America Is Turning Into a Confederacy of Dunces
Why is Donald Trump within a whisker of the White House? Two-thirds of the country can’t even name the three branches of government.
In struggling for some explanation for the inexplicable events of this election season — in particular, the fact that someone as unqualified and ignorant as Donald Trump is as close as he is to the most powerful post in the world — I keep coming back to a conversation that a friend had with her trainer at a posh gym in Manhattan. The New York City trainer is a bright and personable woman in her 20s. But when my friend casually referred to Hillary Clinton’s hearings on Benghazi, Libya, she was befuddled. Not just because she had never heard of the Benghazi controversy … but because she had never heard of the secretary of state, the State Department, or of U.S. ambassadors. She was just as blissfully unaware of the existence of the two houses of Congress, with each appointing committees to focus on matters of national concern.
This trainer is not a high school dropout or a recent immigrant. She is a native-born American who graduated from a four-year college that I had heard of. And yet somehow in 16 years of education she failed to learn the most elementary facts about our government.
For years, I’ve been more sanguine than most about the state of the American education system. Sure, surveys showed that our schoolkids were falling behind the rest of the world, especially in math and science; but, I liked to point out, our economy was doing great. How bad could our schools be if we continued to lead the world in high-tech innovation?
I now realize that I was being Pollyannaish. (For you recent graduates, that means “excessively optimistic.”) The longer this election season goes on, the more evidence we are seeing of the cost of the shocking ignorance inculcated by our system of schooling. Late-night comedians have made a running joke out of this civic illiteracy with their “man on the street” interviews with people who cannot, for example, identify pictures of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, or Jimmy Carter. Surveys show that such ignorance is not out of the norm.
As Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute notes in the Daily Beast: “By the end of the 1990s, two thirds of high school seniors were unable to identify the 50-year period in which the Civil War was fought; half didn’t know in which half century World War I took place. More than half could not name the three branches of government. A majority had no idea what the Gettysburg address was all about. Fifty two percent chose Germany, Japan or Italy as ‘U.S. allies’ in World War II.” It gets worse: “Several years ago Newsweek asked a sample of 1000 voters to take the same test that new immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship must pass. One third of the respondents couldn’t name the vice president and half didn’t know that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. Only one third knew that the Constitution is considered the nation’s highest law.”
What are the results of this dismaying lack of knowledge? The most obvious consequence is the extent to which Trump and Bernie Sanders — the fascist and the socialist — have transfixed the electorate this year in spite of their complete absence of workable policy proposals. Both have engaged in wish fulfillment, essentially promising, as Trump explicitly said, “to make every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true.” Although Sanders and Trump differ a bit in the content of their dreams, they both promise to spend trillions of dollars for new programs without offering any realistic method of paying for their promises: Sanders proposed a tax on “Wall Street speculation” and Trump to eliminate “waste, fraud, and abuse,” both ideas that experienced policy analysts will recognize as pie-in-the-sky. (How does “speculation” differ from needed investment? And where is the line item in the federal budget for “waste, fraud, and abuse”?)
When it comes to foreign policy, both preach essentially isolationism, with blithe indifference or unawareness of how terribly the United States and the world suffered when those policies were implemented in the past. Both have also turned their backs on free trade, which pretty much all economists agree is a good thing.
Trump has gone even further by promising that he “alone” can somehow destroy the Islamic State, end terrorism, return lost manufacturing jobs, stop illegal immigration by building a wall that Mexico will pay for, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, end trade deficits, make all of America’s streets safe, and accomplish a host of other miracles. His inability to spell out any way to get from here to there has not been an insurmountable impediment to his electoral success, at least not so far.
A surprisingly large number of people are all too willing to swallow these grandiose and unbelievable promises while professing themselves not to be troubled by Trump’s lack of basic knowledge about governance. This is a candidate, after all, who thinks that judges issue “bills” and who has no idea what the “nuclear triad” is or what the difference is between the Kurds and the Quds Force.
Yet Trump looks almost well-informed compared to the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, who apparently has never heard of the Syrian city of Aleppo and could not in a television interview identify a single, favorite world leader. The isolationist Johnson actually brags that his lack of knowledge is an advantage because he can’t invade countries he has never heard of.
Johnson is nevertheless attracting a substantial share of millennial votes — and many of those voters are oblivious to the danger of throwing the election to Donald Trump. When a New York Times reporter asked one college student if he wasn’t worried about repeating the 2000 scenario when Ralph Nader siphoned critical votes from Al Gore in Florida, this young scholar replied: “Ralph who?”
(Note that Trump’s support comes not from college students or college graduates but from white men with a high school education or less. So presumably they know even less than this prospective Johnson voter.)
Whatever happens on Nov. 8, recent events should underline the urgent necessity of revitalizing civics education — of making sure that current and future voters know basic information about government, history, geography, international affairs, and economics to make well-informed choices. That will require, for a start, devoting more resources to civics education.
Federal funding for civics teaching was zeroed out in 2011, forcing educators to rely on private donations for curriculum development, teacher training, and other important functions. But private donors give less than $41 million a year to this subject, which is less than the $45 million the Intel Foundation alone gives annually to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, and Intel is just one of hundreds of private foundations supporting STEM. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act restored some funding for civics education but no more than $6.6 million a year — still far less than the $170 million the federal government devotes to supporting STEM. Sure, it’s important to produce students who know math and science, but it’s even more important to produce students who can exercise the obligations of citizenship.
But the problem extends beyond funding. A 2010 survey of civics teachers by the American Enterprise Institute found that only 36 percent thought it was essential to teach students “to know facts (e.g., location of the fifty states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor).” It’s hardly surprising that so many people don’t know the basic facts about our country or the world if the educators who are supposed to teach them don’t think those facts are important. But they are.
This lack of basic knowledge about national and world affairs poses a real danger to the future of our democracy. Elections presuppose that voters have some intellectual apparatus to distinguish between the choices they are offered. If that’s no longer the case, American democracy will fall prey to demagogues — and if not to Trump, then to someone else. This is precisely what our Founding Fathers feared. As Federalist No. 10 warned: “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” (For the benefit of today’s voters, the Federalist Papers are a series of 85 essays published in 1787-1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the Constitution. You may have heard of Hamilton — he’s a rapper with a Broadway show.)
If we don’t revitalize civics education, we will be entrusting our future to people who cannot name all three branches of government — a feat that only one-third of respondents in one recent survey could pull off. Such abysmal ignorance is no obstacle to training clients at a gym or performing myriad other jobs, but it is a deal-breaker in making informed decisions at the ballot box. The way we are going, one of these days a Bernie Sanders or, heaven help us, a Donald Trump will not just be a candidate for president. He will actually become president.
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