I spoke to a remarkable woman forty years ago when I was doing freelance work for a polling firm in Washington D.C. It wasn’t civic or political commitment that motivated me; I was just an undergraduate who needed some extra pocket money. I didn’t know or really care who had commissioned the survey, though from the list of questions, I later surmised that it was the Republican Party.
The script required us first to ask the name of the current president and vice president—then Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale—presumably to establish the respondent’s level of engagement and awareness. But that was already almost too much for my interlocutor. “Oh, gosh,” she said, her voice quivering, “I don’t actually know that. I think I knew the last two but I’m not sure who it is now.”
I could tell that she wanted me to give her a hint. After all, she was failing the most basic quiz in American civics, and she was audibly embarrassed. But she was kind and generous too, explaining that she wanted to help, but with all the work on the farm there just wasn’t enough time to follow politics as much as she would like. She hazarded a few guesses, but not correctly. “Could we go on and maybe come back to that question?” Probably going too far (from the perspective of my employer), I told her not to worry about it, that I understood.
And I did. As it happened, I was calling residents of rural northern Michigan, a place I’d known since my childhood, when my parents bought an abandoned one-room schoolhouse there and converted it into a summer cottage. My five siblings and I spent countless happy hours on the neighboring farms. We played in the steaming haymows and among the gravestones of the township cemetery, and swam in the freezing water that filled the excavations at the gravel quarry. I came to know the routine of farm life: play, but only after the work is done, and no real vacations, because the cows have to be milked twice a day, every day. The bone-chilling waters of the quarry were tolerable only because we were always so sweaty and dirty from sharing in the work of hoeing beans, milking cows, and baling hay.
Listening to the woman on the other end of the line that night, I couldn’t help picturing our farmer friends’ mother, Mrs. Guza, who served us plates of eggs and stacks of toasted homemade bread after morning chores whenever we spent the night. She worked nonstop all day through dinner, which ended only after we had pushed our chairs neatly up to the table, knelt in place, and prayed a decade of the rosary together. She and the girls started us off on each “Hail Mary,” and the deeper voices of Mr. Guza and the boys joined in about halfway through, taking over the second half. We prayed our parts according to our gender in lilting rounds, reassuring in their dusky rhythms. Day was done at long last; but at that point, you didn’t have much energy for anything but bed. We used to joke that it would be hard to get in trouble on the farm. There was just no time or surplus energy.
So when was my respondent—the woman on the line from northern Michigan—supposed to brush up on politics? She humbly regretted her knowledge gap; I consoled her again; and we ended the call. I’m not sure if it ever qualified as suitable data for the poll. She has stayed with me all these years. Her generosity and honesty cheer me still; her political illiteracy continues to make me uneasy about the American electorate.
One of my required courses at Georgetown that year was in political theory, and I remember secretly wondering if some of those classical philosophers notoriously wary of democracy might be right after all. Are “the people” up to it? How many others like that woman are out there? I was torn, but only secretly, of course, because these are questions one dare not ask publicly without seeming an ogre. Simply to pose the question is an abomination to many, perhaps particularly to liberals, because it flushes into the open things we’d rather not talk about. To raise the question about others’ educational status—to imply that some minimum fund of civic education may be necessary for successful participation in our democracy—is taboo, because it touches upon the class differences that have discomfited Americans since the founding of this country, and the very economic disparities that may explain the current divide in American politics.
Barely articulated, let alone carefully considered, the concern about civic ignorance tends to evoke forceful objections, rapidly snowballing beyond the issue itself. What, you want to introduce a literacy test? (For the record: no, I really don’t.) What, you assume that education goes hand-in-hand with democracy? (This is where I would be reminded of all the PhD’s in the Nazi party.) Or finally: Are you really so naive to think that civic education will reduce partisan fractiousness? (Again, no.)
But most damning of all—from an American perspective, at least—is the way in which the question becomes incontrovertible proof that the inquirer is after all an unreconstructed elitist, an enemy of democracy, who mistrusts the inborn wisdom of the common people. To even speak of ignorance not your own is just bad manners, possibly worse.
Privately, over a beer, I can get people to admit the problem, especially if I formulate it euphemistically. So let’s call it a “civics deficit” instead of ignorance. My liberal friends assure me that it is merely a symptom, and will resolve on its own once we’ve addressed the great issues of the day: the corrosive influence of money in politics, or the real behemoth of “shareholder primacy” capitalism—the unfettered, neoliberal incarnation that has brought about unprecedented wealth and income disparities in this country and around the world.