The Decline of Civic Literacy
Higher Education in Crisis: the 2014 Elections
by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO
I’ve had days to think through the 2014 midterms and their implications. I thought I should weigh in on this election season and its relevance for education in the United States. The main problem with this election season, as I see it, is the large-scale failure of critical thought among the American people and voters. Election outcomes seldom match up with public preferences when it comes to politics. There are two main reasons for this: one is electoral manipulation, as seen in the ways in which candidates falsely portray themselves and project false images into the minds of prospective voters. The second reason for mass ignorance is the laziness of the typical American, as evident in their unwillingness to do a little research and find out exactly what it is that candidates really stand for. Both conditions make for a toxic electoral environment, in which the American voter is susceptible to a rabid false consciousness.
On the national level, disconnect between what Americans say they want, and what they actually got in the 2014 midterms is pronounced. Most Americans claim in surveys that they want an end to gridlock in Washington. Republican voters were more likely to turn out this time around, but according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, most Republicans (68 percent) say they “like political leaders who are willing to make compromises to get the job done.” If this is true, it’s evidence of profound ignorance on the part of conservative voters who turned out to grant Republicans control of the Senate. In reality, they just voted for two more years of gridlock by giving control of the Senate to the most obstructionist political party in U.S. history. These officials have shown literally no interest in “working with” President Obama, and they are not going to do so in the next two years. For those not familiar with reality, the Republican Party has been responsible for a record number of filibusters of legislation in the last six years, essentially grinding legislative productivity to a halt. As of the 113th Congress, the party is on pace to have used the filibuster more than 200 times to block majority votes on pieces of legislation. This far outstrips the previous record, also held by Republicans, of nearly 140 filibusters in the 111th Congress.
Reliance on the filibuster used to be relatively uncommon prior to the 1970s, when a member of the Senate had to actually talk for an extended period of time to block a final vote on a piece of legislation. Since then, and as a result of rule change pushed through the chamber in the 1970s, Senators can now simply indicate intent to block a vote (without the pesky speeches previously required) and this prohibits voting on any piece of legislation without a vote for cloture to end debate on a legislative item (cloture requires an elusive 60 supermajority vote, which is non-existent in current Senate politics). Congressional Republicans cynically took advantage of this filibuster, under the assumption that if they could make the country ungovernable for long enough, people would turn away from the Democratic Party in disgust come re-election time. That plan has apparently worked to a significant extent, judging from the 2010 and 2014 midterm election results. It’s easy for the average (under-informed) voter to blame the president for gridlock, however, since he is the highest profile political leader in American politics. This tendency is unfortunate considering that Republicans are the real driving force behind obstructionism.
Whatever one thinks of the Democratic Party, and I don’t think much of it, it’s clear to anyone who is paying attention that the Republican Party has been the almost sole source of legislative gridlock in recent years. As an American voter, why reward that party for such destructive behavior in the name of promoting legislative compromise – a value most Americans say they cherish in political leaders? The answer is relatively simple: Americans are ignorant as to what they actually voted for in these midterms. Most Americans are unhappy (understandably) with the rapid decline of well-paying occupations and career-oriented jobs in the last few decades, and especially in the last six years. Low-pay and part-time jobs are easy enough to find today, but no one I know looks forward to a lifetime of poverty wages. Most people are also still reeling from the massive decline in median family wealth following the 2008 housing collapse. The typical family lost at least 40 percent of their wealth since 2008, much of which was in their home. These developments have predictably hurt Democratic voter turnout, since the Democrats get significant support from less affluent and lower income Americans.
In light of these negative macro-economic developments, it’s not surprising that many Americans chose to sit out the 2014 midterms. Midterm elections have historically been dominated by older, white, conservative and Republican voters, and that was even more the case this time around. The problem with this mindset (sitting out elections) is that it makes the problems we endure today even worse. Without accountability for political leaders, bad behavior in Washington gets worse, not better. What disillusioned prospective voters should have done is mobilize behind a viable third party candidate in their communities and states, or pressure the Democratic Party to better represent their interests. Many on the left will no doubt oppose the latter option, claiming that there is no hope for the Democrats as a viable option for progressives. I would agree when it comes to the current crop of Democrats and their sorry “liberal” credentials, but it’s at least worth asking: why couldn’t the party be forced to represent progressive interests if new candidates are brought in? The Republican right spent the last three decades pulling the Republican Party in a reactionary, corporatist direction, with great effectiveness through the primary process and mobilization of conservative voters. Why couldn’t liberals and leftists do the same with the Democratic Party? Whether one supports third party candidates or Democratic ones (I’ve personally supported both historically, depending on the electoral race in question), it seems clear that the American public is part of the problem when it comes to lousy representation in this country. Lack of participation in the political realm is basically a concession to the powers that be. Apathy guarantees business and plutocratic domination of politics and society. We as citizens share much of the blame for allowing this to happen.
