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America Has A Civic Education Problem–Here’s How To Fix It (The Hill) November 16, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Passing important bills in Congress with bipartisan support seems like ancient history. The last major policy bill on which a president of one party and leaders of the other party collaborated was probably the No Child Left Behind Act, an education bill passed and signed into law nearly 20 years ago.   

Now, there is another education bill everyone can and should get behind. The Educating for Democracy Act, introduced in September on Constitution Day with bipartisan support, would finally do something about our chronic civic education crisis.   

The data about the civic education problem is certainly not fake news. Test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Assessment (NAEP) earlier this year showed that only 24 percent of America’s 8th graders are “proficient” or better in government and civics, with a shocking 15 percent proficient in U.S. history. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rightly called the results “stark and inexcusable,” but such low scores have been excused by inaction for years. A 2018 study showed that only one in three Americans could pass the civics portion of the national citizenship test.  Students apparently believe Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court and that climate change was started by the Cold War.   

Sadly, everyone from the federal government to the schools has abandoned civic education in recent decades. Instead, our attention goes to reading and the new priority for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. By one estimate, the federal government now spends $54 per student annually on STEM and a meager five cents per student on civics. Schools used to require several courses in civics but, by now, the typical civics curriculum is a one-semester course in high school and virtually nothing in the elementary or middle school grades.   

I recently completed a study for the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation on the commonsense steps needed to right the civics ship, and it points to many of the provisions contained in the new Educating for Democracy bill. For starters, the federal government needs to begin funding civic education again, having dropped its support from nearly $150 million 10 years ago to about $5 million a year today. This bill would allocate $1 billion per year over the next five years largely to states and providers of civic education.   

Another commitment in the bill is to undertake adequate testing of civic education progress in the schools. We live in a testing culture in reading, math and science, but the NAEP test on government and civics is only given periodically and to 8th graders only. As the bill calls for, we need to be testing at least once in the elementary (4th grade), middle school (8th grade) and high school (12th grade) years. This encourages layer cake learning — setting a foundation of civic learning in the youngest grades that is built on every year through high school.   

The bill rightly acknowledges the priority of teacher training. There is not enough targeted training for civics teachers in their own schooling, and then on-the-job training is woefully deficient. If teachers do not have deep knowledge and a love for the subject matter, they will never reach their students. A few states, notably Florida, have developed teacher training models around newly implemented courses and goals for civic education.  

The federal government can only go so far in education, however, since K-12 education is still primarily a state and local matter. Therefore, it is left to the states to undertake the single most important effort to improve civic education: require it in the curriculum. As a report from the Education Commission of the States noted in 2017, most states require only a single one-semester course in civics, which “contrasts with course requirements in the 1960s, when three required courses in civics and government were common and civics were woven throughout the K-12 curriculum.” We cannot rest until civics is taught in elementary and middle schools, with a year-long course required in high school and a comprehensive test before graduation. States have a long way to go to get there. 

Our democracy has faced quite a stress test in 2020 and has shown vulnerabilities. In order to build greater resilience for the future, the answer is a renewed commitment to civic education, beginning with the bipartisan passage of the Educating for Democracy Act.  

To read the op/ed at The Hill:


David Davenport and Sen. Orrin Hatch On Solutions For Our Civic Education Crisis (Hoover.org) November 11, 2020

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In the following Hoover Q&A, former Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Hoover Institution Research Fellow David Davenport discuss “Commonsense Solutions to Our Civics Crisis,”  a newly released Hatch Center special report authored by Davenport.

Hatch and Davenport argue that American educators and policy makers have incorrectly responded to foreign competition by overemphasizing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at the expense of civic education. They also underscore the importance of civics in nurturing the formation of American citizenship, closing the deficit of trust between government and the people, and strengthening the resilience of democratic institutions.

Why did the Hatch Center commission this report about America’s civic education crisis?

Hatch: The Hatch Center—the policy arm of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation —is a national think tank focused on promoting civility and solutions. Part and parcel of that effort is reinvigorating civics teaching. From our research, we knew that the seeds of division and dysfunction now undermining American society were sown—at least in part—by decades of neglect in the area of civic education. To reinvigorate our democracy, we need to re-center civics at the heart of our education system. That’s why in the spring of this year, we reached out to Hoover’s David Davenport to join us in writing this special report on our nation’s civics crisis.  

Why do you believe that the current state of American democracy is anemic?

Hatch: Anemic describes a state of fatigue brought on by lack of oxygen in the bloodstream.  And American democracy—just like the human body—requires a steady supply of oxygen in the bloodstream to function properly. But right now, the body politic is oxygen starved.

Civic learning breathes life into our democracy, and currently we’re not getting enough of it. We’re carrying out all the rituals of a modern democracy—elections, inaugurations, televised debates, and the like. But our bloodstream isn’t carrying the oxygen we need to survive. We are encouraging people to organize, vote, and even run for office, but many of those same people lack the civic knowledge they need to sustain our democracy over the long term. The results are weak and dysfunctional institutions, chronic gridlock, and growing fatigue over the state of our politics. That’s why I describe the state of our democracy as anemic.

