In an era of rising authoritarianism, civic education and political literacy, especially for future voters, is key …
American democracy just survived a near-death experience during the slow-motion coup that was the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. It culminated in his rejecting his electoral loss and pressuring officials and political allies to back his claims that the election was fraudulent and, at the end, inciting his supporters to storm the Capitol in an effort to stay in power. During his time as president, he attacked the press, undermined truth with lies and conspiracy theories, and flouted countless institutional norms such as the peaceful transition of power and the rule of law that American democracy has depended on to function.
He never intended to be a leader of the entire nation, and instead fashioned a politics of us vs. them to gain and strengthen his hold on power. Scholars of authoritarianism during this period have argued that Trump was not like any past American president. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present, for example, claims that we cannot understand the past four years by using a democratic frame of reference. Rather, we should see how Trump fit the mold of fascist dictators. He came to power through a democratic election but used the authoritarian playbook to incite division and violence in the country while terrorizing government officials and bullying most in his own party into an unquestioning loyalty to him.
His rise to the presidency and his hold on the Republican party was made possible by his sizable base of supporters of ordinary Americans, almost half the country by some estimates. And even after he incited an insurrection by some of those supporters at the Capitol, many of his followers continue to support him and his actions. This should be a cause of great concern.
The rulers we deserve?
It has been wisely said that in a democracy, we get the rulers we deserve. This begs the question in the aftermath of Trump’s presidency and near re-election: Why do so many Americans support him and his anti-democratic style of leadership?
There are several important causes to the rise of Trump and his base including persistent personal and institutional racism, Christian nationalism, deindustrialization, rising economic inequality, and the inability of governing elites (of either party) during the neoliberal decades since Reagan to adequately address these forces of our collective pain and disintegration. The abandonment of the working and middle classes over the past 40 years has generated a populist anger turned toward government in general. Still, I want to argue for yet another cause for Trumpism: the lack of effective civic education in our schools and universities.
This lack has left many people politically illiterate and open to supporting an authoritarian leader who gives expression to their misdirected rage and nostalgia. Trump would have gone nowhere without his angry, xenophobic, racist, misogynist and politically illiterate base. And he knew it when he famously said at one of his rallies, “I love the poorly educated.”
Now more than ever, we Americans are aware of the fragility of our democratic norms and institutions. When Trump was putting enormous pressure on mostly Republican local and state election officials to interfere with the election processes and later tried to enlist the support of military leaders in his effort to stay in power, it was only by the strength of those officials’ character and ethical actions that our democratic institutions were preserved. The local election officials and state lawmakers in Michigan, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley are a few examples of people acting on their respect for truth and the rule of law that enabled our country to pull back from falling to a dictator.
What would have happened if they had instead caved into the pressure from Trump and his followers? One lesson the past couple months should have taught us is that our vaunted democratic institutions remain vital only when people working within them exercise good judgment on behalf of their commitment to democratic values and norms and are able to do so because they feel the moral pressure of other citizens whose allegiance lies above party or a particular leader.
Plato in Book VIII of The Republic long ago warned that the perennial weakness of democracies was their vulnerability to demagogues who come to power by capturing the darker forces within a citizenry and go on to turn the government into a state of tyranny. Donald Trump admires contemporary tyrants—ranging from Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil, to Putin in Russia and Orban in Hungary. Trump is the American version. He may not be our last.
Calling for civics
In the era of rising authoritarianism, civic education and political literacy, especially for future voters, is key to protecting democracy. A renewed commitment to it would help us repair the divisions in our society and help restore a common bond and sense of purpose. Important initiatives engaged in this work are already afoot in New Hampshire and New England. The New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education, for example, is focused on updating state standards for civics education and organizes workshops aimed to help K-12 teachers integrate the teaching of civics into their already-packed curricula. The Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University—a long-time leader in the study of civic engagement—recently launched a first-in-the nation Civic Studies interdisciplinary major, in which students learn civic skills, study justice, social conflict, civic action and social movements while double-majoring in another arts and science discipline.
Our founders, steeped as they were in the Enlightenment and the political thought of antiquity, knew education for democracy was the basis of any good polity and that citizens needed to learn the knowledge and moral habits conducive to a self-governing people. Schools and universities must again take up the challenge to teach civic education anew and alert to the fragility of democracy. As we do so, we need to create curricula that go beyond traditional civics or encouraging volunteerism and community service. These approaches are good as far as they go, but are not sufficient.
Today, students need to know that even though they may not ever be a politician or work in government, they have an essential role to play in democracy, as they occupy “the office of citizen.” And to “hold” that office, they need to be politically literate and develop certain vital competencies. They need to be engaged on questions such as: What is the role of a citizen in a democracy? What ethical orientations are supportive or corrosive to it? Why have we seen a rise of authoritarianism in America and the world today, and how does fascism work? What is the role of truth and the dangers of disinformation in a healthy democracy?
Beyond those important questions, they need to study the structure of American democracy, i.e., branches of government, separation of powers, popular sovereignty and federalism; American political parties and political ideologies like conservativism, neoliberalism, socialism, liberalism and their policy agendas; a brief historical overview of political approaches to governing and managing capitalism and the social problems a market economy produces from the Gilded Age to the Depression, the New Deal through Eisenhower, the Civil Rights Movement and the neoliberal conservative and anti-democratic responses to that effort from Reagan through Trump. With that historical context, students can begin to form a knowledgeable personal political orientation for themselves.
They should be invited to address the mounting challenges of our times: political polarization, climate change, globalization, immigration, inequality and racial injustice, to name a few. With basic literacies in science, economics, politics, history and social life, they will know how to think about what they are hearing and encountering in the world and have a sense of where we are in the early 21st century. With that starting point, they can begin to meaningfully participate in addressing their chosen fields of study and work, and as active and knowledgeable citizens of a democratic society.
Stories we tell ourselves
Finally, students need a sense of the big picture. They need to understand the competing narratives of the American experience, the stories we Americans tell ourselves about our nature and destiny as a country. They need to become conversant in our nation’s religious landscape and its role in our politics and see how the vital center of our democracy is held together by an inclusive, self-critical and ever-changing civil religion—a story that sees our nation as an ongoing and imperfect effort to expand freedom and equality, but also as a nation held together by a common civic identity, not by the ancient ties of blood and tribe.
Our “American covenant,” as Yale sociologist Philip Gorski puts it, is a story that weaves together an ethical vision of the Hebrew prophets and the Western political heritage of civic republicanism. It forms the vital center of meaning and purpose that American citizens must become better versed in.
Every society has such a story as the basis of its ultimate coherence and unity. Students need to learn our story—our civil religion—and how it is ever in danger of being drowned out by the louder voices in our historical and contemporary culture wars of radical secularism and Christian nationalism, which threaten our more inclusive, national identity and, with it, the American experiment.
Such a robust, new version of civic education would go a long way to help reverse the civic recession we’ve been in, serve as an antidote to creeping authoritarianism and inspire democratic engagement now and in the future.
Douglas F. Challenger is a professor of sociology at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H.