survived for as long as it has because the right leaders have risen to power during times of national crisis and because the institutions created by the founding fathers have held together fairly well. That is not a sustainable model for a republic. And it is not just the right susceptible to terrible leaders. If a demagogue of the left rose to power, a true demagogue who wanted to, say, censor conservative press outlets and implement other unconstitutional policies, would the American left reject him or her?
One of the answers — not the sole answer — is that we should take civics (and culture and history) as seriously in our education system as we take supposedly “practical” subjects. This would give future generations the tools to think more critically about politics and policy. And those of us who are engaged in civic participation need to keep pushing our neighbors and friends to think more critically about politics and policy. Regardless, giving Americans the tools to think more critically about how their government works and what their responsibility as citizens are is the only way to prevent maladministrations like the current cluster in Washington.