MSNBC focus groups underscore the importance of civics education in a democracy
Lack of understanding of how government works is rampant among voters
Last week, MSNBC’s Elise Jordan convened two focus groups of Georgia voters to discuss issues related to today’s Georgia Primary. There were also questions about President Biden and the role of Congress. One group was comprised of all White participants who viewed themselves as conservative or in a couple of instances as MAGA Republicans. The other was a more diverse group of Democratic-leaning voters.
Many of the answers by members of both groups were fairly predictable. The GOP group was dismissive of January 6th and pushed the lie that Antifa was the primary culprit. They also exhibited disdain for Sen. Rafael Warnock and the mere mention of Stacy Abrams’ name drew smirks and scowls. As one would expect, most of the Democratic-leaning participants defended Warnock, discussed the racial divide, and on a national level were lukewarm on the performance of President Biden. But after looking at several of the scenes, what was apparent to me was that most, if not all exhibited little knowledge of the functions of government.
Interestingly, this nation's Founding Fathers believed that for democracy to succeed citizens should be appropriately educated in order to engage in what was viewed as a grand experiment. Jefferson and Madison also viewed civic education as vital in holding government leaders and its institutions accountable. However, the inherent contradiction in these views was that in order to be designated as a citizen, you were required to be a White male landowner.
Civic education took on many forms throughout the intervening years and for various reasons. Much of the incongruence was due to social, education, and cultural disparities that resulted in the perception of tiered citizenship. Added to this were the Eurocentric and nationalist curricula that were taught to all students, including those who weren't considered full citizens and/or represented marginalized communities.
Today, the effect of inadequate civics education is coming at a time when our democracy is being tested and the respect for our governmental institutions is at its lowest. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that only one-quarter of Americans can name all three branches of the government and almost a third can't name one. With such inadequate knowledge of government, how do we expect voters to make sound choices in supporting candidates at any level, not to mention referendums?
One effort to address this burgeoning problem is CivXNow, a project of iCivics. It has formed a coalition of more than 200 diverse member organizations from academic and research institutions, learning providers, and philanthropic organizations to highlight the severity of this problem and identify areas of focus. They include civic knowledge and skills, civic values and disposition, civic behavior, and supporting the nation's K-12 schools in fulfilling their civic mission. Other experts have weighed in by advocating that civic and government education be taught every year from K-12 either as an individual course or included in the content of other classes. The hope is that by offering students the requisite information and skills, they will be able to fully participate in our democratic system throughout the course of their lives.
What is evident in various interviews of voters and those who view the casting of a ballot as a waste of time, is the ignorance of many, which serves as a frightening reminder that "low information" voters cast large shadows on potential election outcomes. While we can't save more recent generations from this knowledge gap, we can certainly go all in to ensure that students in the future receive the proper instruction and skills that will enable our democracy to not only survive, but thrive.