Did the Founding Fathers have a vision for how Americans would learn about their country?

Davenport: Yes, the founders had in mind that the primary purpose of school was to educate Americans about citizenship. There are quotations from the founders, which I include in my paper, explaining that the preservation of a free republic depended on a virtuous and educated citizenry, and the place that that was going to happen was in the schoolhouse. We have given up on that idea today and have been reduced into thinking that school exists just to teach us math, reading, and science in particular.

What are the roots of the current crisis in civic education?

Davenport: I think the crisis arose from otherwise good intentions. Our education policy strategy has been directed toward maintaining international competitiveness and has caused us to change the balance of our curriculum. When Sputnik was launched in the 1950s, we were horrified that we had a science and technology deficit relative to Russia. In the early 1980s, there was a major report issued by the US National Commission on Excellence in Education called “A Nation at Risk” that described how we were far behind other countries in math and also to some degree in reading. That report moved us down the road to more standardized testing and spending substantial school time preparing for and administering those tests. Now we’ve decided to spend billions of dollars to focus teaching on STEM, based on the belief that it is the only way the United States can be globally competitive in the future.

Every decade or two we seem to discover some global threat that alarms us, and so we change curriculum dramatically in order to overcome that perceived challenge.

As a result of the weight we give to STEM, courses in American history and US government have paid the price. By now, we have almost no civics in elementary or middle school. In most states, high school students spend on average one semester in class learning civics.

Hatch: It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment in time when American civic education took a turn for the worse. It’s easy, however, to identify certain trends that have led to the decline of civics instruction over the years. One trend is the “Zinnification” of American history teaching starting in the 1980s. This refers to the politicization of civics through partisan texts such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. These “textbooks” recast the American story as one long history of injustice and oppression. The New York Times 1619 Project is just one more addition to the literature.

While it’s important to give students a holistic understanding of our nation’s history, it’s counterproductive to instill in them a distaste for the American founding and a cynical view of our history. Rather, civic education should help students understand just how exceptional (and fragile) the American experiment is. And it should weigh our country’s flaws against her many strengths.

Was there some golden age of civic education that we should aspire to again? In the early days of American public education, our schools were rightly centered on forming democratic citizens. We need to get back to that. We need to restore civics as the primary purpose of a liberal education. But the curriculum needs to be updated for the modern era. That means no biased or boring textbooks but hands-on instruction through primary documents by teachers who are well trained in history and civics.  

Another trend—and one with unintended consequences—is the rise of STEM. Now first, let me be clear: STEM education is vital to American innovation and economic competitiveness. That’s why I was a strong advocate for STEM throughout my Senate tenure. I worry, however, that in pushing STEM, our country has lost sight of civics. This would explain why federal funding for STEM soars to new heights while funding for civics has bottomed out.

Consider that the federal government spends annually $54 per student to further STEM learning and a mere $0.05 per student for civics. To correct this disparity, we don’t call for a decrease in spending on STEM—because again, STEM is essential. But we do call for a 100-fold increase in federal funding for civic education, which is arguably just as important to our nation’s future.

What proper balance needs to be sought in allocating student time to both American civics and STEM?

Davenport: I’m not enough of a K–12 education expert to be the one designing the curriculum. I think the problem has been that civics has really had no major defenders when it has come to curricular decisions and time allocation. I think the gold standard would be for some emphasis on civic education in elementary school and an entire year in high school, capped by a standardized test. It’s never easy to squeeze in courses or additional time on any subject, but I’m not calling for a major rewriting of school curriculum.

In your article you cite E.D. Hirsch’s book Knowledge Matters. Hirsch argues that “schools have mistakenly moved toward teaching reading by means of skills such as identifying the main idea or making inferences.” Why is this a mistake?

Davenport: I reference Knowledge Matters in my paper, along with The Knowledge Gap, by Natalie Wexler. In their view, the crisis in education is not limited to civics. Again, the high-stakes testing culture in our schools puts a premium on students’ ability to be able to pick out topic sentences and make inferences. Learning has become less about the content of history and literature.

I think it was Hirsch who said, you can make inferences just as well from reading “Tyler Makes Pancakes” as from a biography about Abraham Lincoln.

We have dumbed down the knowledge part of the curriculum in order to cater to students’ interests, and then we’ve made the objective to learn about broad skills like reading. You could learn those same skills reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and, frankly, that’s what we used to do when I was in school. The development of reading and critical thinking skills was an incidental part of reading that sort of literature. We also need to teach civic knowledge so that people become responsible citizens. 

What are the consequences of the decline in civic education?

