Chances are pretty good that if you’re an American over the age of 18, you took a class in high school called “Citizenship” or “Civics”.
Let’s look at that for a minute:
- in the context of living in the United States in late 2020, with “the crazy” we are living with culturally and politically at this time, be it the last 4 years, or the last 40…
- with hopefully the context that you want society, culture, and government to function at some level of effectiveness and well-being for “the people”…
- and including whatever “living in America” means to you – there is at least some variation and spectrum of meaning there to different people.
Okay, so… put yourself back in your seat in Civics/Citizenship class. Do you remember where you sat? Do you remember the topics taught?
If you saw it as boring or a waste of your time then, do you perhaps see it as important and under-rated now? Or are you just so sick of it that you are willing to throw out the entire system, including everything you learned then, and all the institutions built over centuries and upheavals, and start fresh – what could be worse than THIS crazy?
First… I assert that if you’re taking the last position, that starting from that sentiment, if you studied history quite a bit, your undertanding would shift to realize that “things” CAN get a LOT LOT LOT worse than they are right now. And I think you’d also understand we’re primed and set up with multiple factors POTENTIALLY pointed roughly in the direction of that “worse”. History (from the “doesn’t repeat, but rhymes” angle) would hint that perhaps we are not too far from tipping on the edge of major unrest. And from there, not too far from potentially losing A LOT of things we take for granted, perhaps permanently. And with that, potentially losing “what has made America great”, no matter what your political affiliation is.
WILL WE actually tip over the edge of “even worse”, or “a lot worse”? Well, it depends on what we do now. It depends on the actions we take, and don’t take. It depends on whether we can re-ground ourselves in principles and ideas that allowed us to move from a monarchy which manifested itself as authoritarian to us, to the world’s first mostly-working democracy… especially the best of all the little tweaks we figured out over our history so far.
So, although this “two roads diverging in a yellow wood” thing is long and drawn out… say over the last four years, or forty… nevertheless, looking from the long arc of history, we are at a fork in the road, even if it is taking more than a few hot minutes to unfold. Perhaps Robert Frost was a little dramatic in suggesting it would be as simple as one fork in one road. Yet, metaphorically, we definitely ARE very much at a fork, and which path we choose will make all the difference. And the world will long remember what we, AMERICA, do or don’t do over the next week, the next few years, and the next few decades.
Did America sort itself out in its time of dis-ease? Or did we tip into major funk, and lose our way?
So imagine being a Civics/Citizenship teacher THIS year, right here in America.
Imagine that THIS year was the year you took Civics/Citizenship class. You’re in the class right now.
And also consider that the real answer of what makes America or any democracy work isn’t quite so simple as any politician’s stump speech, or canned sound bites in the news, or the eight minutes of analysis you get on politically oriented shows on MSNBC or Fox News. (Aside: on that tangent, I’d suggest reading “The Future of Freedom” by Fareed Zakaria, or “American Creation” by Joseph Ellis.)
I propose it is important for a Civics teacher to teach about co-equal branches of government, with separation of powers, and it’s important for them to teach about a government of laws, and not of men, and important to teach that freedom of speech means we need to put up with a bit of ruckus now and then about what it all means – but that without free speech, we are not truly free, and we don’t want to find out what that looks like before we appreciate it.
But more importantly, I would hope a Civics teacher conveys to their students that balancing this “real life” and “human foibles” with “government” and “order” enough to make the trains run on time is both fuzzier and grayer, yet with some firm threads of principles and ideas which without firm and reaffirming commitment to, the whole thing falls apart. So, good government takes a wee bit of WORK, and then ONGOING work by citizens, and by politicians. Time after time after time we will have to figure out how to compromise, yet stay principled, and to make the best we can of muddled circumstances, and to firmly assert principles, yet not become dogmatic. And that never ends. There’s no end to it, no perfect government that needs no tweaking. Sensibilities of people change. Technology changes. Circumstances change. Culture changes. And if we don’t tweak as we go, it wouldn’t be long before government would be unworkably out of touch. But on the other hand, evolution has afforded us with certain cultural and dispositional factors we must consider, and consider that the best laid plans don’t matter if people don’t buy into it, so we must temper our expectations within the realm of the possible or risk irrelevance from the other side. Utopia does not exist. It never has, and it never will.
To paraphrase Thomas Paine, if humans were angels, government would not be necessary. But people are not angels, and we need to be real about balancing sticks and carrots, and practicality with visions of a better way.
Could a Civics teacher possibly convey what there is to convey? It is MUCH more complicated than being for or against “Trump”.
Could a Civics teacher really get high schoolers to think beyond Trump? It’s not just about him. What are the roots of people’s frustration that they would jump on the bandwagon of such a train wreck? Heck, can we THE PEOPLE get at the truth underlying today’s reality?
But Donald Trump very, very arguably IS UNFIT for the office of President of the United States. Isn’t it important to be able to say WHY? Obviously many Civics teachers probably ARE saying that. But can they GET REAL with high schoolers about the whole picture, that conveys how we got here? We set ourselves up for Trump, shouldn’t that be important enough to know how and why?
The bottom line is that we, the people, must work ourselves to maintain a critical mass of ideas about what makes democracy work.
And we, in the year 2020, have probably fallen somewhat short of maintaining that critical mass of historical and philosophical understanding.
Okay, so in less than a week we’re going to vote for President of the United States, and for Representatives to the House, and Senators.
I firmly feel that Donald J. Trump is a menace to democracy, and a menace to what truly has made America great. And I firmly feel that those US Representatives and Senators who have failed to rein in his abuses of power should be voted out of office for the good of our country both in the short term and the long term.
But on the other hand, conservatives who believe in tradition and their gut don’t really have effective “representation” in the world of 2020. And trusting tradition and culture actually IS important for systems to work. For democracy to work, we need a functioning conservatism, and liberals who care about the world working in a sustainable way should remember that, and not get too cocky about Donald Trump’s hopeful political sunset.
But above and beyond the hopefully annihilation of Donald Trump, at least politically, in the coming few months…
To ALSO annihilate “Trumpism”, let us not just lapse into thinking that voting out Donald Trump is the end of solving the problem.
We must (must must must) restore a critical mass of understanding political philosophy, and American history, and world history, and a realistic sense of how group psychology works, and a realistic sense of how “power” works, in order to make it through the next ten years with democracy, and with a way of life that works… intact.
And we must restore some kind of working conservatism, that is able to exercise REASONABLE power to keep us grounded in sensible culture, tradition, and restraint.
So no matter who wins, we will have work to do.
And I think that Joe Biden’s repeated assertion that he will be the President of all of America, not just the people who voted for him, is the right place to start for now.