Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mourning in America VII: Why Democracy Isn’t Working Anymore

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…..
…[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 
-Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863

That Government By the People…Shall Not Perish

Abraham Lincoln came to Gettsyburg on November 18, 1863 on a somber mission. Just weeks before from July 1-3, these Pennsylvania hilltops had been drenched in blood of Union and Confederate soldiers. Called the high water mark of the Confederate rebellion against the Union, thousands of dead soldiers, both Northern and Southern were left on the battlefields of Gettysburg. 

Initially buried in mass graves, local efforts to rebury the Union soldiers began within weeks and the bodies of their Confederate brothers began to be sent South to resting places awaiting them there. By November, the process had reached the point where some formal dedication of this place as a national cemetery was seen as desirable. 

Lincoln was called to Gettysburg as the follow up to a two hour speech by former Senator and Secretary of State Edward Everett. The president was ailing, in the early stages of a bout with small pox. Acting in the badly needed role of pastor-in-chief, Lincoln spoke for only two minutes offering ten sentences in total that have become immortalized in the canon of sacred literature of the American people. 

Just as in Lincoln’s day, today's America has been engaged in a great civil war, testing whether this nation we have inherited from far-sighted thinkers such as Lincoln could “long endure.” On November 9, 2016, the American people answered in the negative. With the death of a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” a grotesque caricature of that nation still bearing its name and wielding its symbols has arisen. 

But if Trumpland is dedicated to any particular proposition, it is decidedly not the Jeffersonian and Lincolnian vision “that all men are created equal.” 

Concern for the Common Good 

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. – Preamble, United States Constitution 

The election of 2016 represents the failure of the Framer’s vision of a democratic republic. In reality, that vision, which has languished for some time over the last four decades, never had much of a chance in 2016. Indeed, there really is not much way a true democracy of any sort can survive in the post-modern and now post-fact consumerist society that has become Trumpland.

From the first intentional experiment with democracy in Athens to the grand visions of the Framers that summer in steamy Philadelphia to the hopeful but grim civil war days of Lincoln, the advocates of democratic self-governance, regardless of the form it took, have insisted that several elements are essential for its health and survival. These include an educated populace who have critically informed themselves, are able to participate in the process of self-governance and willing to do so consistently. 

Moreover, a healthy democratic culture requires the ability to escape self-interest long enough to see the common good and the willingness to embrace it. In reading the Preamble to the US Constitution, which has served as the model for most state constitutions as well as those of nation-states around the world, it is informative that the language used there is exclusively plural and collective beginning with the first word: “We….”

While politicians like Ronald Reagan have historically appealed to the lowest levels of self-interested moral reasoning (Kohlberg Stage 2, “What’s in it for me?”) with campaign slogans like “Are YOU better off than you were four years ago?” the intent of the Framers was clearly to focus on the common rather than the individual good. Indeed, without such a focus, democracy devolves into the grim vision of Hobbes’ Leviathan where the social contract is relegated to preventing the atomistic “war of all against all.” 

Over the past few years I have come to wonder if democratic self-governance actually can work in a consumerist culture. It is no small irony that Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence were published the same year. I have often posed the question to my students as to which has proven more formative to the American experience, the democratic theory Jefferson proposed (“all men are created equal”) or the liberal economic theory that Smith asserted. 

In all fairness, few have actually read Smith’s work, much less his accompanying volume on Moral Sentiments, and thus even fewer understand his arguments about capitalism in the communal context in which he made them. Smith clearly understood the notions of the common good and the dangers of unrestrained greed. 

But the capitalism Smith proposed which became the tenets of a revealed religion complete with an “invisible hand” to govern human behavior has over the last 40 years  devolved into a fundamentalist free market society. As Habermas so presciently warned us 30 years ago, the business quadrant has managed to neutralize the political sector which would restrain its excesses and thus it is colonizing the rest of the life world. 

Historical Amnesia 

For democratic self-governance to have a fighting chance of surviving, the populace who would deign to govern themselves must be educated. For people like John Dewey, this did not mean simply knowing the workings of the government itself, it meant educating the whole person, insuring they were capable of critical reflection on the masses of information which even in Dewey’s day had begun to inundate the general public. It meant applying those critically understood apprehensions to their daily lives and enculturating a sense of responsibility to one’s society to consider the common good and engage the process required to attain it. 

Any critical observation of the American public over the centuries would suggest that our awareness of the values of the social contract by which we have agreed to be governed have been somewhat limited. 

We generally don’t understand the presumption of innocence which attends Anglo-American law. We are a punitive culture which locks up more of its population per capita than any other. Ironically, we tend to see failures to convict those accused of crimes as somehow a failure of the system itself. 

The right to vote has only emerged in any form other than theoretical in the last century with the removal of barriers to women’s voting. Even now the right to vote is regularly effectively withheld by thinly disguised politically motivated barriers to minority voting. The desire for dominance at the expense of democracy is most frequently rationalized with claims that voter fraud is a threat to the legitimacy of the system, a pretense routinely disproven by reputable studies.   

