Noah Harrison: On civic ignorance

Tuesday, January 16, 2018 - 5:01pm

Prior to last week’s college football national championship game, President Donald Trump took the field for the national anthem. White House officials likely hoped the appearance would help boost an embattled president, but the plan backfired when TV cameras caught Trump mumbling as he sang along, leading many observers to conclude that Trump did not know the words. The outcry was swift and harsh.

For the record, I am not convinced that Trump forgot the national anthem’s lyrics. The footage seems to show a man somewhat awkwardly trying to appear presidential on national television rather than a man struggling to remember the words. But either way, a more interesting, and far more consequential question is this: how important is it for presidents and other political leaders to know aspects of our civic culture, like the national anthem?

Suppose Trump did indeed forget the lyrics: Was the deluge of criticism that followed merely an instance of liberals trying to score political points, or was it a warranted critique? I contend it’s the latter. Admittedly, knowing the national anthem’s lyrics will not boost the economy. It won’t fix health care, nor will it thwart terrorism. But not knowing the words would be an affront to our nation’s civic culture, which can be loosely defined as respect, admiration and knowledge of our country’s democratic values, history and system of governance. The national anthem is a celebration of our civic culture, but this civic culture is arguably in decline

Last fall, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a survey on Americans’ knowledge of the government and the U.S. Constitution, and the results were less than impressive. A third of the country could not name any of the three branches of government and only a quarter could identify all three. They also found 37 percent could not name a single civil liberty protected under the First Amendment, and none of the First Amendment rights were identified by more than half of respondents.

For what it is worth, a separate ABC poll found 60 percent of Americans don’t know the national anthem’s lyrics. Moreover, the country’s ignorance of basic civics seems to be on the upswing. The Annenberg poll has been conducted annually since 2011, and the results have shown a steady decline in the civic knowledge of Americans. The concept of civic knowledge is two-fold, involving both practical topics like the provisions of the Constitution and more symbolic matters like the national anthem, but the polling suggests Americans largely don’t know much about either.

Frankly, these figures are depressing and alarming. An educated electorate is essential to the health of a modern democracy. The Founding Fathers were well aware of this and feared the irrational decisions of an ignorant populace. Some forefathers believed the solution was to limit the role of everyday citizens in governance, leading the drafters of the Constitution to create institutions like the Electoral College, the indirect election of senators and voting rights restrictions. Others, like Thomas Jefferson, believed the political participation of average citizens to be imperative in an egalitarian society and saw the education of the masses as the cure to an ill-informed electorate. Jefferson’s commitment to this goal led him to found the University of Virginia with the purpose to educate Americans to better our democracy after his presidency.

Fortunately, in the centuries since the Constitution’s ratification, we have endorsed Jefferson’s view and gradually eliminated voting rights restrictions and other roadblocks to true representative democracy. But in order for Jefferson’s vision to be realized, we must commit ourselves to being informed, responsible citizens, which begins with knowing rudimentary civics. Though ignorance towards civics does not directly translate to ignorance towards policy, voters are unlikely to make reasoned decisions at the ballot box if they do not even know how the government works. Though this lens, civic ignorance constitutes a real threat to political efficacy, since research suggests the less people know about government, the less confidence they have in it.

Trump’s national anthem mumbling raises another concern: the possibility that civic ignorance, that is a lack of knowledge and even a lack of regard for basic civics, could spread to our leaders. Politicians are rational actors, and if voters don’t care about their civic knowledge, neither will candidates for public office, which will presumably lead to ignorant leaders. We should want our political leaders to be knowledgeable about the Constitution, our country’s history and other elementary civics. However, even assuming we want this in principle, we need to know civics ourselves if we are to determine if candidates do.

Who knows if Trump knows the words of the national anthem. What is clear is that most of us don’t, and our blissful ignorance extends far beyond that to serious matters of law and governance. This is not to suggest that learning about our government is some magical fix to our nation’s problems, but rather that our nation’s ignorance is a problem in itself and one worth fixing. The loss of civic knowledge reflects a corrosion of America’s civic culture, and it is our collective responsibility as a country to rectify it.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu