Editorial: Lack of knowledge of basic civics threatening democracy

Editorial: Lack of  knowledge of basic civics threatening democracy
October 27
04:30 2016

On Thursday, Oct. 20, Rachel Maddow revealed on her MSNBC television show that retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter gave a warning about our democracy on Sept. 14, 2012. That was four years ago.

Souter was speaking about the Constitution. He was speaking about “civic ignorance,” when people don’t understand how government can and should function.

He says he sees “the pervasive ignorance of the Constitution of the United States and the structure of government” as the most significant problem in American politics today.

His words appear a bit eery after Donald Trump made his declaration that he will wait and see whether he will accept the results of the General Election before conceding if he loses. The United States has always had a peaceful transfer of government. Trump’s declaration appears to threaten that.

Souter’s warning:

“What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible and when the problems get bad enough …some one person will come forward and say ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’ That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor not because he arrested the Roman senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.

“If we know who is responsible, I have enough faith in the American people to demand performance from those responsible. If we don’t know, we will stay away from the polls, we will not demand it, and the day will come when somebody will come forward and we and the government will in effect say ‘Take the ball and run with it, do what you have to do.’ That is the way democracy dies.

“And if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about at night.”

United States forefather Thomas Jefferson said: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.”

When asked what kind of government the United States would have if the Constitution is approved, forefather Benjamin Franklin said: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Souter said: “You can’t keep it in ignorance.”

Trump supporters appear to be looking for that person to solve all their problems instead of trying to understand how our democracy works.

Souter was a guest on a new program in his native New Hampshire called “Constitutionally Speaking: How Does The Constitution Keep Up With The Times.” The show was partly supported by the then-newly established NH Institute for Civic Education, which provides professional development opportunities to New Hampshire teachers so that civics education becomes a reality for all public school students beginning in kindergarten and continuing through graduation from high school.

Civics lessons were taught in schools across the United States at one time. What happened? Why does New Hampshire have to make a big deal about training young people about civics when it should already be taught in the schools?

Just as the closing of newspapers is a threat to democracy, the lack of civics education in schools is a threat, too.

We all should make it a point to rid ourselves of ignorance of civics. The Chronicle is helping with its Voter Guide, published last week and inserted into the newspaper.

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Donna Rogers

Donna Rogers

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