American Civics 101

English: Sandra Day O'Connor, 1st Female Assoc...

English: Sandra Day O’Connor, 1st Female Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance.” ~Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

On September 5, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gave a speech at Boise State. During that talk, she lamented the fact  that the American public is largely ignorant of basic American civics facts. To name a few:

  • Two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court Justice;
  • About one-third can name the three branches of government;
  • Less than one-third of eighth graders can identify the historical purpose of the declaration of independence (“and it’s right there in the name,” she added).

Those are highly depressing statistics. Here are eight basic questions I think everyone should know (and no Googling!):

Who is the governor of your state?

Who are your senators?

Who is your Congressional representative?

Name 4 of the 9 current Supreme Court Justices (I believe one should know all nine, but I’ll cut the reader some slack).

Who is the Senate Majority Leader? Minority Leader?

Who is the Speaker of the House?

Who is the current Secretary of State?

How old do you have to be to vote?

In 2011, Newsweek gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. Citizenship Test–38 percent failed. Immigrants taking their naturalization tests to become citizens know more about American civics than many natural-born Americans. Democracy requires informed citizen participants. Too many people prefer to sit back and let others make the rules that affect their lives and then complain about it when policies negatively impact them, their families, or their communities.

So what to do? Making civics a major part of K-12 education, again, is one solution. Ms. O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009 “to reverse America’s declining civic knowledge and participation. Securing our democracy, she realized, requires teaching the next generation to understand and respect our system of governance.” This web platform teaches children basic American civics through educational videos and games plus there are lesson plans for teachers. These teaching materials have been used in schools throughout all fifty states. It would behoove adults to take a look at the site too. We live our democratic principles by knowing how our government works, who is leading us and what responsibilities for governing their roles include, and what actions we can take to influence policymakers.

Democracy only works when people voice to their elected officials how they feel about the issues, when they actively participate, whether it is voting, writing a letter or email, working on a campaign, or advocating for some project in their community. Some citizens do this already, yes, but they may not have your best interests at heart. It takes all of us expressing opinions, sharing facts, debating and engaging in the policies of this great country.

Too many people feel they have no influence so have given up. Life is hard enough without having to make time to consume enough news—and a variety of it—to be informed or to get involved in politics, even at the local level. However, if you don’t believe you can make a difference just look at the 2012 Presidential election. In states where citizens felt they were being prevented from voting—that their right to vote was being suppressed—they said, “No you won’t.” Activists spread the word about voter suppression tactics and on election day, some voters stood in line for up to eight hours to cast their ballot. Regular people can make a difference. Yes, big money and corporate interests are too entrenched in our government, but ordinary Americans can change that if they care enough.

Caring starts with knowledge. Once the knowledge is there, then the desire to engage is sparked, and that spark can make a huge difference in the future trajectory of this country; a country where everyone is encouraged to participate and most do. We will never eliminate money in politics completely, but we can lessen its influence and that is what democracy is about – all of us having a say, not only those who possess the most capital.

Take a look at iCivics, show it to your kids, ask their teachers to utilize it. How well would you do on the citizenship test? Once citizens know how our democracy functions and how it was established, protecting it becomes that much more important. Knowledge is power. Don’t let a few make all the rules for the many. Learn and engage. American democracy depends on it; American democracy depends on you.

Cross-posted at The Feisty Liberal

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The Biggest Problem

Quick! What’s the biggest problem in American politics today?

Answer: Money.

Now you might find it odd, with all of America’s problems, I can come up with one single word that stands out above all other problems. But my reasoning is simple: all the other problems spring from this one.

The NRA’s money has blocked expanded background checks before people can buy guns. Big money watered down banking reform in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and has hindered any and all legislation that could potentially help the majority of Americans, if it might in any way harm the finances of the super-rich.

Both parties put campaign contributors at the top of their “listen-to” lists, paying donors back with tax breaks, subsidies, and other ear-marks. Congress reps and senators spend more time wooing money than they do pass laws to help the country. No one wants to lose the lavish perks that come with lush campaigning, let alone lose an election.

I’m not naïve. I know there’s been money in politics for as long as there’s been politics, and it’s been a problem for every system. The Romans may have had a Republic, but only “citizens” were allowed to vote. Denying a voice to the slaves and former slaves (and of course women) tilted the playing field heavily towards those with money. Aristocratic, monarchical systems naturally restricted political power to those with economic power as well. The early 19th-century U.S. government had its inherently-corrupt spoils system, and the late-19th-century Grant Administration was legendary for the influence that Big Money a bill is passed

As corporations have grown in size and sway in the 20th century, so too has the clout they’ve had in Washington. Half-hearted efforts have been made here and there to curtail the influence of the affluent, but it’s been nothing more than symbolic and has barely slowed the march of monetary power in politics.

The Citizens United case, though, raised the influence of money to an entirely new level. Campaign finance laws, however weak, mean nothing when there are no limits to corporate spending on “issues”. Equating “money” with “free speech” gives the rich Constitutional protection.


The problem is that Congress is never going to vote to give themselves a massive pay cut, which is what meaningful campaign finance reform would amount to.

Never, that is, unless we force them to.

The only way we’re going to reduce the influence of money in American politics – and the only way we’re going to be able to solve the myriad other problems we face – is by screaming our heads off at our State and Federal representatives, and letting them know beyond any shadow of doubt that we’re not going to take it any more.

Tell them in no uncertain terms that getting Big Money out of the political system is Priority Number One. That’s it’s one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote. That we’re not going to stand still while they reap millions in legal kickbacks in return for sponsoring special interest legislation.


Specifics? For starters, ban Congress members from taking cushy “consultant” jobs as influence-peddler – excuse me, “lobbyists” – for 10 years after leaving office. That’s one of the chief ways wealth special interests reward lawmakers who do their bidding, and it’s one of the easiest reforms to put in place.

Overturning Citizens United is something that we’ll have to leave up to the Supreme Court. Let’s hope that the existing members will either come to their senses, or else future Presidents and Congressional members will have the sense to appoint sane Justices in the future.

Down the road, government funding of all campaigning is the only answer. Have the federal government provide the same amount of campaign money to all qualified candidates. That not only will level the political playing field between rich and poor, but it will cut down on the number of annoying and counter-productive political ads and robocalls.


The last national election saw literally billions in campaign spending, much of it on misleading, distorted, negative campaign ads. Did all that additional money get a better government? No. All it did was divide Americans even more, and make our political representatives all the more beholden to special interests.

The time is long past for meaningful campaign finance reform. Start screaming now.