The woman is a bright and friendly person in her mid-twenties. But when a friend casually refers to Hillary Clinton’s hearings on Benghazi, Libya, she is befuddled. Not just because she has never heard of the Benghazi controversy, but because she has never heard of the Secretary of State, or of the State Department, or of United States ambassadors. She is just as blissfully unaware of the existence of the two houses of Congress, with each appointing committees to focus on matters of national concern.
Now, the woman is not a high school dropout or a recent immigrant. She is a native-born American who graduated from a recognized four-year college. And yet somehow in sixteen years of education, she has failed to learn the most elementary facts about our government.
And she is not alone.
For years, I taught at a college in the Baltimore area and I mentioned Adolf Hitler in a lecture one time, only to be met with the blank stares that signal incomprehension and perplexity. These students not only did not know who Adolf Hitler was, but they also did not know who won World War Two! How does one enter a college classroom and not know such things? As King Mongkut of Siam says in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I: “It’s a puzzlement!”
The longer this election season goes on, the more evidence I see of the cost of the shocking ignorance instilled 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. I can well remember watching a segment on The Tonight Show back in the 1960s in which a reporter was sent out onto the streets of New York City to ask people to identify a photograph of then Vice President Lyndon Johnson. No one interviewed knew who he was. No one! It was funny at the time, but the Kennedy assassination changed all that. Surveys show that such ignorance is not out of the norm.
Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute has noted: “By the end of the 1990s, two thirds of high school seniors were unable to identify the 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 clue what the Gettysburg Address was all about. Fifty-two percent chose Germany, Japan or Italy as ‘U.S. allies’ in World War Two.”
But it only gets worse.
Several years ago, Newsweek asked a sample of 1000 voters to take the same test that new immigrants applying for United States citizenship must pass. One third of the respondents could not name the vice president and half did not know that the first ten 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 Donald Trump has transfixed the electorate this year in spite of his complete absence of workable policy proposals.
For example, on the campaign trail in September of this year, Donald Trump told supporters, “We have forty-one days to make possible every dream you’ve ever dreamed.” Oddly enough, it is apparently part of Trump’s new pitch: NBC News’ Katy Tur noticed the Republican nominee make a similar comment a day later: “You have forty days until the election. You have forty days to make every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true.”
Trump also reportedly vowed to supporters that he would “fulfill every single wish” they have for his presidency.
The problem with Trump’s over-the-top promises is not just their excessive arrogance or their detachment from political realities. What the GOP nominee also fails to realize is the degree to which his rhetoric is at odds with his own alleged conservative principles.
Conservatives are not supposed to tell the public they will “make possible every dream you’ve ever dreamed.” On the contrary, at a root, almost crude level, conservatives believe in telling the masses, “Everyone cannot have everything.” More to the point, the conservative right’s core beliefs dictate that it is ridiculous for the public to even look to the state and political leaders to fulfill their dreams. Such people are “takers” not “makers,” according to Republican conservative dogma.
And yet, here is Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, who has no real understanding of what he is talking about, effectively saying the opposite: Everyone can, in fact, have everything, and he alone – a President Trump – will make it happen.
Trump promises to spend trillions of dollars for new programs without offering any realistic method of paying for his promises. Trump promises to eliminate “waste, fraud, and abuse,” an empty promise that dates back at least to President Jimmy Carter, and which experienced policy analysts recognize as pie-in-the-sky. (Where, for instance, is the line item in the federal budget for “waste, fraud, and abuse”?)
And when it comes to foreign policy, Trump preaches isolationism, with unthinking indifference or unawareness of how terribly the United States and the world suffered when such a policy was implemented in the past. Further, he turns his back on free trade, which most 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 eleven 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 without any other help, such as the legislative branch of government, 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. Trump is a candidate, after all, who thinks that judges issue “bills,” or who has no idea what the “nuclear triad” is, or who does not know what the difference is between the Kurds and the Quds Force.
Yet Trump looks almost exceptionally well-informed compared to the Libertarian Party candidate, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who apparently has never heard of the Syrian city of Aleppo, could not in a television interview identify a single, favorite world leader, and cannot or will not name the dictator of North Korea. The isolationist Johnson actually brags that his lack of knowledge is to his advantage because he cannot invade countries he has never heard of, can he! Now, there is a piece of logic for you to ponder.
Johnson is nevertheless attracting a substantial share of millennial votes – and many of those voters are oblivious to the danger of a third-party candidate throwing the election to Donald Trump. The vast majority of millennials were not old enough to vote in 2000, when Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party nominee and, with the strong backing of young voters, helped cost Vice President Al Gore the presidency.
“Ralph who?” asked David Frasier, a junior at Charleston Southern University. “Didn’t he kind of come in at the last minute and kind of alter the votes or something?” Frasier, twenty-six, asked, his memory barely jogged. “I was too young to remember.” (Note that Trump’s main 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 David Frasier.)
Whatever happens on 8 November, recent events should underline the urgent necessity of revitalizing civics education – of making certain that current and future voters know basic information about government, history, geography, international affairs, and economics to make well-informed choices.
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 is no longer the case, American democracy will fall prey to demagogues – and if not to Donald Trump, then to someone else. This is precisely what our Founding Fathers feared. As Federalist Number 10, an essay written by James Madison as the tenth of the Federalist Papers 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 under-informed voters, the Federalist Papers are a series of eighty-five essays published between 1787 and 1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the Constitution. You may have heard of Hamilton – he is a rapper with a Broadway show! (Just messing with you.)
If we do not 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 a deal-breaker in making informed decisions at the ballot box.
However, the way we are going, one of these days the republic could find itself in peril if in the future we see some demagogue who is smoother, more articulate than Donald Trump and devoid of his debilitating personal flaws, who will not just be a candidate for president. He will actually become president – and heaven help us if that should occur!
We are not that ignorant.
Or are we?
I spend sleepless nights pondering that question.