Davenport: The year 2020 has created a real stress test for American democracy, and we’re realizing that if we’re going to have a strong, resilient democracy, people need to better understand how our system of government works. They have to understand the roles of the Supreme Court, Congress, and the presidency. They have to understand that in a democracy there needs to be a fundamental right to free speech and an ability to argue issues openly without jumping to conclusions or canceling them from the conversation.

I think in all sorts of ways our democracy is hitting a point where the lack of civic education is beginning to be a serious problem. The good news is that we are actually in the midst of an awakening. I have seen recently in both liberal and conservative circles a call for increased teaching about the US Constitution and preparing people to be better citizens. That is maybe one silver lining out of the dark cloud of 2020.

You write that the decline in civic education has contributed to a deficit in America’s trust towards government and that this “mistrust seems highest when young people fail to understand government systems and come to view them as just politics.” Conversely, could it be said that education leads to less apathy and fosters more skepticism from the general public about the behavior and decisions of our leaders and processes?

Davenport: The theory that I came across in my research was, if a person understood how government is supposed to work and could see how far we are from that ideal, it may actually reduce his or her trust in government. However, the predominant view is, as I quote one expert in my paper, “How can you trust what you don’t understand?”

Students are quick to write things off these days as, “Well, that’s just politics.” Politics is actually the framework in which a lot of the arguments about American values and the direction of the country takes place. It is also where decisions about government are made. We must strengthen that arena and learn how to responsibly and coherently apply our fundamental rights to free speech. We also have to call on leaders in our three branches of government to fulfill their duties under the US Constitution, not to govern as they wish.

How should civic education be shaped to strengthen democracy?

Hatch: The primary purpose of civic education is to form responsible democratic citizens capable of stewarding the American experiment and handing it off to the next generation. But today’s youth won’t appreciate our democracy—or even see that it’s worth preserving—if they don’t respect our history.

That’s why the proper teaching of history is essential to civic education. I touched on this subject earlier, but it’s worth re-emphasizing: we need to reject reductionist versions of history that focus myopically on America’s sins instead of her virtues. It’s important for students to see both. But it’s just as important for students to grasp how exceptional our experiment in self-government is. Set against the backdrop of human history, this country is a miraculous anomaly. By appreciating America’s strengths and its remarkable history, students will better understand how to take care of our democracy, and ultimately, how to pass it on better than they found it.

You argue that the growing interest in socialism, especially among young people, is a current and classic case of civic ignorance. What evidence points to this argument?

Davenport: The day this really hit me was when I read a survey by Reason magazine a few years ago. It showed an astonishing number of young people who were expressing interest in and openness to socialism. However, when I read through the full set of questions, their views about socialism varied.  One question asked, “Would you rather companies’ behavior be regulated by the government or by the market?” Overwhelmingly, these young people did not want the government to be running companies that offer products and services they use and enjoy. Therein lies the contradiction: “We want a free market to be governing the business environment but we also want socialism.”

This caused me to think, when these young people say they want socialism, do they even have a proper understanding of what socialism means? I know the definition has broadened some, but what you discover is that what young people are more interested in is free stuff from the government. They want the government to provide a free education, forgiveness of student loans, and help in finding jobs. I note in the paper that in 2016 the prime minister of Denmark responded to claims by young people in America that his country was socialist.  He said, “Wait, we’re not a socialist country. We’re a market economy but with a high welfare component.” You can’t blame these young people entirely, because this obvious error is indicative of the failure of our educational system.

What role do you think government should play in strengthening civic education?

Davenport: Education is still primarily a state and local matter. That’s eroded some in recent years, especially with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, although we’ve not renewed that law and have moved back toward a greater emphasis on state and local government oversight of education. To me the real action needs to be at the state, local, and even school levels. That doesn’t mean the federal government doesn’t have a role to play. Ten years ago, the federal government was appropriating $150 million into civic education. Now it’s closer to $5 million. I call for an increase in that spending and especially for grants to states and for teacher training.

The federal government also is in charge of testing. The federal testing regime currently tests in reading, math, and science. However, it only tests civics in the eighth grade. This is a statement at the federal level about what’s important and what’s not important. Regular testing needs to be extended in civic education. We need leaders in Washington to say to the country on a bipartisan basis: “Look, this civic education business is really important, and we want to increase its testing and funding.”

Hatch: The Hatch Center’s report offers Congress a policy blueprint for fixing civic education. It starts with increasing federal funding for civics by 100-fold. This includes a commitment of more than $500 million to improve teacher development in civic education, coupled with grants of $1 million a year or more from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Congress can also improve the quality of civic education by mandating testing in US history and government for grades 4, 8, and 12, and requiring states to report these results nationally. But at a certain level, Congress can only do so much; it’s up to the states to be wise stewards of federal resources and to use them to improve teaching and testing across all grade levels.

You write that there needs to be a “layer cake” approach to curriculum changes in civic education. What do you mean by that?

Davenport: I think that one of the things that I experienced in my education was building knowledge and skill competencies in different fields while graduating in successive grades.