If Americans can’t bring themselves to vote Democratic (a point I understand), they should be turning out to vote for third party candidates. This will do nothing but help improve democratic representation in the U.S. political process over time. Historically third parties have played a significant role in American electoral politics, not so much in terms of replacing the major parties, but in terms of punishing the major parties for ignoring public opinion. The Free Soil Party (during the 1860s) and the Progressive Party (in the early 1900s) are two great examples of parties that pressured the two major parties to become more representative of the public. Democrats and Republican candidates realized they would continue to lose out on a large number of votes so long as citizens voted for third party candidates that better represented the public interest.
In terms of spotlighting public ignorance, the election results are particularly sobering for Illinois, where I currently live. The reactionary billionaire gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner prevailed over Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn. I can’t say I’m surprised, in light of the backhand that Quinn applied to organized labor in the last year. Quinn pushed through a reactionary pension reform, which state officials claimed was necessary after decades of state incompetence and fiscal mismanagement of the pension fund. The reform mandated significant cuts in pay for state retirees and reduction in health care benefits. From what I’ve been able to gather, significant contingents of organized labor in Illinois (particularly throughout the central to southern regions) failed to put up much of a fight in terms of mobilizing and organizing for Quinn. One can hardly blame them considering his actions and his spit in the face to state workers – historically a strong force in Illinois electoral politics. At my current teaching institution (located in central Illinois), there was scarcely a word uttered among union representatives about organizing for Quinn. I get the impression it was much the same elsewhere, as people feel like there is little reason to support a candidate who does not fight for workers.
The biggest problem with political apathy and weak voter turnout is that they play into the hands of corporatist, reactionary forces. Whatever one thinks of Quinn, and I don’t think much of him, Rauner was a significantly worse political candidate. He’s gone on record not only opposing a minimum wage increase, but supporting a cut in the minimum wage by $1. This cut would amount to a double cut after taking into account inflationary pressures. Rauner quickly backpedalled on a minimum wage cut after receiving a lot of negative press, but his track record to date on this issue shouldn’t inspire confidence from working class citizens. Furthermore, Rauner has been clear that he’ll seek to roll back the temporary income tax increase introduced a few years ago. That increase was intended to help close the budget deficit that the state has been running for years, and has helped in moving toward this goal up to this point.
Promising to compensate for the loss of revenues that would result from income tax cuts, Rauner wants to increase the state sales tax, which would undoubtedly be a burden imposed overwhelmingly on the states working class and poor. State taxes, because they rely so much on sales taxes, are notoriously regressive, meaning the less income an individual earns, the higher percent of their income they pay into taxes. By cutting the income tax to the previous level and raising the sales tax, Rauner will subsidize wealthier state residents – who pay a larger percent in taxes toward the income tax than they do the sales tax.
It’s fascinating to look at the utter contradictions expressed by Illinois voters in this last Tuesday’s election. On the one hand, 51 percent of voters chose Bruce Rauner, while just 46 percent voted for Quinn. On the other hand, a number of “advisory” questions placed on the ballot, meant to gauge public opinion on prospective policies that could be introduced in the state, found the following: 1. 66 percent of voters supported raising the state’s minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $10.10, compared to just 34 percent who opposed the raise; 2. 64 percent of voters supported introducing a “millionaire’s tax” to take money from the wealthy and apply it toward under-performing schools in poorer cities and school districts throughout the state. Comparatively, just 36 percent opposed the millionaire’s tax. These results are interesting, if for no other reason than because they demonstrate the complete contradiction and ignorance in most voters’ minds. A majority of voters chose a billionaire right-wing candidate with a history of wanting to cut the minimum wage and cut taxes on the affluent, while raising them on the working class and poor. Simultaneously, those very same voters want a political system that raises the minimum wage and increases taxes on the wealthy. This stark contradiction is madness, but can easily happen when voters make little to no effort to actually find out what candidates really stand for. Rauner ran a campaign that outspent the Quinn campaign by approximately $30 million, essentially buying the race through greater public exposure via ads. He relied on bland platitudes and clichés, promising to “shake up Springfield” and “take on” the “Springfield gang” of politicians that has long been known for patronage-based scams (a la George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich, and other current officials like Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan).
