American democracy is broken.
No one wants to say it. No one wants to hear it be said – but if you clear aside the patriotism and praise that is the traditional political rhetoric of candidates during election season – there it is: the elephant in the room – and NOT exclusively of the Republican kind.
In Social Studies class, Americans are taught that our nation was founded upon the sacred principles of freedom and democracy. What isn’t taught is that there is something very real and present which threatens these sacred ideals: voter ignorance. The basic lessons of our government’s civic structure have been forgotten by the people that ought to heed them most: voting-age Americans.
According to the Annenberg survey, only 36% of the voting-age population can answer the most basic question regarding the American political structure: ‘What are the three branches of government?’. Nearly half of our country’s population believes that the President has the power to suspend the constitution, and 43% of Americans do not know that Herbert Hoover was a United States President (Friedman). All of this is not to mention that 40% of Americans fail to make an appearance at the polls for even the most pivotal and popular of elections: The Presidential (André; Anduiza).
These facts are appalling, yet many still question: So what? Even if voters are ignorant, and the population is insufficiently represented by low voter turnout – it’s likely that things have always been this way. Our democracy has soldiered on, hasn’t it?
The short answer is yes.
The long answer? Perhaps our democracy and the functioning of our government have struggled along, and perhaps they will continue to do so – but is this what we want? Do we desire that our democracy struggle or do we desire that it thrive? Are we willing to give up on the ideals of freedom, equal representation, and a well-informed democracy?
I am not. And I hope that no American is. We NEED to change in order to preserve these ideals, and we can:
- CHALLENGE The Education System
The most obvious and urgent change that needs to be undertaken to save American Democracy from ignorance and apathy is the education of the voting electorate. Why is it that subjects relevant to voting-age Americans are not taught in closer proximity to the American voting-age? High schools often require the memorization of the structure of a cell, but not the most basic structure of our government (Friedman; Ralston 78). It’s time to challenge our idea of civic education in American high schools. We can do better.
To attain a sufficiently educated voting electorate, the department of education should work within each state to devise and integrate non-biased civic curricula into the pre-existing framework of education.
Many may question this idea: Does non-biased civic education actually exist?
Following published research from prominent educational experts and philosophers like Peter Singer and John Dewey, Chicago high schools have partnered with Illinois Universities and begun teaching ethics and civic education at the high school level. Through this project and experimental research, it’s been shown that this type of education can be achieved in a non-biased manner, and that it promotes the interest and understanding of government and democracy at a young age that creates a less ignorant electorate (Dewey; Singer; “The High School Ethics Project”).
If our democracy is going to operate with a more informed electorate, our electorate needs to become more informed. And most importantly, our electorate needs to stay informed after leaving the education system.
- CREATE The Diverse Educated Electorate Essential to Democracy:
De·moc·ra·cy, noun: a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives (Gove).
The dictionary definition of democracy warrants a system of government that represents the whole population. Considering that 40% of eligible voters fail to make it to the presidential polls, the threatening truth of voter apathy is that the 60% of eligible voters making government decisions are not sufficiently representative of the diversity of our nation (Hochschild; “Voter Turnout”). Additionally, American government has historically implemented policies that unfairly target and mitigate the voting access of certain racial and socioeconomic groups including African Americans, Hispanics, and those of lower socioeconomic status. There are ways to increase the diversity of our voting electorate and to ensure that certain socioeconomic and racial groups are not denied representation. As a nation we have a duty to the very definition of democracy to pursue these initiatives (“The Future of Voting Rights”):
- Foremost, the United States should investigate and determine whether this 60% of the voting populace is representative of our nation as a whole, and just where it is specifically that a lack of diversity is arising from. Scholars and researchers have done so and found that voter turnout is closely linked to geographic location. Specific locations, especially locations yielding concentrations of populations of lower socioeconomic status, and specific ethnic groups historically prevented from voting are often identified as especially lacking in voter turnout (“The Future of Voting Rights”).
- Once identified, the faction of the Department of Education dedicated to civic curricula could work more closely within these areas in order to increase voter turnout. Civic education in high schools is closely linked to higher voter turnout rates as well as less voter ignorance. Therefore, if the Department of Education civic curricula initiative prioritized the areas discovered to yield a lagging-voter turnout the result would be a more diverse yet less ignorant electorate (Dewey; “The High School Civics Project”).
- Finally, the United States must move to address its most flagrant offense of the diversity of the electorate through the abolition of gerrymandering. Politicians should not pick their voters; voters should pick their politicians. Gerrymandering is the reconfiguring of the boundaries of electoral districts, often to concentrate or break up specific demographics in order to benefit political interests. As a result of these perverse motives, gerrymandering inorganically concentrates demographic groups and unfairly targets minorities and members of lower socioeconomic classes in a way that reapportions their votes to have less impact (Barasch). The nature of gerrymandering is in direct conflict with the natural democratic interest to maintain a diverse electorate. The shapes to the left DO NOT make sense as an electoral district – and clearly do not intend to preserve the diversity of our electorate. All one can ask is: Really, America?
The diversity of our electorate is no joke – although – the imposed boundaries that have passed as electoral districts could be. Diverse representation is essential to democratic representation, and it’s possible to create a more diverse electorate without creating a more ignorant one if the previous initiatives are undertaken. A politically educated diverse electorate will promote political discourse between individuals of differing gender, socioeconomic, and racial backgrounds. Engaged, educated citizens will debate issues important to the future of all American citizens, strengthening our democratic system and mitigating the effects of voter ignorance (Hochschild).
- DEVELOP an Environment to Preserve Democracy
America has eternally struggled with the balance of power between representative democracy: founded on the principle that elected officials, or in some cases officials-elected-by-elected-officials represent a group of people, and direct democracy: based upon the idea that a general electorate of eligible citizens should elect important officials or make policy decisions directly (Cisneros, Henry, and Parr).
As of late, this battle has been fought in many arenas, but perhaps most fiercely in the judiciary realm where power is slowly but surely being concentrated within judges: officials-elected-by-elected-officials of the people. The role of judges has expanded vastly over the years. Judges have slowly ascended from mediators to interpreters of the constitution. Considering that judges are appointed rather than elected – this could be a dangerous concentration of power away from the people that warrants investigation (Goldstein, Friedman, and Porter).
On the other end of the representative spectrum – the electoral college of the United States was created as a check on the power of the people within a presidential election – but as of now it stands only as a figurehead of its former self (Somin).
A more educated electorate would be able to check this shifting power, but such a job would first require the American public to understand that this balance is being threatened. An American public more versed on the structure of the government would have the ability to call the government into question on this topic – and initiate the change and investigation that needs to be undertaken.
- BUT Can American Democracy TRULY Be Mended?
No matter how much evidence there is – when it comes to America and politics – this is the question in the back of everyone’s mind. Our generation’s focus is practicality.
Yes – it can be mended – and if you asked an idealistic, patriotic America it would declare: YES! Why not? But the typical American disagrees – despite the fact that the typical American has the power to demand change.
Our government is supposed to represent the interests of the whole and the sacred ideals of freedom and democracy that these interests represent. We can protect these sacred ideals, expand voter diversity, and preserve our democratic environment by combating voter ignorance and the threat that a lack of diversity imposes.
EDUCATE yourself, and demand to be educated. UNDERSTAND that you have the power to vote while others do not, HEED the fact that our democracy allows for reform, and USE this knowledge to change something and to ask for these changes.
At some point – we forget the basic civic lessons learned in social studies class – as evidentiated by the Annenberg Survey and America’s astounding levels of voter ignorance. But we also forget the feeling that we had before we learned of the deficiencies of American politics: that we have the power to initiate change.