Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Americans Are Stupid Peasants Incapable of Self-Government (And Europeans are Smarter Because they Don't Pretend to Like Self-Government)

Alright, maybe that's a bit inflammatory.  But I think it rather sums up the substance of the point the author makes in this dumb article from Newsweek.  Of course, I join him in his dismay over the results of the poll he cites.  Americans are woefully lacking in their understanding of American civics.  But instead of faulting the culture or the education establishment or poor teaching or a lack of curiosity (perhaps due to decadence) or any number of things that could be cited, this guy attempts to blame . . . the civics!  You see, American civics is just too darn hard:  

Most experts agree that the relative complexity of the U.S. political system makes it hard for Americans to keep up. In many European countries, parliaments have proportional representation, and the majority party rules without having to "share power with a lot of subnational governments," notes Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, coauthor of Winner-Take-All Politics. In contrast, we're saddled with a nonproportional Senate; a tangle of state, local, and federal bureaucracies; and near-constant elections for every imaginable office (judge, sheriff, school-board member, and so on). "Nobody is competent to understand it all, which you realize every time you vote," says Michael Schudson, author of The Good Citizen. "You know you're going to come up short, and that discourages you from learning more." 

Why we can hardly blame people for not knowing what was at issue in the Cold War  (73% don't) or what was debated at the Constitutional Convention.  Our system of government is just so complicated and confusing that we despair bothering to try to understand it.  American Civics is tough, man.  Thanks a lot, Jimmy Madison!  Of course, Madison isn't the only culprit here.  Newsweek also asserts that the superior performance of Europeans on these tests can be traced to their smaller immigrant populations (perhaps, true . . . but an interesting observation for Newsweek to make) and because the governments over there fund and support more of the media.  Government funded media makes "smarter" citizens, you see.  Just ask NPR. 

Of course, if we're going to decry the poor influence of "market-driven programming" perhaps a good place to start might be with . . . um, Newsweek.  Oh, wait . . .
Categories > Education

Discussions - 12 Comments

The critics of American government may have a point about complexity, but it is not fair to blame it on the U.S. Constitution. The multiple offices are a product of ultra-democratism, which was popular in most of the states in 1787 and resurfaced in the Jacksonian movement in the 1820s and 1830s. Madison is clear on the democratic appearance of such things as multiple offices but points out the very real oligarchic soul of such arrangements. (See Essay 58 of The Federalist--near the end-- regarding the number of representatives in the House.) More to the point, if there is any blame to be assigned, it goes to the Democrats who exalt "democracy" over representative institutions, here by multiple state and local offices, there by mobs in the street.

First, who gives a rip about Newsweek? Honestly. That rag will be gone within a year or two.

I love the comment by "Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker" that we're "saddled with a non-proportional Senate."

First, saddled is a loaded word. We're also saddled with an incompetent president and saddled with a criminally derelict Attorney General. But I digress ...

Second, the "non-proportional Senate" is a feature, not a flaw (as we say in the computer industry). The good citizens of the smaller states should attest to that.

Third ... and the European parliamentary model is easy to understand? What with its tangled web of coalitions and "no confidence" votes and elections held at whim?

U.S. civics is not hard to understand. The model is quite easy. No, the problem is that it's simply not explained as the simple model it is. Liberals take great delight in making fun of the circuitous path a bill takes to become law.

But then again, liberals are at heart fascists and deep in their heart they long for a dictatorial single power. So yeah, they'll mock the checks and balances of the the U.S. system. While they cast their loving eye at Europe, they're really lusting after the Soviet model.

Don: We really do need a "like" button on this page . . .

I would say that there is a certain amount of intellectually challenging complexity in the constitutional system that the Framers built, especially around the separation of powers and federalism, as, e.g., Federalist 37 observes. But, assuming the interest, effort, and ability of students and teachers (a huge assumption granted), I think our political system can be explained. Indeed, it has to be, given the Constitution's confidence in citizenship as by, say, extending the franchise as widely as it does.

I would say that whatever makes American government really dumbfounding or unexplainable derives from comes from grafting onto the Framers' system the administrative/regulatory state, with all its grandiose ambitions. Try making sense of the purpose, powers, and accountability of all the so-called independent agencies and commissions, even when the government provides a handy list of websites.*

That is, after instructing students the three-branch structure of the national government in the Constitution (most students can grasp the different names of the branches, at least), try relating any of these boards of experts to Congress, the Executive branch, or the federal court system. The bureaucracy makes a mockery of one's efforts. It is simultaneously the most boring, incomprehensible, and yet quality-of-life-altering part of the government. Indeed, it’s a kind of counter-government to the Constitution.