The Rauner victory is unlikely to exert much of an impact on Illinois politics, as Democrats in the state retain veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate that have the power to override any policy opposed by Rauner. But this is beside the point. The main concern is that working class residents of the state (and the country more broadly) should have become more vigilant in the face of the Democratic Party’s transformation into a spineless, tepid, neoliberal force in American politics. Citizens should have placed more pressure on the Democratic Party or on a third party to represent their interests, not less pressure. And there is certainly no excuse for actively voting against your own interests, as in the case of Illinois. The minimum wage and taxes were arguably the two biggest issues in that state’s gubernatorial race, so there’s no legitimate reason for people to plead ignorance on where Quinn and Rauner stood on these issues. Despite Quinn’s reluctance to embrace progressive values, one can at least say with confidence that he supported a sizable minimum wage increase (to $10.10/hour) and that he opposed cutting income tax revenues in a state with a history of under-funding public programs and pensions. These two reasons alone distinguished him from Rauner’s reactionary proposals.
Both the national midterm election results and those in Illinois speak to the crisis in education in the United States. To put it bluntly, teachers – at the K-12 level and in higher education – need to do a much better job promoting basic civic competence and political literacy among students. This has not been the priority at the K-12 level, after more than a decade of lobotomizing students with standardized testing, performance-based funding, and teaching to the test. None of those things have objectively increased academic performance, and they’ve significantly harmed teacher efforts to promote critical thought in the classroom. At the higher education level, there has been a wholesale movement away from prioritizing teaching in the social sciences. From my experiences, those job candidates with a passion for teaching are rarely hired, and seldom elevated to the status of “ideal” applicants in most social science job searches. Rather, factors such as pedigree (the prestige of the graduate school one attends) and research record (whether one publishes in esoteric peer-reviewed social science journals that no one reads) are the primary factors that influence hiring. In light of these changes to elementary and higher education, there is little emphasis placed on teaching critical thought and inquiry. Promoting critical thought has always been the Achilles heel of education in America, but it’s got noticeably worse in recent years.
The decline of civic literacy is also enabled by fundamental transformation in the mass media. Decades ago – prior to the rise of cable, the Internet, satellite TV, and other digital television options – the average American was much more likely to be confronted with nightly news casts and politics than they are today. The news was nearly impossible to avoid with only a few channels to choose from in decades past. As a result, more citizens thought and cared about politics than is the case today. Media scholars have increasingly documented a significant decline in attentiveness to news among younger American demographic groups in light of the explosion of media choices and the fragmentation of television audiences between hundreds of new channels. To put it simply, Americans no longer have to pay attention to the news, and many no longer do. This decline in attentiveness was instrumental in fostering the system of civic illiteracy we have today.
I don’t know that teachers by themselves can overcome the shifting informational and media environment that has pushed entire generations away from paying attention to the world around them and re-focused their attention toward mindless consumerism via mass advertising. The organized apathy that’s emerged due to growing media corporatization is a pervasive force in modern America. However, it seems increasingly clear that teachers are also making less of an effort to overcome growing public apathy and illiteracy. We need more teachers today who are willing to passionately challenge political propaganda and manipulation, rather than retreating from the task of promoting critical thought. Many teachers prefer to maintain a façade of “objectivity,” refraining from challenging obvious falsehoods and propaganda perpetuated by the political parties and media. Obviously this has to stop if we are to increase public civic literacy and knowledge.
Simply stated, Americans need to learn how to think again and mobilize for change. They need to learn how to question the political rhetoric and official misinformation around them. Gutless apathy is not an enduring trait for a country claiming to be the “leader of the free world.” Americans need to challenge official misinformation in a pro-active way, so as to become more involved in the political world, rather than less. Much of public anger today is of a fake, pseudo-populist variety. Many people simply assume, before even trying to educate themselves or participate in politics, that whatever they do won’t make a difference and that nothing really matters. If these things are true, why even bother to pay attention to the news, protest, or vote in elections? This mindset reflects an intellectual neutering of Americans, and much of it is the product of a “mainstream” political culture driven by official propaganda. This culture stresses the idea that government and Washington are “part of the problem,” rather than part of the solution for improving people’s lives. This cynical, neoliberal message threatens to destroy what little is left of American democracy. When people become convinced that government can do nothing to help them, the resulting apathy frees up political leaders of both parties to ignore public interests even further. Officials will simply intensify efforts to serve affluent, wealthy constituents – those who do pay attention to politics, lobby, offer campaign contributions, and vote. We desperately need a revolution in American culture and thinking. Apathy is the major roadblock preventing the emergence of democratic governance.
Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He has taught U.S. and global politics at numerous colleges and universities, and written numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009), When Media Goes to War (2010), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), and The Rise of the Tea Party (2011). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.