The United States suffers from a pandemic of civic ignorance and a deep deficit of civic respect. Only one in three Americans can pass the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test. A mere 24% of eighth-graders test “proficient” or better in civics and government, while a pitifully low 15% are proficient in U.S. history.
The recent assault on our nation’s capital and the subsequent response should be a wake-up call to the profound consequences of civic ignorance and disrespect.
The assault itself, an act of deep disrespect never seen before, was based on the deeply flawed premise that Congress or the vice president could and should change the outcome of the 2020 presidential electoral vote. The fact is that the meeting in Washington on Jan. 6 was not a session of the so-called Electoral College. In fact, what we call the Electoral College does not exist as a formal body or hold meetings, and it is not even mentioned in the Constitution.
Instead, the civic facts are that our presidential election is really 51 separate elections run by the states and the District of Columbia under the Constitution. These elections choose electors in each state who, in turn, vote for their candidate. Those results are then sent to Congress, and it meets, as it did on Jan. 6, to receive the votes and certify the outcome.
What an act of civic disrespect, then, when protesters scaled the walls of the Capitol and barged into chambers and offices to protest electoral votes that are not even under the control of Congress. If people want to violate the law and risk arrest to make a statement, it behooves them to at least understand whose work they are protesting.
Now the people want Congress to “do something” about removing President Trump from office before his term ends next week, and the first idea brought forward is to use the 25th Amendment. Neither the people nor even members of Congress seem to understand that the amendment is focused on presidential “disability,” not disagreement or lack of trust. The three times it has been invoked involved medical procedures that “disabled” a president, as intended.
If not the 25th Amendment, people want impeachment, apparently without understanding that it is a two-step, lengthy process that would run well beyond the remainder of Trump’s term. Yes, the House can “impeach” by taking a simple vote, but a full trial in the Senate will take weeks, after awaiting the end of the current Senate recess next week. Impeachment is about removing people from office for high crimes and misdemeanors, not just making a political statement after the fact.
This unfortunate chapter in our current history is riddled with civic ignorance and misunderstanding, from citizens and leaders alike. It would be nice if we could send members of Congress to a civics or constitutional law class before they serve. In fact, a colleague has told me he will introduce a ballot proposition in his state to require that political candidates pass a civics test before they qualify to run for office. His intentions are good, but I doubt his measure will be enacted.
What we can do is redouble our efforts toward better civic education in our schools so young people will develop a better understanding of how our republic works before they are in charge of running it. We need a full year of civic education to be required in every state (only nine states require that now). We need to resume teaching civics in elementary and middle schools, from which it has largely disappeared. We need to spend more than 5 cents per student per year on civic education when we are spending $54 per student annually on STEM education.
Yes, our present circumstance is a problem of hyperpartisanship and division. Yet have allowed this to occur because of the failure of civic education. We desperately need to develop, as President Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address, “an informed patriotism” among our people.
David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War.