No argument with anyone above, just different perspective.

The point of public education was to make good citizens of the republic. If it is failing at this aspect of education, then it is failing, absolutely. What is appalling is that people come out of high schools thinking they have been educated when they haven't.

Consider a question like the following from the quiz:

What happened at the Constitutional Convention?

First of all, the question is formulated like, "Who was buried at Grant's tomb?" But that means it should be easy to answer.

The Constitution was written, or the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution.

And it is easy to answer correctly, except if you haven't got a clue.

Correct: 35%
Incorrect: 65%

Depressing and a little frightening, not only in the matter of history, but also in the matter of reading comprehension. What are they doing in K-12?

For me, the poor grasp of history and civics is not really surprising after having been in classes with history teachers through the MAHG program. Mind, there were some wonderful teachers in that program, which was making those already good teachers even better. Those were admirable people and I loved them.

However, there were teachers, especially some who took classes on the grant, who didn't have a clue and really didn't care.They seem to have taken the job because the benefits were good and they didn't know what else to do with themselves. But after a couple of generations of citizens not being taught how to be citizens, this what we get: inhabitants, not citizens.

Education as a public system is a product of that incomprehensible bureaucratic nightmare -- the point is that we should not understand it in its complexity; just give up and leave our nation in the hands of experts. We don't have to know about government; it will take care of us. No one bothers to teach civics, because we are all better off not knowing. Ignorance furthers the modern pursuit of happiness as in ignorance is bliss.

Public education was supposed to keep us from becoming a nation of stupid peasants. Ultimately, parents are responsible for the education of their children, but if parents are not well-educated themselves, they won't know what is lacking. I meet that all the time; we all must. We are in an ugly system that defies self-governing and we call it "Progress".

Maybe some student will shine bright today and cheer me up.

I think there's plenty of blame to go around, but the consumer market is certainly guilty here. Tabloid TV, video gaming, the Internet (such as Facebook) -- all these distractions plus the seemingly inherent intellectual laziness of most Americas combine to create a dumb-as-dirt electorate.

Not all of us are dumb/ignorant, but a large enough percentage to result in appalling quiz results like those Julie posts. A national pollster called me the other day, and we fell into a conversation about the stupidity of the people she was trying to poll. She told me that, for the most part, only college educated people seem to keep up with the news (i.e., those who survived our K-12 system).

I have no solutions, alas. I do trust in collective wisdom, but I suspect that most of that in this country is driven by educated people.

It would be interesting to see a comparison between Republicans and Democrats or, better yet, Tea Party folks and labor union members.

I think part of what I am whining about in my comment is that college-educated people are too often not all that well educated, especially when it comes to civics. (I almost wrote "physics" , which might relate since civics is the physics of government. They usually do not get physics either, nor economics.) High school teachers are college educated, for all the good it does too many of them. I suppose this relates to a previous thread of comments about the problem with educated being a focus on process rather than substance.

One of the things I love about the Tea Partiers is that many of them are trying to learn about civics. Of course, they often know more about the Constitution than about how government currently works.

Kate's comments are well taken, and her remark on the Tea Parties sheds light on a point I was trying to make, above. One of the difficulties in teaching American government is the wide chasm between the "ought" (the Constitution and Declaration of Independence political principles) and the "is" (bureaucratic rule and progressively expanding entitlements). It seems that one can teach and students can learn (potentially) either one or the other, but not both, in a high school civics course, or an introductory college course.

I would prefer that students and citizens know the "ought," but how to apply that to politics in the face of a drastically different "is"? To paraphrase Machiavelli, what use are ideal republics if such notions don't address how men (and bureaucratic politicians) really act? To reform or dismantle our pervasive administrative despotism, it is necessary first to understand it. And, I think, the Constitution itself does not speak to this, except negatively, or by omission.

[...] Before commenting, I’m first going to calculate the Fourier Transform of Andy’s graph and analyse it in reciprocal space. Time for me to break a rule. As many of you will know, I am currently chairperson of STFC's Astronomy Grants Panel. I have steered clear of discussing AGP business on this blog, for obvious reasons. However, the current round is now complete, so I can relax that rule somewhat. I wrote a chairman's report which went out yesterday on the astrocommunity email list. Paul Crowther has put it on his website, so you can read it if you haven't already. T … Read More [...]

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