We have a republic if we can keep it
Last year, the League of Women Voters launched a campaign to initiate a constitutional amendment to provide for a new method of redistricting the seats of the state legislature. The organization needed around 27,000 signatures and ended up with 5,000, thereby failing to get the issue before the voters in 2012.
Explaining the failure, Lois Ivers Altenberg of Fargo, chairwoman of the drive, said that redistricting “was a more difficult concept than we had time to explain to people.”
In other words, most people needed a short course on state government before they could make an intelligent decision on a very important issue how they will be represented at the state level. The League of Woman Voters didn’t fail; the citizens did.
This should not have been unexpected. Lack of civic knowledge made the citizenry vulnerable to the misinformation generated by a handful of interest groups about the new constitution proposed in 1972, defeating it by three-to-one. Citizens lacked the background to discern the pros and cons of the document.
Not only had those who voted on the constitution been misled but the low turnout 23 per cent reflected an ignorance of the importance of the election. It was the only such vote since statehood and will probably never occur again.
After the U.S. Constitutional Convention finished its work, Benjamin Franklin encountered a friend on the street who asked: “What kind of government have you given us?” “A republic, if you can keep it,” was Ben’s reply.
From the first shaky decades until the present, we have managed to keep the republic until the present day. But survival in the past does not mean survival in the future. Ben Franklin put a big “if” in his challenge.
New serious challenges are arising, requiring a higher level of civic knowledge about state, national and world affairs than ever before. Unfortunately, our level of civic knowledge is not keeping up with the complexity of problems.
In March, Newsweek asked 1000 people to take the test that immigrants are required to take to gain citizenship in the United States. Thirty-eight per cent of our citizens flunked. Twenty-nine per cent couldn’t name the vice president; 73 per cent couldn’t say why we fought the Cold War; 44 per cent couldn’t define the Bill of Rights; 66 per cent didn’t know the length of terms for U.S. Senators.
Commenting on the survey results, Andrew Romano of Newsweek pointed out that “for more than two centuries, Americans have gotten away with not knowing much about the world around them.”
“But times have changed and they’ve changed in ways that make civic ignorance a big problem going forward,” he continued. “The current conflict over government spending illustrates the new dangers of ignorance.”
The truth is that the vast majority of people know very little about government finance in this time of financial crisis. Nevertheless, they express uninformed opinions that guide congressional decision-making for policymakers who want to be responsive and re-elected. In a democracy, public opinion rules and ignorance moves up the policy chain.
Thomas Jefferson once said that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and freeit expects what never was and never will be.”
The challenge is to upgrade our civic knowledge or Ben Franklin’s “if” will become more threatening with each passing decade.
Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.
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