Students will learn about some components of American history in the first grade, but that will prepare them to learn more by the fifth grade. In the paper, I refer to it as building a layer cake, where every year educators provide students with some additional knowledge that is age appropriate, so that by the time students get to the one civics course presently required in high school, there is a solid foundation from which they can build. If students do not learn anything about civics until high school, they will be set up for failure. They won’t be able to understand political language, civics issues, and the role and structure of government.

Can you talk about how teachers can be better trained on subject matter?

Davenport: Training for civics teachers should be the same as for people in any profession. Training should take place at the university level when they pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Secondly there’s on-the-job training, what is often referred to as teacher development.

Teachers are frequently just a few pages ahead of the students in the textbook and trying to keep up. In such circumstances, it is difficult to engage or inspire enthusiasm in students.

I think we need stronger state requirements in terms of teacher certification in civics. Second, I believe the more immediate need, and one that’s more easily fulfilled, is training teachers once they are in the classroom. My favorite method of training is working with teachers on how to engage students in primary documents. I think that’s one of the really powerful tools for teaching history and civics. Again, that should be done in teacher development once they’re already in the classroom.

Why do you feel the use of primary documents is important in supplementing civic education?

Davenport: One of our problems as a society but certainly also in civic education is that we are studying history wearing 21st-century glasses. In other words, rather than reading about the debates over the Constitution, slavery, or other big issues in American history, we instead look at them through modern lenses. We criticize decisions of our past leaders and we judge them based on our standards and understandings of today. That’s not really studying history. That’s basically just politicizing and taking a very shallow view of history. Studying primary documents allows students to leave their 21st-century glasses behind, fly back into history, and immerse themselves in the debates, writings, and speeches of the day.

I believe this method of teaching creates a lot more enthusiasm in students. For example, once they understand the Great Depression and the issues that Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were debating, they’ll have a much better understanding of economic issues today.

You discuss action civics, the notion of getting students out of the classroom to work on community service projects as a means of applied learning. You argue that this teaching method doesn’t adequately prepare students with a historical framework for understanding present-day issues. How should civics curriculums be designed to help students apply knowledge to real life circumstances?

Davenport: I am not opposed to the concept of action civics. I’m only opposed if it becomes either a substitute for civic knowledge or if educators try to put it ahead of developing civic knowledge. I actually think that getting out, visiting your state capitol, and understanding how bills work is a valuable part of civics education. A lot of people are debating this topic as if it is an either-or problem. We need both civic knowledge and civic engagement for young people, but students need the knowledge first so that the engagement is meaningful.

To read at the Hoover.org website:


Politics Needs Less of the “Just Win, Baby” Mentality (Washington Examiner) November 10, 2020

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Naturally, we seek balance in our personal lives. We realize our checkbooks must balance (eventually). We seek to figure out some kind of work-life balance.

We have completely lost that sense in the nation’s political life. America is dizzy and out of balance. Instead of compromise, which used to be the political tool of choice, politicians of both sides now seek only to win. We no longer put difficult questions on the table in Congress for debate, compromise, and amendment, but instead we legislate by party-line votes.

Obamacare was passed on a party-line vote of only Democrats. Tax reform in 2017 was enacted by a party-line vote of Republicans. Supreme Court justices are increasingly supported only by the votes of whatever party is in power.

Politicians no longer seek the will of the people or even the best policy solutions. Now, the guiding principle is like that of former Raiders owner Al Davis: “Just win, baby.”

The tools of winning in government are executive orders, where the president does not even consult Congress; party-line votes, where one party does not consult the other; and win-at-all-costs court decisions, where no one is consulted except a few lawyers in black robes.

We will see more of this in the first week of the Joe Biden presidency, since he has already promised a flurry of executive orders to cancel Trump’s policies on immigration, climate change, and civil rights. In a revolving door of executive orders, President Obama became frustrated with gridlock in Congress and issued an average of 35 orders per year, which Trump then undid. Trump has issued an average of more than 48 orders per year as of this writing. No wonder we are dizzy.

Yes, the president and the courts are deciding too many important policy issues unilaterally, but much of that is because Congress has given up legislating. We probably have to go back some 20 years to the No Child Left Behind education law to find major bipartisan legislation involving both the president and Congress. If Biden really wants to restore some balance, he ought to present big issues to Congress, not just issue executive orders. Of course, that also requires Congress to consider them seriously, not just refuse to debate, amend, and compromise.

Not only do we need greater balance among our institutions but on the issues as well. Let’s take the coronavirus, for example. On one hand, some say it is overwhelmingly a health crisis and that we should follow the mandates of science. Others say, no, it is really a crisis of freedom and economic survival, which science does not take into account.

What we really need is to balance this issue, seeking constantly to find the optimal combination of science on one hand and economics and freedom on the other. Great leaders find that managing dilemmas is the most important work they do because both horns of a dilemma possess some truth that must be acknowledged. Wouldn’t we love to see a president who does not just turn things over to scientists or economists but who steps up and seeks to manage this crisis with due attention to each?

