The happy tale of our American Democracy is one where the citizen arrives at the polling station armed with knowledge of the candidates, issues of the day, and after careful deliberation casts his or her ballot, thereby exercising his or her civic duty. When reality falls well short of this it’s a cause for consternation among academics, campaigners, and late-night entertainers. At a recent forum Sheila Kennedy stated that “36% of the American public knows that we have three branches of government.” According to the 2012 U.S. Naturalization Civics Test, less than half of citizens know what the Constitution does, can’t name with any reliability those who represent them on a local, county or state level, and would fail the most basic citizenship tests. Certainly, this undermines some of the most basic notions of democracy.
However, we should take a step back before throwing our hands in the air or declaring democracy’s best days behind us.
When we look at our democratic process through this lens we’re asking to be disappointed. This is a strikingly ahistoric view of our democracy and the original expectations of the electorate. We often picture our egalitarian-minded colonists trapped under the weight of tyrannical British rule, finally revolting and defeating the British with the wonky rallying cry of “no taxation without representation.” This tale of democracy has our founders donning their tri-cornered thinking caps to invent democracy out of thin air and fails to recognize that our understanding of democracy has been a process and that many of our best notions have to do as much with civil-rights groups in the 20th century as with our founders. It also fails to mention that implicit in no taxation without representation was no representation without taxation. Meaning, that if you weren’t a rich, male, white, and owned land, your opinion didn’t count.
Universal suffrage (or near universal, some countries allow felons and foreign nationals to vote) was definitely not plausible and certainly not desirable. We hinge the success of our democracy on the back of the informed citizen when this was never the intention. The intention was to not have a king. It wasn’t supposed to be a giant brainstorming session. We expect the best solutions to our problems to arise in aggregate as if America were a giant Wikipedia page and the voters were editors. This misplaced hope is a new one and the reason we feel angst when most people can’t name (or could care less about) their city councilor or state representative.
The idea of the informed voter didn’t take root until the late 19th century. It simply wasn’t given serious consideration until the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. Neither public education nor means for broad-based public participation were provided for until this era. When the Progressives advocated for the informed voter it was in reaction to a time when voters were rewarded with very real and material benefits (whiskey, money, etc.) for voting certain ways. Politicians maintained control of their districts by measures that today would make even the most corrupt of politicians blush. The informed voter was meant to prevent this. However, the idea of the informed voter was a double edged sword, purposefully wielded to keep the most “unsavory elements” of the population from voting (i.e., immigrants and blacks).
This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive for a more educated electorate. But it should be recognized that we sort of put the cart before the horse. We opened up the vote to everyone before we educated them as to the meaning and importance of it. Interestingly, things haven’t been getting worse (or better). An overview of the research done by the Pew Charitable Trusts on the public’s information deficit points to Americans being more or less just as clueless as they’ve been for the past half a century—potentially further back.
Any serious endeavor to improve civic literacy needs to recognize America’s history with withholding voting as a protectionary measure against the unwieldy masses. We need to keep all this in mind when we become frustrated that the average citizen can’t name the three branches of government or the Vice President. We need to keep perspective that we’re on a long slow path toward a freer and more just society, not away from it. It may not be perfect, but our democracy and our civic literacy has certainly come a long way since the times when most couldn’t read, and only the privileged few could vote.
Michael Oxenrider is a political enthusiast, freelance copyeditor (www.GrammarNerds.com), cancer survivor, and Buffy fan from West Lafayette, Indiana. He holds an M.A. in “Interpreting influences of communication modes on civic engagement with an emphasis on political institutions and government processes” from DePaul University. This means he’s qualified to talk to voters. He’s run a number of campaigns and even threw in his own hat in 2010 to run for the Indiana State Senate (ouch, bad year). Oxenrider now enjoys writing and taking on assumptions about issues and political ideologies.