What does a citizen in a democratic society need to learn?
The Freedom Museum joined the parade ourselves with a 2006 survey demonstrating that Americans are much more adept at identifying the five members of television's Simpson's family than the five freedoms embedded within the First Amendment. Taken together, these measures shame the public, and are often coupled with a call to action. For the Freedom Museum, the Simpson's survey stood as the very validation of our mission, to inspire our visitors to understand, value and protect the First Amendment to expand the scope of freedom for everyone, today and for future generations.
Long ago, I contrived a basic model of effective citizenship for use in my high school government classes. It was premised on the dual principles of knowledge and activism, where individuals are ranked on each count and placed in a corresponding matrix. Logically, effective citizens rank high on each facet, while pundits lack activism, and patrons knowledge. Bench warmers are low in each category. For the purposes of classification, I asked a series of questions and calculated the scores based on these answers. A modified version of this test is posted on the Freedom Museum's web site.
In refining this test for the purposes of tomorrow's talk, I balanced my inner political junkie and the fact that I study political science for a living with the reality that most Americans, when it comes to politics, are "rational misers." This means that they consume political information only sporadically, if at all. Political participation must be placed beside the interests of our jobs, families, friends, and other obligations.
In short, we learn the minimum amount necessary to keep our heads above water, and participate only periodically, mostly in election seasons, and usually only those of the presidential variety. We evaluate candidates on the basis of personality and backgrounds rather than policy positions, and in the end, these practices are inherently rational given the high costs of staying informed and participating at a level beyond voting.
This said, I simply refuse to respond to the aforementioned question with a less than optimal standard by which we may assess our own preparations for our role as citizens in a democratic society. I attempted to stray from the factual questions that characterize the quizzes I lampooned above, but nonetheless raise the bar quite high.
For the sake of a round number, I constructed a ten-question measurement of what a citizen needs to know. It reads as follows:
1. A functional understanding of our structures of government and how they impact our lives.
2. An appreciation for civil liberties so we can remain constantly vigilant should they be threatened.
3. The ability to identify our elected officials, along with their actions in office? Also, do they deserve re-election, and how may we hold them accountable in the interim?
4. What are the major issues facing society and how will candidates for elected office address them?
5. The ability to consider both personal and societal interests.
6. Along the same lines, consideration of global interests alongside those of nation, state, and city/ town.
7. Knowledge of the means of participation in the political process, from campaigns and elections to actual governance.
8. The possession of sound communication skills, including reading, writing, and speaking.
9. Regular media monitoring from a variety of sources, including consideration of information to which we are predisposed to agree and disagree.
10. A proclivity to and comfort with engaging in political discussions, even with individuals who share dissimilar political values.
This list is by no means refined, and I invite your comments and criticisms. Perhaps collectively we can answer this question adequately, as for many of us, myself included, this is our defining mission in life.