Democracy is a series of processes: voting, legislating, debating, compromising, checking, and balancing. It is not just a series of wins sought and gained at all costs. If we do not learn to pay attention to how we manage the republic, as well as what outcomes we want, the democracy will pay — indeed already is paying — a huge price.

Among other things, 2020 has been a huge stress test for our democracy. It has passed but barely. We must seek greater balance in our body politic if we are to build the resilience the republic needs to survive and ultimately thrive. We need some leaders who are willing to take the high road and not settle for the low road of “just win, baby.”

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


The Civics Education Crisis Can Be Fixed Without Congressional Gridlock (Washington Examiner) October 28, 2020

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In a heated presidential campaign year, two dates in history have illustrated our deep national divide. The New York Times spoke for liberal America when it declared last year that the real founding of the country was in 1619 when the first African slaves arrived on its shores. In short, the 1619 Project argued that what was distinctive and problematic about America was its economic system of capitalism and the original sin of slavery that established it.

President Trump responded for many conservatives last month when he proposed the creation of a 1776 commission, underscoring that the real founding of the country came with the Declaration of Independence and, a decade later, the Constitution. What makes America distinctive, in this view, is political freedom guaranteed by a unique constitutional system.

While this is an important debate, two other numbers speak more clearly and less divisively about today’s most serious problem with U.S. history: Twenty-four and 15. Those are the percentages of eighth graders who scored “proficient” or better in government/civics (24%) and U.S. history (15%) in National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores announced earlier this year. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rightly called these scores “stark and inexcusable.”

Sam Cooke’s 1960 song lyric is now literally true of America’s children: “Don’t know much about history.” We fail to appreciate the profound effect civic ignorance has on the body politic. Only about 60% bother to vote, described by Founding Father Thomas Paine as “the primary right by which other rights are protected.” Only 55% voted in 2016, even fewer (40%-50%) when there is no race for the presidency. Data published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that U.S. voting rates are only rated 26th out of 32 highly developed democratic states. Young people’s trust in government has plummeted, with only 27% expressing trust in elected officials. Indeed, only 17% trust the government “to do what is right most of the time.” As one expert said, “How can you trust what you do not understand?”

At other times in our recent history, failures in our educational system led to alarm and action. The Soviets’ launch of Sputnik, the first satellite in space, in 1957, led to calls for improvement in science and technology education. A discouraging national report on the state of education generally, “A Nation at Risk,” launched a series of reading and math initiatives in the 1980s and beyond. Despite failing test scores and reduced curriculum offerings in civics education, however, little or nothing has been done.

In a recent article published by the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, I have proposed a series of steps to reverse our civics decline. Happily, we do not have to wait for the gridlock and hyperpartisanship in Washington to go away in order to fix this because there are many important goals to be addressed at other levels, especially in the states and schools.

The main point is that we need to make civic education a national priority with extra emphasis everywhere. The federal government needs to restore and increase funding for civics that it practically eliminated in 2010. In fact, by one estimate, the federal government now spends $54 per schoolchild on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and a meager 5 cents per student on civics.

States that required multiple courses in civics and government in the 1960s in most cases now mandate only a single semester in civics education, with almost no attention to it in elementary and middle school. Studies show that teachers are often ill-prepared themselves to teach civics education. Is it any wonder that students in Rhode Island have sued their state for poor civics education?

Civics have taken a back seat in our schools to reading, math, and especially STEM. But can saving our democracy be any less important than getting good jobs in technology? That is what is at stake if we do not make a national commitment to strengthening civics education.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


California Prop. 18–Should Seventeen Year Olds Be Allowed To Vote? (Eureka) October 27, 2020

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California’s Proposition 18 on this year’s ballot is like those television commercials that may be clever but where, in the end, you fail to see the point or even remember the product being advertised. It would amend the California constitution to allow seventeen-year-olds who would turn eighteen by the time of the next general election to vote in primaries or special elections.

The key question is: Why?

The last time we changed the voting age nationally came with the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution back in 1971. With the Vietnam War in full swing, the case was that it was unfair to send eighteen-year-olds into the military to die in war and not give them a say in choosing their leaders. It passed unanimously in the US Senate, along with an overwhelming majority in the House, and was ratified by the states in record time (just one hundred days). It was obviously an idea whose time had come.

It is difficult to find a similarly compelling case for allowing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to vote, as some have proposed. The movement to change the voting age again gained traction when students protested campus shootings in 2018. The discovery of political interest and energy in high schools triggered a national movement to lower the voting age around the country.

States and Cities, Not National

Passing a constitutional amendment requires clearing a high bar: a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress and three-fourths of state legislatures to ratify. In these days of hyperpartisanship, that bar seems nearly impossible to reach, so proponents of lowering the voting age have instead focused their attention on state and municipal action. Under Article I, Section 4 of the US Constitution, we have fifty-one separate state elections (including the District of Columbia), with each state setting its own standards and local governments generally running their own elections. It is a slow process—but short of an unlikely constitutional amendment or judicial mandate, separate initiatives in states and municipalities are the only way to lower the voting age.

