We had the luxury for decades of laughing at the people on the street interviewed by late night comedians who couldn’t answer questions like, “Who was the queen of England?” or, “In what country would you find the Panama Canal?” or “how many moons does the earth have?”
We laughed because we considered these folks outliers, oddities, eccentrics. A small cadre of people who did not represent the rest of us, who could recite the Preamble, who knew the three branches of government, who knew that the Douglas in the Lincoln-Douglass debates was not Frederick.
But we can no longer afford this luxury. This lack of basic, civic knowledge should concern us, particularly now, when our democracy faces challenges that we’d have considered unthinkable 10 years ago. Civic knowledge binds us and our past carelessness here is costing us dearly.
In 2009, Joshua Cooper Ramo wrote the book, “The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constant Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It.” In the book, he discusses the possibilities created as once secure ideas and institutions crumble.
More than a decade later, we seem to have entered a new age of the unthinkable with all of its challenges.
Who would have ever thought we’d see throngs of people considering themselves patriots attack the U.S. Capitol, attacking police, ransacking offices and leaving excrement in the hallways?
Who would have ever thought that a sitting President would help organize such an event?
Who would have ever thought there’d be any appetite for the kind of ascendant anti-democracy moving through state legislatures, including our own here in Kansas, like the ongoing curtailment of voting rights.
It’s as though we’ve forgotten the fundamental tenets of who we’ve always claimed to be:
- The frequent debasement of our election system as unreliable or rigged;
- The attempts to ban books and portions of our unflattering history;
- The duping and shipping of asylum seekers from Southern border states to so-called Northern liberal enclaves.
But instead of overreacting, we should consider just how imperfect our democracy always has been.
When the Constitution was ratified, only about 7% of the nation’s population could vote. At the time, only wealthy, land-owning white men could vote. Others consider our democracy to be only 57 years old – dating to the 1965 Voting Rights Act that allowed full voting participation.
The late educator, psychologist and Egyptologist Asa Hilliard encouraged people to free their minds and return to the source. That’s what we should do. We all need re-introduce ourselves to our founding documents. We should study more, learn more, share more.
Fundamentally, democracy should mean belonging. It should mean that everyone matters. There’s a social contract that ties individuals to the collective and the collective to individuals.
If we understood our founding documents better, we’d more uniformly resist the slate of anti-democratic behavior that does the opposite. We’d stop excluding people and banishing them to lower tiers of citizenship.
Until we do, the joke’s on us.
Mark McCormick previously served as editor of The Journal.
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