By Danielle Damper
The average Americans knows very little about politics.
For example, in recent years studies have found that:
Only 36 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government
10 percent of Americans thought Judge Judy was a Supreme Court Justice
60 percent of Americans did not know which party currently controls the House
This is not a particularly new phenomenon; Americans have always been uninformed about government. However, in today’s political climate of polarization and new media, this ignorance is increasingly problematic.
Our lack of attention to and scant knowledge of politics serves to fuel the fire of overly simplistic discussions about policy and rampant misinformation.
Take for example Donald Trump’s frequent assertion that the best way to solve the immigration crisis is just to build a wall. Taken at face value, this proposed strategy ignores the numerous sociopolitical ramifications for border cities, the costs associated with building a wall, and the history behind previous attempts to militarize the border, such as Reagan’s widely critiqued Immigration Reform and Control act IRCA). However, simplistic rhetoric is not an issue that exists solely on the conservative side of politics. On the left, we often see overly idealistic solutions to problems. Bernie Sanders’ platform, for example, states that, if elected, he would repeal the Affordable Care Act to replace it with a single-payer system.
To someone who supports a single-payer system, this may seem like a perfect solution given the mixed results of the Affordable Care Act. However, such an assertion completely ignores the political realities of the health care debate. With a Republican-controlled Congress and a House that has already voted 50 plus times to repeal the ACA, the likelihood that Sander’s healthcare bill would pass without an unprecedented change in the makeup of Congress is negligible.
Now, I am not going to weigh in on the numerous ramifications of these policies, but still wish to point out that even if a policy seems like a great idea in theory, nothing in politics is so simple. Every policy that is passed through our government is one facet of a hugely complicated issue that people can spend their entire lives studying and not come to any solid conclusions. And yet, in debate all we see are discussions in the most simplistic terms. And these views are increasingly resonating with the American public. Donald Trump remains the Republican Party frontrunner and 62 percent of Republicans polled favor the building of a wall.
It makes sense then, that only 19 percent of Americans polled in a recent Pew Research Center study stated that they have faith in American Government. If you elect an official under the assumption that all you have to do is build a wall to fix the immigration system, how can you feel anything but disappointment when the realities of the situation are found to be far more complicated?
We need to demand more measured and informed debates, we need to read platforms, and never take discussions of policy at face value. We need to be informed ourselves so that we can demand better discussions out of our elected officials. We need to refuse to be taken advantage of.
However, how can we do that if no one knows what’s really going on?
It makes sense that Americans remain uninformed about politics. Politics are a complicated, often boring issues that can seem very removed from our day to day life. We have jobs and car payments and relationships and a whole host of other forms of entertainment to take our priority.
This again, is not a new phenomenon: Americans have remained uninformed about politics as long as there has been political science. Many theories of attention dynamics state that Americans do not really need to be informed about politics so long as they have a firm grasp on their party identification. A Democrat need never follow the news and can still be satisfied with their vote so long as they check the Democratic box on their ballot. However, in a world of increasing intra party division, where two Democrats and two Republicans may be as different as night and day, is partisanship still an ok proxy for information?
I argue no. Rather than be satisfied with the least amount of possible effort, we as a nation need to seriously look at our levels of civic engagement.
Americans are supposed to be taught Civics Education in High School. However only 10 states currently require a social studies test to graduate. Without this requirement, many students will wait until college to get in-depth civics education. UC Davis itself requires students take at least 9 units of Civics education before graduation to prepare students for “thoughtful, active participation in civic society.”
Requirements such as this showcase the many complexities of politics and make sensationalization far less likely to take root. This may partially explain the vast educational disparities in Trump supporters; a recent ABC poll found that only 8 percent of Republicans with a college degree supported Trump.
However, not everyone will attend college. Civics education at the college level is unnecessarily elitist, instead it should be a requirement to all students at the high school level. To ensure quality civics education, the American Bar Association has released a website called iCivics, a tool with interactive quizzes for students and lesson plans for teachers about civics education. AP U.S. Government and Politics classes are also becoming increasingly common. Moreover, there is a growing movement to require high school seniors to pass the US citizenship test before graduating high school. This is a great start, after all most high school seniors are 18-years-old, officially of voting age. An examination such as this one can help ensure students are familiar with all of the practices of government before stepping into the voting booth for the first time.
However, this does not go far enough. Even if one does receive a quality civics education, as these students grow up and get jobs and families, how feasible is it that they retain all of the information they learned as an 18-year-old?
Adult civics education needs to be made a priority as well. The majority of adults have busy lives and don’t simply have time to sit in a classroom and be lectured on the three branches of government. Instead, we should encourage civics education through participation. Citizens should be encouraged to attend town hall meetings and time to meet their representative. Constitution Day (September 17th) should be observed with the rest of our national holidays.
We also can look to media to provide the reinforcement that we so desperately need. Our coverage of politics and elections is often “horse-race media” which focuses more on who is winning and losing than actual policy. Instead, we should look to other forms of coverage of the issues. If we stopped primarily getting our news from Fox and MSNBC, and looked to the wealth of better resources available, we will become a better nation because of it.
Even non-news media can aid our civics re-education. TV shows such as House of Cards and Scandal do a great job of introducing people to politics, but in ways that are often over dramatized and fictionalized. I’m not saying House of Cards contributes to the problem, but why not have TV that is both informational and interesting?
Of course, the best way to solve this crisis in civics education is for each individual to take some time out of their day and make being a good citizen a priority. We as Americans are incredibly fortunate to live in a democracy where we have a say in the way policy turns. It may seem overly idealistic in today’s world of partisan pandering and political gridlock, but our elected officials, from city council to the President of the United States, are supposed to work for us. Having a more informed population will only make this system run more smoothly. Isn’t that enough to say enough is enough to the oversimplification and misinformation fed to us on a daily basis, and take a stand for a more engaged society?
After all, it’s just our civic duty.