Are we becoming indifferent to freedom and democracy?

I know, I know: That title sounds ridiculously click-baity. But if you’ll look at my blog, you’ll see that I don’t really go in for click-bait titles.

Unfortunately, I mean it quite literally. It’s an enormous problem that we aren’t talking about enough. And I want to propose that one reason for it is a massive failure of civics education.

Support for democracy is declining. First, let’s talk a bit about support for democracy—yes, democracy itself, as in voting for your leaders and representatives and holding them accountable in the arena of public debate. Only one in five Millennials aged 18 through 29 cast a ballot in the 2014 elections—the lowest youth voter turnout in 40 years, says the Atlantic.

As Vox recently asked, “Are Americans losing faith in democracy?” The article makes a series of points illustrating that Americans, especially younger Americans, are ignorant of and aren’t engaging in American political life. The article’s main source is a forthcoming paper by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk titled “The Democratic Disconnect,” together with the World Values Survey. The writers summarized their own work in the New York Times last September.

Asked how much interest they have in politics (as Vox reports), Americans born in the 1930s said “very interested” or “somewhat interested” almost 80% of the time; for those born in the 1970s, the figure dropped to about 50%, and for those born in the 1980s, it was continuing to drop just as precipitously.

More sobering is the survey question about how essential it is to live in a democracy, rated from 1 to 10. The percentage of Americans responding “10,” essential, has dropped from the 70% range for those born in 1930 down to the 30% range for those born in the 1980s. A 40% drop in support for democracy itself is a momentous generational change.

In case you think that’s a mistake, compare that to a question asking whether “having a democratic political system” was a “bad” or “very bad” way to run the U.S.: while the percentage for those born in the 1950s and 60s hovered around 13%, for those born after 1970, in the surveys since 1995, the percentage rose from about 16% to over 20%.

Even openness to army rule—something we associate with banana republics—has climbed from 7% to 16% of all Americans.

Support for free speech in America is declining. This is incredibly important: the Pew Research Center found that 40% of American Millennials are OK with limiting speech offensive to minorities (up from 12% for seniors aged 70-87). A stunning 51% of Democrats want to make “hate speech” a criminal offense, and 37% of Republicans. If you have even a passing familiarity with First Amendment law, you’ll know that these things are contrary to the First Amendment.

That is how it is possible—and not implausible—that 50 Yale students could sign a petition within an hour to repeal the First Amendment, as this video of Yalies showed:

What the video shows notwithstanding, Yalies are very smart. They can compare their attitudes toward offensive and hate speech with what they learned in their elite civics and history classes about the First Amendment, and infer that they’re opposed to the First Amendment. If they’re reasonably intelligent, self-aware, and honest with themselves, as some Yalies are, they’ll recognize that their intolerance to certain kinds of speech commits them to an opposition to free speech.

The increasing hostility toward free speech among many of our future leaders at elite colleges like Yale has been frightening to many of us, and has sparked a national conversation—an example is here, summarizing some recent episodes and calling academe to return to free speech.

Here’s a possible reason why: Civics education has been weak for years and recently declining even further. I don’t pretend to know why support for democracy and free speech have been declining, but if our students for some generations have simply not been well educated about basic American civics, that must be part of the explanation.

In the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the “Nation’s Report Card”—for 2014, only 23% of 8th graders scored at or above proficient in civics. While 39 states do require a course in American government or civics, only two states require students to pass a test in American government/civics to graduate from high school. As the Civics Education Initiative reports,

[T]he Civics Education Initiative…requires high school students, as a condition of graduation, take and pass a test based on questions from the United States Customs and Immigrations Services (USCIS) citizenship civics exam – the same test all new immigrants must take to become U.S. citizens.

To date, six states…have passed legislation implementing the Civics Education Initiative, with a goal of passage in all 50 states by September 17, 2017 – the 230th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

But, you wonder, if new immigrants have to pass this citizenship civics exam to get in the country, wouldn’t American high schoolers be able to pass it? No. In studies, only 4% of high schoolers in Oklahoma and Arizona passed it.

The National Council for the Social Studies published a position statement summarizing the sobering truth: “Sadly, the narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred over the past several years combined with the scarce attention to civic learning in a number of state standards and assessment measures has had a devastating effect on schools’ ability to provide high quality civic education to all students.”

According to a 2011 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, ignorance was not rectified at the college level:

beyond mere voting, a college degree does not encourage graduates to become actively engaged in more consequential aspects of the political process. Said another way, among persons with equal civic knowledge, those having earned a bachelors degree do not demonstrate any systematic and added political engagement beyond voting. … A college degree appears to have the same negligible participatory impact as frequently listening to music, watching prime-time television, utilizing social networking sites, and emailing.

Knowledge of basic political facts among the general public is shockingly low. For example, only 40% of Americans surveyed in a recent survey by Pew knew which party controlled each house of Congress, and only about a third of Americans could even name the three branches of government.

Civics isn’t easy, and political philosophy is even harder. But both are necessary. If this purported decline of commitment to the basic American system is real, and if it’s rooted in poor civics education, it doesn’t seem surprising to me.

For all the emphasis on reading and the massive, feature-rich language arts textbooks, American public school students don’t have to read many books, period. Most of them are not prepared to read and comprehend the Constitution, much less the complex historical works such as The Federalist Papers, Common Sense, and Democracy in America that explain and defend the American system.

Education matters. It is likely that we will face more battles in higher education and, increasingly, in the public sphere over the necessity and advisability of maintaining robust democratic institutions and adherence to free speech. I fear that as we answer more and more attacks, reference to the Constitution and American political principles will not be sufficient. Part of the problem can be laid at Jefferson’s doorstep, when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The fact is that they aren’t self-evident, that philosophers have argued for and against them quite a bit, and in the years ahead, the better the pro-freedom side acquaints itself with those arguments, the better chance we’ll have.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 160 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

2 Responses to "Are we becoming indifferent to freedom and democracy?"
  1. Reply Michael Towns December 20, 2015 18:10 pm

    I’ve been watching the freak shows at our college campuses this year. “Dangerous and disturbing” as Yoda would say. Thank you for highlighting this growing and troubling issue. I am not a doomsayer by temperament, but this stuff chills me to the bone.

  2. Reply Holiday readings about America’s future to power-start your New Year | Fabius Maximus website December 27, 2015 08:53 am

    […] losing faith in democracy?” by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk at VOX. See more about this here by Larry Sanger. I’ve written about this growing danger for a decade, yet the media continue to focus instead […]

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