A small handful of municipalities have taken the lead in allowing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to vote in their local elections. Four cities in Maryland allow sixteen-year-olds to vote in local elections and Berkeley, California, permits sixteen-year-olds to vote in school board elections only. Of course, local issues are not usually of greatest interest to voters, so the stakes and results in these early experiments are low. One study in Maryland shows some higher percentages of turnout among younger cohorts but still very little effect overall. San Francisco has the matter on its 2020 election ballot, potentially making it the first major city to move to a lower voting age requirement. (Proposition F, if approved, would amend the San Francisco city charter to grant sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who are US citizens and residents of San Francisco the right to vote in municipal and school board elections.)

Although there are campaigns to lower the voting age at the state level, states have largely taken smaller, incremental steps. Several states—at the moment, eighteen—have allowed seventeen-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will turn eighteen by the time of the general election. On the more aggressive side, legislation has been introduced in a few states to allow all sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to vote, but no such measure has yet been adopted. A less aggressive alternative, in place in a number of states, would allow high school students to begin a voter preregistration process as part of their civics education, but it would not become effective until they turn eighteen.

California’s Proposal for Seventeen-Year-Olds to Vote in Primary Elections

California’s Proposition 18, then, would allow seventeen-year-olds to vote in primary and special elections if they would turn eighteen by the time of the general election. Although this may seem like a modest proposal, a recent study from the respected Public Policy Institute of California shows that it could have significant political effects.

According to the PPIC study, some two hundred thousand potential voters could have become eligible if such a policy had been in place in the elections of 2016 and 2018. Even though younger voters do not historically turn out to vote in large numbers, primary elections often turn on relatively small margins, the study points out. Consequently, PPIC estimates that a total of thirty-three races may have been affected by such an amendment. That’s a change worthy of further study.

The case for making this change is that voters in the general election (having turned eighteen) should have an opportunity to help shape the choices in the primary elections. Further, as proponents announce in the ballot argument in favor of the proposition, California is “behind the curve,” with so many other states allowing this. In the end, the case for all the youth-voting proposals is that we want to boost youth participation in our democracy.

Younger cohorts (age eighteen to twenty-nine) are notoriously bad about turning out to vote, so it’s difficult to see how adding one more even younger tranche of voters helps the turnout problem. The argument proponents have made elsewhere is that one problem with youths voting is that they may be in college or starting a new job, moving around with no fixed residence. Starting the voting habit while still living at home will help, they say.

Against this unproven case for turnout is an array of questions about whether seventeen-year-olds are really good candidates to vote. The fact of the matter is that many important privileges in our society have moved toward increasing the age of responsibility, not diminishing it, in part because we are learning that the brain is continuing to develop important reasoning functions in the late teens and even twenties. The drinking age has gone up nearly everywhere, along with the age for driving without some kind of supervision and accompaniment. Serving in the military (without parental consent) or on a jury is limited to those eighteen and older, as is obtaining a credit card on your own. It is difficult to see why voting should be taken less seriously than those responsibilities.

Further, the current state of civics education in the schools suggests that voting at sixteen and seventeen is too early. With civics education all but gone from elementary and middle school curriculum, about all that is left is a single one-semester course in high school. Shouldn’t students at least take and digest that course before being turned loose to join the electorate? Recent NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores show that only 24 percent of American eighth grade students (the only grade tested) are “proficient” or above in US history and a pitiful 15 percent in government and civics. High school should be a time for learning the responsibilities of citizenship and voting, not being thrown into the fray. We ought not to put the cart of civic engagement before the horse of civics education.

Finally, as opponents of the measure note on the ballot argument, is it really proper for young people, who pay little or no taxes, to be voting on bond and taxation measures that overwhelmingly apply to others?

Again, civic opportunities should be tied to responsibilities in a way that just does not happen at age sixteen or seventeen. Beyond that, this measure, like others of its kind, carries political consequences as well. With young people generally more liberal in their outlook, Democrats are enthused about such measures, but not Republicans. Indeed, one could make a case that this is one more election “reform” that is designed, as such reforms often are, to deliver political outcomes.

Unlike the case for eighteen-year-olds to vote in an earlier day, the case to go even lower to sixteen or seventeen is much weaker. A far better approach, if we want to increase voting interest among the young, is to allow them to begin the voter registration process in school, but not have it take effect until they turn eighteen. That would address the only part of the case that makes any sense without altering longstanding and proper connections between age and civic responsibility.

To view the article at Eureka:


Commonsense Solutions to our Civics Crisis (Hatch Center Policy Review) October 26, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Evidence of a growing civics crisis surrounds us–a pandemic of civic disengagement and a deepening recession in civic education. In what has become a vicious cycle, young people are not learning about their country–its history and how it works–and they grow up disengaged and distrustful.

