Civics: What America Has Forgotten

There was a recent report by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation that only 40% of Americans could pass a citizenship test.  That’s the test we give to all people who are applying for citizenship, but not to those who were born here.   That’s actually a slight improvement from previous results.   I wish I could say I was surprised by that, but I’m not.  In various internet forums and in person, I’ve run into a sizable number of people who have little clue about  how government works and the history of this country.  That would be disturbing enough in and of itself, but what is truly terrifying is the number of people who should know better, up to and including the President, who don’t.

The foundation document for the country is the Constitution. Every elected official, Cabinet officer, and member of the military takes an oath – with various wording changes – to support and defend it.  At the state level, officials take a similar oath, with additions for the state’s constitution.  A constitution is the blueprint for how the government is structured and supposed to operate.  It sets powers and limits on the government.  Knowing what it says should be fundamental for citizens.

In addition to knowing what the document says, there’s also the need to know the history of it.  Right now, there are 27 amendments to the Constitution.  The first ten, known as “The Bill of Rights,” were added almost immediately.  Others were added to clarify some points,  change some sections, or add new powers or limits. Why they were added, and what they do is something people should know, even if they can’t tell you the specific amendment number.  Together with the amendments, there are a series of important Supreme Court decisions and laws that helped define us as a nation.

As I said in the beginning, over the past few years I’ve been running into a lot of people who don’t seem to have any idea of what the Constitution actually says and how it’s supposed to work.  While in the past, I’ve directed my blogging about that towards the younger Left, it’s even more pronounced in the Right.   The current battle over President Trump’s “national emergency” is one of the best examples of it.   The Constitution makes it very clear right at the beginning that Congress controls spending.   It’s meant as one of the checks and balances that were built into the Constitution.  Whatever a President may want to do,  if Congress doesn’t appropriate money for it, he’s not going to to be able to do it.  Congress has designated funds for military construction, military pay and pensions, and various other purposes.  That means they need to be spent on those things, not “repurposed” to build a wall.  Which is why this “emergency” – which isn’t one – is considered unconstitutional, because it is.

Over the past decade, I’ve seen a lot of Republicans running around yelling about supporting the Constitution.  It’s right up there with the flag with how much they’ll tell you about it.  The problem?  They really don’t seem to know what it says, let alone how it’s supposed to work.  They know there’s a Second Amendment,  and something about the First, although their understanding of both is rather … shaky.  That they’re cheerfully supporting a President in blatantly ignoring the document they say they support is hypocritical, or demonstrates that they haven’t read it to begin with.

While Republican members of Congress and the President are the most egregious examples, they’re not the only ones.  You have Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, flirting with running for President as an independent.  Every time he talks, it’s obvious that he really doesn’t understand how the Constitution and government works.  Which is something someone who wants to run a government should understand.  It’s not like running a business.  You see the similar unfamiliarity when it comes to the “real progressives,” who somehow assume that just winning the presidency will automatically get them what they want, or wish for some mythical third party, which demonstrates their ignorance of how our government is designed.

At one time, schools used to have a course called “Civics.”  It was part of the standard curriculum.  Over the years, it got folded into social studies, and as more time went on, dropped or only briefly covered.  The result of that?  The majority of Americans can’t pass a citizenship test.  If they weren’t “birthright citizens,” they wouldn’t be able to become citizens.   But they can vote, and they vote for people who don’t know how the government is supposed to work and their responsibilities when they’re elected.  It’s why we have the mess we have now.   Civics is what Americans have forgotten, and it’s long past time we started learning it again.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Civics: What America Has Forgotten

  1. dbtheonly

    Whether it’s President Lincoln in1861 or President Roosevelt in 1933; emergencies areise. Congress granted the President wide latitude to deal with such emergencies without reference to Congress. For example, Congress was not in session in March 1861 when President Lincoln was inaugurated and had to deal with States attempting to secede from the Union. Lincoln acted and only later did Congress endorse his actions and the money he committed.

    Now we come to Trump and his “emergency” that he’s not building his wall fast enough. On one hand Trump’s announced that his “emergency” is a fraud. The House of Representatives has voted an act of disapproval. If the Republican Senate does not concurr, or aTrump veto is sustained, then Congress has endorsed the existence of Trump’s emergency.

    The answer Norbrook, is that Trump so violates accepted norms for American politics that the very structure isn’t capable of dealing with him. The Republicans in Congress willingly have cooperated with Trump such that the Constitutional guarantees of liberty may not hold.

  2. I’ll disagree with you about President Roosevelt, in that he had a Congress which passed the bills authorizing his programs. Regarding Lincoln, since the President is also the commander in chief of the military, his actions at the start of the Civil War were not necessarily in the same category.

    What we have here is a Congress which has conspicuously for the past 2+ years failed to authorize spending for a wall. The emergency declaration (and the law regarding it) does not give him the authority to raid dedicated funding. Hence, the courts (as he admitted) are likely to overturn it as unconstitutional as well.

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