We are largely oblivious to the history of immigration and the fact that it is precisely this mix of people from all over the world that has provided America with the cultural spark that has driven a creative dynamo for four centuries. We don’t know that the Germans and Irish once faced the same prejudices and denial of dignity that Muslims do today. Most are unaware that Japanese-Americans were deprived of their homes, businesses and liberties during WWII when they were placed in American concentration camps. 

The lyrical words of Emma Lazarus’ tablet on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” indeed the import of the statue itself, are largely lost on an American public unaware of its history.

But, if US residents with historical amnesia have grown tone-deaf to the values that have long represented the nobility of our nation’s goals, our lack of understanding of the basic mechanics of our government are even more appalling.  

A Quiet Crisis in Education  

Immigrants have long been required to pass a citizenship test administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) which includes familiarity with American history, constitutional government and the current holders of office in that government. There are 100 questions and immigrants wishing to become naturalized citizens must get 60% of them correct. Virtually all of them, 97.5% of all applicants, do so. 

When native-born citizens were surveyed last year by Xavier University’s Center for the Study of the American Dream about their attitudes regarding immigrants, 77% responded that they believe immigrants should be required to pass such exams to become citizens . An additional 60% say that passage of the exam should be a requirement for graduation from high school. 

Yet, when native-born citizens actually took the exams themselves, one in three failed to pass it. 

A similar study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2008 administered a 33 question test based upon the citizenship exam to 2,508 Americans of all ages. Fewer than half of all those tested could name the three branches of government. Seventy-one percent of all American test takers failed the exam. The average score among high school graduates was 44% correct. College graduates also failed the assessment scoring only 57% correct. 

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has described Americans’ lack of knowledge of the basic functions of government as a “quiet crisis in education.” But it is a crisis that has arisen in a context of test-driven pedagogy predominately focused on STEM programs designed to serve the imperatives of the business sector. Our children increasingly know how to do technical tasks even as they increasingly have little idea of why or how it impacts the world around them.

While a handful of states have passed exam requirements for graduation under the rubric of “if it’s tested it’s taught,” little attention has been paid to curricula or providing the funding for its teaching. Operating out of the same flawed logic that produced a No Child Left Behind nightmare which ultimately left up to one in three American children behind, exam requirement laws have largely been passed, according to former engineer and educator Lucian Spataro, to “incentivize teachers… to give the subject more attention.”  

This presumes that it is the failure of teachers to do their jobs that has produced this crisis, an incredibly shaky presumption on a good day that ultimately seeks to avoid the complexity of this problem.    

But civic engagement simply cannot be taught by memorizing data and regurgitating it upon command. Democratic self-governance by definition requires engagement. That, in turn, requires understanding of the process, not merely the ability to recall facts.

Cui Bono? 

Not surprisingly, one of the ways some states have sought to “incentivize teachers” ultimately serves more to produce profit for the computerized services that would provide online lessons for students. 

Cui bono? Good for whom? At whose expense? 

The entire test-driven pedagogy foisted on the nation’s school children over the past decade and a half under the cynical banner of “educational reform” has provided an amazing windfall for educational publishers with standardized testing and online content divisions. In turn, those corporate interests have poured millions of dollars into campaign funding. But it in the process it failed to insure that no child was in fact left behind, inciting parental rebellions against the testing process along the way and, for far too many children, choking the very life out of any joy of learning. 

Test-driven pedagogies and online programs designed to teach mere familiarity with isolated facts of civic literacy without any experiential engagement of the process now threaten to turn “the quiet crisis” of civic illiteracy into a much deeper crisis with the potential to completely undermine democratic self-governance.  As Joseph Kahne, head of the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College in Oakland asks, “Why are we teaching democracy like a game show?”  

Real civics education shouldn’t be regurgitating facts, Kahne argues. It should empower young people to speak up and take part in civic life, and technology is key to that effort. In short, the very schools which teach the process should model it and engage their students in that process. 

But Do We Really Want an Educated People?

Of course, this presumes that a populace empowered to govern itself effectively is a valued goal. In an America where a stunted version of the dream of Adam Smith has ultimately prevailed over the lofty dreams of Thomas Jefferson, where profit routinely comes before people, such a presumption is highly debatable. 

Indeed, an educated people capable of self-governance could well prove a liability to interests who would seek to dominate the people and preserve the interests of the beneficiaries of the status quo. These include interests like those of educational publishing houses and corporations seeking minimally trained, obedient workers trained NOT to think critically or ask questions. 

These are the kinds of dark visions that are readily dismissed by functionalists as paranoid and avoided at all costs by those who would presume the arrangements of the status quo to define “realism.” Nonetheless, they are the underlying questions that ultimately will determine if democracy can ever work again in a post-Trumpland New America.

[Continued with Part VIII]

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston, 2016

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