To read the entire Davenport white paper on the civics crisis:


The Supreme Court’s Nine Could Be Saved By A Stitch In Time (Washington Examiner) October 21, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Senators this week proposed a simple new constitutional amendment: “The Supreme Court of the United States shall be composed of nine justices.” The same amendment was introduced in the House of Representatives last month. This is a good idea that, unfortunately, looks to be a hard sell.

Even though the Constitution does not specify the size of the Supreme Court, it has been nine members since 1869. Prior to that, Congress changed it six times, ranging from five to 10 members. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it, “Nine seems to be a good number.”

As if Supreme Court appointments were not sufficiently controversial and political already, some have suggested that Democrats should “pack the court” by adding new liberal justices if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win the election. Of course, this will only further politicize the court because the next Republican president will be tempted to add new seats for conservatives. Just as we live in a yo-yo world of one president signing executive orders and the next president canceling them, we will live with an ever-expanding and more highly politicized Supreme Court.

President Franklin Roosevelt tried the court-packing trick in 1937, without success. Frustrated that the Supreme Court was blocking important New Deal legislation as unconstitutional, Roosevelt proposed to grow the court from nine to 15, allowing him to appoint six new justices who better reflected his views. The idea was widely criticized, and the Senate voted it down 70-20. Still, even the attempt seemed to have an effect as the Supreme Court’s rulings began to swing in Roosevelt’s direction.

Let’s face it, growing the court would not be done to improve its performance but rather to change its politics. Yet, both Biden and Harris have declined to say whether they would attempt to pack the court if they won. The best we have is Biden’s statement that he “is not a fan,” but he and Harris both refuse to answer the question directly when asked. That is not a good sign.

So yes, a constitutional amendment makes sense, but it will be difficult to pass. Like any constitutional amendment, it will require a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate, a high bar these days, and then ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures. Doubtless, that’s why we have not amended the Constitution in nearly 30 years.

The real problem is that the Supreme Court has become too powerful, with most of the social questions and many of the political questions now settled there. Rather than Congress stepping up to its responsibilities, it ends up deferring tough decisions to the courts. The Founders would be surprised, having said in Federalist No. 78 that the judiciary would be “beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments” of the federal government.

The Founders would also be surprised that a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court could now mean 30-40 years. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away recently, had served 27 years. Justice Clarence Thomas is coming up on his 29th anniversary on the court. It is widely acknowledged that William O. Douglas, who served 37 years, was not entirely capable late in his term. This means that each appointment takes on huge political weight, producing confirmation battles described as “Armageddon.”

Instead of court-packing, which is a purely political solution, how about addressing the real problems? First, let’s develop term limits for Supreme Court justices of 18 years, allowing each four-year president to appoint two. Then we should challenge Congress to step up to its responsibilities, passing laws that deal with the tough issues rather than deferring them to federal agencies and the courts. Those reforms could make a real difference.

Meanwhile, let’s get behind the constitutional amendment to limit the Supreme Court to nine members. It’s a stitch in time that could truly save nine.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Webinar on Civic Education October 29 (Hatch Center) October 19, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Register here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_NmIVp9IBTnqx8u9_86o0kQ

The Decline of the Senate: From ‘Advice and Consent’ to ‘Just Win, Baby!’ (Washington Examiner) September 22, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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The coming battle over a new Supreme Court nominee is only the latest chapter in the ongoing decline of the Senate. Once described by President James Buchanan as “the greatest deliberative body in the world,” the Senate now barely deliberates. Formerly a place of special powers, high decorum, accepted rules and processes, its members have instead given in to the temptation to win at any cost.

I am not the first to notice this decline. Orrin Hatch, who retired in 2018 after 42 years in the Senate, said in his closing remarks that the Senate “is in crisis.” “Regular order,” he continued, “is a relic of the past, and compromise—once the guiding credo of this great institution—is now synonymous with surrender.” When Sen. John McCain flew back from his cancer treatments to cast a decisive vote on Obamacare, he surprised everyone by declining to vote to repeal the law because the Senate had not followed its own processes. He decried the Senate’s inclination to draft legislation “behind closed doors…then spring it upon skeptical members.” He urged the Senate to “return to the correct way of legislating.”

Now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has decided that his refusal to bring a Democrat’s Supreme Court nominee before the Senate 9 months before an election is not a precedent he needs to follow when the Senate and White House are controlled by the same party and the president wants to submit a nominee five weeks before the election.

The only surprise is that politicians even try putting forth arguments on why this is appropriate, when everyone knows the only thing that matters now is winning. The mantra of the Senate, “Advice and Consent” from the Constitution, has given way to the credo of the late Al Davis, owner of the Raiders professional football team: “Just win, baby.”

