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Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

Save democracy, remember your civics lessons

By meerna Jun12,2024

Over the weekend, The Washington Post reported that a Donald Trump acolyte is making grand plans for a “post-Constitutional” government through a series of historic changes that would give the president much more power over all aspects of government.

Under Russ Vought’s vision of “radical constitutionalism,” the Post has learned, the president would have broader powers to deploy the military to quell civil unrest, reduce the independence of the Justice Department and withhold appropriations from Congress.

Vought, Trump’s former budget director and potential second-term chief of staff, is a self-described Christian nationalist. He believes that Trump’s recent conviction in New York was not the result of a constitutional impeachment but the fruit of a “corrupt Marxist vanguard.”

During the Trump administration, Vought took actions that foreshadowed what he considers “radical constitutionalism.”

His office redirected billions of dollars from the Pentagon to Trump’s border wall. “And,” The Post reported, “it was Vought’s office that withheld military aid to Ukraine as Trump pressured the government to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, leading to the first (Trump) impeachment.” Vought defied a congressional subpoena and ridiculed it during the impeachment inquiry as a “sham trial.”

And what particularly disturbed many Marylanders was that Vought ordered the stripping of civil service protections from tens of thousands of federal employees. It was only Biden’s loss to Trump in the polls that stopped him.

Which, of course, is one of the greatest advantages of our system: choices have consequences; they can change the course of history for good or bad. The Post story provides further evidence that the outcome was positive in the 2020 election.

But now, as Trump tries to make a comeback, Vought is right there to satisfy his desire to rule like an autocrat.

After reading the Post article, I had two reactions: first, that such prospects are disturbing, and not only because the changes concentrating power are tailor-made for Trump; no president should be able to realize Vought’s vision.

Second, this story made me wonder if Vought had skipped his civics class – all that stuff about the value of constitutional democracy, checks and balances, no one above the law, no dictators, no monarchy. Remember? Most of us got this dose in junior high or high school.

Attached to all these lessons was a lesson about the separation of church and state – that there is no state religion in the USA. We’ve all heard about it, right?

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito may think Americans are not religious enough; he may have been caught on tape agreeing that the United States needed to “return… to a place of godliness.” But even he respects the Establishment Clause, right?

(The relevant part reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and Jefferson characterized this intention as “separation of church and state.”)

Those of us who read mainstream newspapers – probably citizens who want to be informed about their communities, their states and their nation; the people who vote, the people who still believe in our constitutional democracy – know this. And while we may not respect all elected office holders, and while there may be disagreements between us, large and small, at least we respect the American system.

But there is a lot working against this.

The right-wing has been raising anti-government cries for over 40 years. We have had political scandals involving Republicans and Democrats. We have heard great lies that have led to foreign wars and domestic uprisings. We live in the age of disinformation.

So there are many factors that contribute to the dark picture of the American political system. A politician who calls the government bad words, falsely claims that the elections were rigged, who calls the criminal trial “rigged” – this is a politician who wants to destroy democracy in something else. And apparently millions of citizens are interested in how an autocracy might work.

To what extent is this due to inadequate civic education already in secondary school?

The survey results show that we are not as familiar with the functioning of democracy as we should be. Even though the number of Americans with college degrees has increased over the last century, civics has never been particularly strong, says Shawn Healy, senior policy director at iCivics, a national civics organization. He oversees civic education campaigns in several states.

“In most countries, social studies is one semester in high school,” Healy says. “That’s a lot to ask of this class.”

Maryland is one of six states that require a full year of civics classes, usually in 10th grade, and the state has one of the most active advocacy groups, the Maryland Civic Education Coalition.

But even with a good foundation in civics, people are susceptible to influences – all kinds of junk – that didn’t exist in an earlier era.

“The mass adoption of social media has helped destroy the conventional mainstream media, which was once a unifying force of sorts and now allows us to move in a direction consistent with their personal beliefs,” Healy says. “It creates a process of ideological amplification, so (people go) to extreme places.”

All this works against trust – in government, in mainstream institutions – and even, as Healy argues, trust in our fellow citizens.

If democracy is to survive, we must go back to it, remember the lessons of civics lessons, ensure that they continue for future generations and prevail over all the garbage that will follow.

By meerna

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