According to the most recent Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey conducted last September, Americans have a pretty appalling grasp of their nation’s governing structure. Only 32% of those surveyed were able to name all three branches of the federal government (which actually represented a 6% increase from the previous year). But an even higher portion of those surveyed, 33%, could not even name a single branch of the federal government. And according to the 2017 iteration of the same survey, 37% of those surveyed could not name a single right secured by the First Amendment!
It is long past time to acknowledge that America is experiencing a fundamental crisis of civics.
No elected official has been more persistent in sounding the alarm on this crisis than Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE). Sasse’s Senate Judiciary Committee opening statement during Brett Kavanaugh’s (initial, pre-Christine Blasey Ford) confirmation hearing has been rightly hailed by many in the commentariat as a shining paean to “Schoolhouse Rock!”-style rudimentary civics:
Opining at the time on Sasse’s monologue, David French of National Review neatly captured the essentialness of constitutional ignorance to our civics crisis: “An enormous amount of modern political dysfunction can be traced to the willful, generations-long, bipartisan inversion of our constitutional structure — where the political branch that was intended to be the most powerful (Congress) is subordinated to both the executive and the judiciary.”
But while Sasse focused predominantly on excessive congressional delegation to our turgid administrative state and the need to recalibrate — or, ideally, outright restore — the hitherto discarded “non-delegation doctrine,” his lamentation was incomplete. As Daniel Horowitz noted at Conservative Review at the time, “While delegation to the administrative state is certainly a problem in its own right, most of the worst cases creating phony rights have nothing to do with vague statutes, but with … vesting the sole and final authority of such interpretation with the courts.” Indeed, the ruling class’s cultish adherence to judicial supremacy — the erroneous, anti-Lincolnian belief that the federal courts always have the final, binding word on what the Constitution means — poses something closely amounting to an existential threat to the republic.
Frustratingly, even many of our purported civics gatekeepers themselves botch what constitutionalism truly means. The aforementioned 2018 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey states, in part, “[a] quarter (27 percent) incorrectly said the Constitution allows the president to ignore a Supreme Court ruling if the president believes the ruling is wrong,” and also states that, “a slim majority (55 percent) knows that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is the law and must be followed.” The survey is wrong on both counts. As Lincoln knew, a president is not truly, strictly “bound” by an erroneous Supreme Court diktat — and a Supreme Court ruling, which only technically binds the named parties to the underlying lawsuit, should not properly be thought of as the incontrovertible, Mount Sinai tablets-esque “law of the land.”
If conservatives, who properly cherish the unique governing structure that the U.S. Constitution provides, wish to have any sincere hope for salvaging the republic from a century of sustained leftist assault, then it is indispensable that we work to turn the tide on the crisis of civics afflicting the nation. With anti-free speech activists wreaking havoc on public universities — where the First Amendment governs — across the nation, it is abundantly obvious that pro-Constitution education must begin far, far sooner than when 18-year-old freshmen first set foot on campus. There is no compelling reason not to begin civics education as early as elementary school. And there is even recent historical precedent for such measures: For an older generation, the “I’m just a bill” video from “Schoolhouse Rock!” is nigh iconic:
Do any Millennials even know what “Schoolhouse Rock!” is?
This ought to become the norm once again. And pro-voucher, pro-school choice policies ought to work in tandem with such a push. As Yuval Levin wrote in his 2016 Wall Street Journal essay, “The Next Conservative Movement”:
[C]onsider primary and secondary education, where the old progressive model was the universal public-school system — offering one product to all and administering it in as centralized a way as public opinion would permit. The new conservative approach would instead direct its resources to let parents make choices for their children and allow the education system to take shape around their priorities and preferences.
Such a decentralized focus on instilling constitutionalism from a younger age onward necessarily also entails a firmer commitment to inculcation of national civics on behalf of parents and the sundry other Tocquevillian mediating institutions of the civil society. There is not a whole lot that the federal government can do here, from a policy standpoint; the issue is, instead, cultural.
Conservatives ought to all be thinking about how to better instill the lessons of civics and basic constitutionalism from a younger age onward. The status quo is, frankly, embarrassing. A great nation — let alone a great nation interested in self-preservation — simply needs to do better.