One source of the Senate’s weakness is its inclination to simply follow the president, rather than operate as an independent branch of government. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, the various branches of government were intended to “[keep] each other in their proper places.” Each department, including the Senate, needs to have “a will of its own,” Madison said, in order to play its proper constitutional role. But all that has gone out the window these days when the president’s own party controls the Senate. As President Trump himself recently put it, “When you have the Senate, when you have the votes, you can sort of do what you want.” And he is.

A related problem is the rise of party-line voting in Congress. Whereas the Senate was intended to represent the states, and both chambers of Congress are supposed to represent their own constituents, now senators represent the views of their political party leaders instead. According to one study, party unity voting has increased from around 60% in the 1970s to nearly 90% today. Obamacare was passed by a strict party-line vote, and Trump passed his signature tax reform bill by a party-line vote of only Republicans. Does anyone doubt that the vote on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will follow similar lines?

People are not happy with Congress, and this will not help. A Gallup poll last month showed that 21% of the country approve of how Congress is doing its job with 75% disapproving. An Economist/YouGov poll this month is even lower with only 13% approval. As Gordon Lloyd and I argued in our recent book, How Public Policy Became War, the public is frustrated that everything in policy is now a war to win rather than a set of problems to be solved or compromises to be made.

In the end, a few changes in Senate processes and rules could help. Ultimately, it will require more leaders such as Senators Hatch or McCain, or in this case Senators Collins or Murkowski, to resist the pressure of political leadership to win at all costs and demand that the Senate live up to its distinguished history and its proper constitutional role.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Individualism Fosters Virtue In Ways That Government Cannot (Washington Examiner) September 15, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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While COVID-19 attacks our immune systems and our economy, it also gives rise to attacks on American individualism. If the pandemic is spreading here, many argue, rugged individualism is at fault. It keeps people from wearing masks, prevents them from helping each other, and is downright dangerous.

Typical is a recent opinion piece by Leah Sears, former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, claiming that rugged individualism “is what’s killing us now.” The problem is that this understanding of rugged individualism is deeply flawed, making a political cartoon out of a fundamental and longstanding philosophy.

The term “rugged individualism” was coined by Herbert Hoover during his 1928 presidential campaign — not, as many have suggested, in response to the Great Depression the following year. Hoover had returned from carrying out food relief in Europe following World War I, struck by the several “-isms” that were taking over that continent: socialism, fascism, and communism.

By contrast, he said, we have the system of rugged individualism coupled with equality of opportunity, which we need to preserve. Importantly, rugged individualism is not a synonym for selfishness. The individual is the starting point from which one is free to join churches, community groups, and all kinds of associations that collaborate. Individuals form governments, not vice versa.

Even the hardy pioneers living on the frontier, often held up as the classic image of rugged individualism, cooperated with each other, traveling together in wagon trains for safety and helping one another build houses, schools, and towns. As the French journalist Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his classic book Democracy in America, Americans were more given to associations than any people on Earth.

Now, from an unlikely place, has come a vivid description of modern-day rugged individualism and its continuing place in American culture. The Los Angeles Times recently shared the story of Juan “Spanky” Ramirez and his fellow lowriders cruising Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Crime, graffiti, and trash had begun to appear along the boulevard during the pandemic, so Ramirez and company decided to do something about it.https://ebec5994e18940b8e7bf59e7bf863203.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

The lowriders called for a voluntary boycott of the boulevard — no cruising for a month. There was nothing mandatory about it, just a call to do what they thought was right voluntarily. As Ramirez put it, “We don’t need law enforcement to tell us when something’s wrong. Whatever happens on Whittier Boulevard, it’s our history.” Let’s do what’s best for the community, Ramirez said, adding, “If we do it together willingly, then everything works out a lot better.”

Would anyone dare say this kind of rugged individualism was selfish? No, this was community action at its finest. Was it an effort to undermine the government? Hardly, as the police were delighted to have leadership from the community. Instead of waiting for government to solve a problem, a few leaders of the community stepped up to address it themselves. It is precisely the kind of individual initiative and action that, joining with others, can solve problems more effectively than law enforcement or government can do.

Years ago, Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield described moving into a new campus building where, along with lights and drapes that functioned on their own, the toilets also flushed automatically. At first, those things seemed like nice conveniences, but then, Mansfield asked, are we better off developing technologies and laws that control us rather than developing our own virtue? Is it better to have toilets that flush on their own or to live in a community where we develop an ethic of flushing our own toilets?

Rugged individualism acknowledges a proper role for government and technology, but then, it leaves ample room for individual decisions and voluntary action. Where would we be in the pandemic crisis if we did not have individual scientists and companies racing to find a vaccine and a cure? How about all those restaurants that, without a government mandate, started serving take-out and delivery options, or the architects and seamstresses who converted their businesses to make essential protective gear and masks?

There is a proper role for government, of course. However, even in a crisis, we must leave room for rugged individualism to do its good work and allow us to build communities of virtue, like the lowriders in East Los Angeles.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner: