A Republic, if you can keep it

Preparing students for the successful exercise of citizenship – with a knowledge of history and civics and a commitment to the norms of democracy – has been one of the primary aims of taxpayer funding of K-12 education.

Investigations across decades, however, have revealed shallow knowledge of American history and government. The Annenburg Public Policy Center, for instance, found in 2019 that only 39% of Americans could successfully identify all three branches of government. It seems to be catching up with us.

While there is nothing new regarding civic ignorance, there is something new with on-demand confirmation bias of the sort seen on social media. This appears to be a dangerous and corrosive combination.

An old saying holds that things are never either as good or as bad as they seem. Let’s hope that is true, because they seem very bad now, especially regarding the public’s ability to exercise discernment when it comes to partisan narratives.

On the 2020 election, I think it’s clear that policymakers should act to increase public confidence (vote counts dragging on for days for instance is a bad look). The stunning scale of fraud necessary to have swung the electoral college vote and then navigate dozens of court cases is, however, profoundly implausible.

A multi-state conspiracy involving county and state officials from both parties, dozens of judges from both parties, including several appointed by Republican presidents and President Trump himself, Trump’s Attorney General William Barr and effectively all nine justices of the United States Supreme Court, would be necessary.

President Trump deserved access to the courts, but last I heard, the final tally on those cases was 59 losses and a single victory that did not change an outcome.

It also is worth recalling that Democratic officials can’t distribute vaccines without throwing them away and the Obama administration struggled for months to build a website. What are the chances they could pull off a multi-state conspiracy while co-opting hundreds of Republicans?

Before our left-of-center readers smirk too broadly, the years of news coverage questioning whether Donald Trump was a KGB agent, for example, never made much sense either. Donald Trump campaigned and governed as a “drill baby, drill” fracking enthusiast seeking “American energy dominance.” The Russian economy is grossly dependent upon the export of oil and natural gas and would be much better off without having the United States displace it as the world’s top producer.

While Russians do interfere in elections, their aim seems to be to sow chaos; they also helped Bernie Sanders in the primary. Even after the special counsel announced finding no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that half of respondents still believed it happened.

The special counsel spent $32-million without finding evidence of collusion, but why not go ahead and believe it anyway?

It is possible that Trump was a longtime KGB asset and it’s possible that the massive election conspiracy referenced above happened in 2020. They both seem about as likely as the existence of a population of aquatic dinosaurs swimming around in a lake in Scotland for eons without anyone ever coming across a carcass.

Far too many Americans are ignorant of their history and government, and demagogues find it all too easy to manipulate hyper-partisans. It’s hard to imagine improving matters without the contribution of a broad improvement in civic education.