When Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall after the Second Drafting, he was approached by a woman on the street. The woman said, “Mr. Franklin, what manner of government have you bequeathed us?” And Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
The Founding Fathers viewed democracy as something to be earned and then vigorously defended. Election by the masses, a daring gambit at the time, could only be pulled off with the backing of a politically engaged, educated, and responsible electorate. The system would only work if all citizens performed their civic duties to the fullest, schooling themselves on the most pressing issues facing the union and casting an informed vote accordingly.
These vaunted ideals and lofty goals make it all the more painful to admit that Americans have forfeited their right to Benjamin Franklin’s republic. The Great Experiment has failed.
The American public today is a far cry from the model electorate envisioned by the Framers, as evidenced by the country’s massive civic literacy crisis. Americans are woefully unequipped to make the kinds of nuanced voting decisions that a modern democracy demands. Whether and to what extent this failure is attributable to poor education and general political apathy is difficult to pin down, but the statistics behind flagging civic literacy are as compelling as they are disturbing. According to the Associated Press, only one in four Americans can name a fundamental freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Most Americans believe their taxes are rising when they are actually falling, are unable to name the current vice president, and can’t clearly differentiate between most presidential candidates. The gap between what voters know and what they need to know will only widen as the workings of the government become more complex and civic education flatlines.
If Americans can’t be bothered to learn even the most rudimentary facts about the federal budget, how can they be expected to make sound fiscal decisions? If they can’t find Afghanistan on a map, much less explain why the country waged a war there, how can the voting public possibly navigate an issue as complex as a rising China or a nuclear treaty? The unfortunate answer is that they probably can’t. In the latest ISI citizenship report, 51 percent of the country couldn’t pass the basic civic literacy examination required of incoming citizens. Not only are Americans not qualified to be voters, but apparently most of them aren’t even qualified to be Americans.
America’s failings as a democracy don’t end there because in addition to being shockingly uninformed, the average citizen doesn’t even show up to vote. Attendance for House and Senate elections is appalling, with voter turnout for congressional races at its lowest point since 1942.
The trend toward lethargy in national elections is just as pronounced. In the 1880 presidential election between James Garfield and Winfield Hancock, voter turnout was nearly 80 percent, and the single biggest issue in that race was the partial demonetization of silver. The most recent presidential election centered around some of the most pressing and vital political issues the country has faced in recent history: rallying after a recession, the budget deficit, a potentially nuclear Iran, the Affordable Care Act, and two full-scale land wars. Voter turnout barely broke 50 percent and the youth turnout was about 10 points lower. Demonetizing silver not being much of a bodice-ripper when compared to the threat of a nuclear winter, American voter engagement seems to have slumped somewhat since its heyday.
Voters are completely disengaged from the political process and have abdicated their responsibility as citizens in a democracy. Statistics suggest that Americans don’t know the first thing about the country they live in or the policies they support, yet they are entrusted with electing the most important governing body in the world. In a decade of historic importance, turnout is at an equally historic low. Fear, ignorance, and misinformation dominate a political arena bereft of reason and intellect because the voting public can’t be trusted to read up on the issues or cast a ballot.
A return to the monarchy probably isn’t in the cards, but when faced with an electorate that could seemingly only be drawn to the voting booth in the event of an alien invasion, leadership by heredity doesn’t seem like such an awful alternative.
Finkel is a member of the class of 2018.