When my high school Civics teacher didn’t know something, she made it up. I remember catching a friend’s eye when she told us that FDR was the first Jewish President. My friend corrected her. (Roosevelt was an Episcopalian). I had already been to the principal’s office for our “personality conflict.”
Now, nearly 50 years later, I read through Civics texts to see what we currently teach teenagers. I wanted to compare the reality of what we do as a country with our stated values. The three texts were substantially consistent.
- Prentice Hall, Civics, lists basic American values as Equality, Freedom and Justice.
- Holt McDougal, Civics in Practice lists Equality, Liberty and Justice.
- McGraw Hill, Building Citizenship, Civics and Economics, lists Freedom, Equality, Opportunity, Justice and Democracy.
Words are imperfect vehicles for carrying meaning. We use them out of necessity, but there are not hard lines between the concepts of equality, freedom and justice. For instance you cannot have a society that attains a high degree of freedom and justice, if you also do not also have political equality.
It is political equality that is threatened by the way we finance campaigns.
In Civics in Practice we find, “The rights of each citizen are equal to those of every other citizen. No one has the right to act as though his or her liberties are more important than those of others.”
Maybe, “No one has the right to act as though his or her liberties are more important than those of others,” but candidates treat people differently. While in elected office I saw firsthand how politicians, obsessed with raising money, spent long hours in small rooms calling lists of wealthy people and interests. Listening to the concerns of the wealthy, hour after hour, changes these candidates. It is no wonder that we elect a Congress that thinks the tax rate on capital gains is a more important issue than hunger.
All campaign contributors are not created equal. Some of them are endowed by their creator with more money than others.
We are never going to be a country that equalizes income and wealth. We shouldn’t be that country. But we can strive to be the country that equalizes opportunity and political voice. This is the battle of our time. Just as, independence, abolition, suffrage and collective bargaining have been the battles of previous times.
Would a country that is committed to equality, as we teach teenagers that we are, have a system of financing campaigns that includes a very large component of private influence buying? That is a system that gives an enormous advantage to the wealthy in the political arena.
So, in what should not be very much of a surprise, the reality of our politics falls short of the values that we say we stand for.
This was also in Civics in Practice: “Your rights and freedoms have been handed down from one generation of Americans to the next for over 200 years. Throughout our history, citizens have fought and died for the freedoms we enjoy. If thousands of Americans gave their lives to preserve our rights and freedoms, then we must all do our part to protect those rights.”
Popular sovereignty is another part of our political DNA taught in high school civics.
That means that you are the sovereign of this country. Is there anything you should be adding to your “to do” list? Is “saving democracy” on there?
Join us. This is what we work on every day.
How bad does it have to get?