Sunday’s New York Times had a story about efforts to register voters in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the tragic shooting of Michael Brown. This paragraph absolutely floored me:
“A lot of people just didn’t realize that the people who impact their lives every day are directly elected.” Said Shiron Hagens, 41, of St. Louis, who is not part of any formal group but has spent several days registering voters in Ferguson with her mother and has pledged to come back here each Saturday. “The prosecutor—he’s elected. People didn’t know that. The City Council—they’re elected. These are the sorts of people who make decisions about hiring police chiefs. People didn’t know.”
The story also repeated the statistics we’ve seen before about Ferguson: a town that is two-thirds African-American with a virtually all-white power structure and a twelve percent voter turnout in the last municipal election. (And that was overall—black turnout was even lower.)
A few pages on, the Times had a report about the growing influence of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ vast organization. Taken together, these articles are a dramatic picture of what is wrong with our political system.
I know I sound like a broken record on the issue of civic knowledge. I quote the studies (only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government! People who are civically ignorant rarely vote!). I insist that our civic deficit is far more worrisome than our fiscal one.
These articles explain why it matters. Vividly.
We The People need to understand something about the disproportionate influence of money in politics: it requires civic ignorance. Whether it is intentionally misleading political messages or well-meaning but wrongheaded appeals to voters, these tactics are effective only when the people on the receiving end of the message don’t know any better.
The most basic civil right we Americans enjoy is the franchise. It would be great if we could reverse Citizens United and the other cases that have enabled the wealthy to buy our political system, but we actually have the power to neuter these people now.
The antidote to money in politics, ultimately, is an informed electorate.
In this day and age, it is absolutely unforgivable that American citizens don’t know who they elect—not that they don’t know the names of officeholders, but that they don’t know what offices they can vote to fill. This phenomenon is not limited to impoverished residents of Ferguson, Missouri; I regularly encounter middle-class college students who cannot define government, have no idea what a Constitution is or how it differs from a statute, and have only the haziest notion of what “rights” are.
Money is a huge advantage, and I am not minimizing its power. But the people who are all-too-often exercising undue influence in America are those who’ve figured out how to benefit from widespread civic ignorance.
What’s the old saying? In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Director of the Center for Civic Literacy and Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy. This post was originally published at sheilakennedy.net on September 1, 2014 and is republished here with the author’s permission.
Photo Credit: By Loavesofbread (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons