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Actual Emergencies Come and Go, But Emergency Declarations Endure (Washington Examiner) January 8, 2019

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As President Trump considers whether to declare a national state of emergency to build his border wall, few Americans realize they have lived under nearly 30 states of national emergency for most of their lives. Emergencies come and go, but emergency declarations remain. The oldest national emergency still on the books was declared by President Jimmy Carter during the Iran crisis 40 years ago. There are presently national “emergencies” covering everything from vessels in Cuba to democratic processes in Zimbabwe, from exports to cyberwarfare and narcotics trafficking.

National emergencies have long been a tool used by presidents to grow executive power and enable presidential action at the expense of congressional deliberation. In the 1970s, when Congress was concerned about executive power in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War, the National Emergencies Act was passed and signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976. However, the law did not limit presidential emergencies as intended. Beginning with President Bill Clinton, who invoked 17 national emergencies, government by national emergency has only grown.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson foresaw the likelihood of national emergencies becoming a favored tool of the executive branch when the court reviewed President Harry Truman’s emergency declaration taking over steel factories. Jackson wrote, in the 1952 Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. vs. Sawyer, that the “Founders knew what emergencies were, knew the pressures they engender for authoritative action, knew, too, how they afford a ready pretext for usurpation.” Jackson added, “We may also suspect that they suspected that emergency powers would tend to kindle emergencies.”

By now, with nearly 30 national emergencies in effect at all times, we can say that Jackson was right. Presidents find emergencies where they want to act unilaterally, either because Congress is too slow or it is opposed to what the president wants to do. Professor Kim Lane Scheppele rightly concludes that national emergencies are “like a toggle switch, and when the President flips it, he gets new powers.” Legal expert Patrick Thronson points out that “each emergency activates powers in over 160 provisions of statutory law, dozens of presidential orders, and numerous other federal regulations.”

National emergencies, then, have become a weapon in the presidential pursuit of greater power. Alongside their close cousin — declaring war on domestic policy problems such as poverty, crime, terror, energy consumption and drugs — it has skewed the system away from deliberation and toward unilateral executive action. The increase in the use of presidential executive orders is yet one more arsenal in this steady expansion of presidential power at the expense of Congress.

But national emergencies also remind us that executive power has grown not only because of the ambitions of presidents but also because Congress has passively complied. The National Emergencies Act calls upon Congress to vote every six months on whether a national emergency declaration should continue, and this they have failed to do. Congress also has spending and oversight powers it could exercise in national emergencies, but it rarely does.

It would be difficult to argue that something as complex as immigration has suddenly, overnight, become a national emergency requiring unilateral presidential action. It would be more accurate to say that politicians have been arguing for years about what approach to take to complex issues such as Dreamers, the families of immigrants, illegal immigrants performing valuable services, and so on. It is this failure to address a complex set of issues and reach agreement that is the problem, not a sudden change in conditions of the sort that would lead to an emergency declaration.

The national emergency question, then, is not merely about immigration. It is fundamentally about executive power and the role of Congress. If we are prepared to say one more time that Congress is not important and should not be engaged in major immigration policy then, sure, why not have one more national emergency?

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.


Popular Vote Power Play (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) January 4, 2019

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This is David Davenport of the Hoover Institution for Townhall.com.

Democrats are frustrated that they have lost the presidency in the Electoral College twice in the 21stcentury.  But instead of amending the Constitution, they are going to courts and state legislatures.

Four lawsuits claim that votes for the losing candidate in a winner-take-all electoral vote are not counted equally as required by the 14th Amendment.  Of course all the votes are counted at the state level, as the Constitution provides, so this should be a losing argument, but these days who knows?

At the same time they seek to pass the National Popular Vote Bill in state legislatures requiring electors to cast votes for the winner, not of their state vote, but of the national popular vote.

If you want to change the Constitutional requirement of electoral voting, it should be done by a proper amendment, not an end run or a legal power play.

I’m David Davenport.


Obamacare Remains an Unsettled Law, and Will Continue to Be (Washington Examiner) December 18, 2018

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Have you noticed that some laws seem to settle the matter in question while others do not? Some expected Republican President Dwight Eisenhower to reverse Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s sweeping New Deal initiatives, including Social Security, but he did not. President Richard Nixon accepted his predecessor President Lyndon Johnson’s vast expansion of the welfare state with Medicare and his war on poverty.

But Obamacare? Not so much. Even though the bill came into law in 2010, Congress has held more than 70 votes to repeal it in whole or significant part, and dozens of court cases have continued to challenge it, including the recent decision by a federal judge in Texas to declare it unconstitutional as revised.

Simply passing a law and seeing it signed by the president was obviously not enough to settle Obamacare. Similarly, though the Supreme Court declared abortion legal in 1973, it has continued to be challenged in both state legislatures and courts. Meanwhile, major legislation such as the adoption of Social Security or Medicare have become settled law. What, then, contributes to an issue being settled or not settled in public policy?

One large factor that has left Obamacare unsettled is that it was enacted with no Republican support. Whereas Social Security, Medicare, and even civil rights were all adopted with bipartisan support, Obamacare was passed on a purely party line vote of Democrats. As the car mechanic in an old repair commercial used to say, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” Applied here, the choice faced by presidents and legislatures is taking the time and making the compromises necessary for bipartisan support, or forcing something through on a party-line vote. The latter approach leaves the legislation with weak overall support, and an invitation for a later Congress or president to challenge or change it.

We now live in a time when Congress is sufficiently divided and weak, and little actual deliberation or action occurs there. Presidents are tempted to use executive orders or party-line votes to get things done. Courts now decide many of the important social questions of our day, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Again, those weaker forms of action that do not build a strong, bipartisan constituency often do not settle the matter, and the war continues. The key to a strong policy is the consent of the people, and that comes through bipartisan support in the legislature, not in unilateral action by one president, nine judges, or a single political party.

The leads to a second reason why Obamacare is unsettled: We live in a time of political warfare in which everything is subject to attack. Rather than compromise, political leaders are willing to see the government shut down to get their way. Major bills are held by party leaders in secret and then sprung on the Senate for quick passage. The Senate review of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination reached a point of no-holds-barred open warfare. One can only hope that public policy as war has not become the new normal in our nation’s capital.

Yet a third reason why Obamacare is still unsettled is that it relied on the states for execution, without involving the states in the process. It imposes significant new Medicaid costs on the states, and engages them deeply in carrying out the law. Consequently, states have been major players in bringing legal challenges to Obamacare. At the same time, the individual mandate was a sweeping change that invited further challenges. Remaking the nation’s entire healthcare system in this way made it virtually certain that the field would be unsettled for years, perhaps longer.

Sweeping change demands lengthy deliberation and strong, bipartisan support. If you want to cut short the political deliberative process (relying instead on a court decision, an executive order, or a party-line vote) you may win the battle, but the war continues, with similar tactics used against the new law.

Obamacare is not settled and may not be for a good, long while.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Democrats are Making the Same Mistake Politicians Have Made for Decades (Washington Examiner) December 13, 2018

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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It’s such a classic mistake that it’s difficult to understand why politicians keep making it. They win an election and proceed to overplay their so-called mandate, setting themselves up for failure and positioning their opponents for a rebound. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both did it, and now Democrats are taking their turn after winning a majority in the House of Representatives (while Republicans still hold the Senate and the White House).

First came Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., borrowing a term from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and calling for a revolutionary “first hundred days” for the Congress. All he wants is “Medicare for all,” free college tuition, relief for student debt, a $15 minimum wage and, like the late-night television commercials, wait there’s more. Not to be outdone, the new socialist congresswoman, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wants no less than a “Green New Deal,” proposing a “national industrial, economic mobilization plan for the transition of the U.S. economy.” She also wants “Medicare for all” and the $15 minimum wage and, while we’re at it, let’s abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Meanwhile in my home state of California, Democrats introduced bills on day one of the post-election legislative session seeking universal early childhood education, Medi-Cal for illegal immigrants, a free second year of community college, and all manner of other proposals to spend the state’s $15 billion surplus — and quickly, lest it go away in a new recession. The only question is whether Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, will follow his predecessor Jerry Brown as the adult in the room, keeping a damper on new spending.

History has not been kind to newly elected officials pursuing dramatic policy changes. Clinton thought he had a mandate in 1993 and went after major healthcare reform, only to be sent home empty-handed. In 2004, George W. Bush famously said he had earned “political capital” in his victory and “now I intend to spend it.” His pet project was Social Security reform, including privatized accounts, and after several months of declining poll numbers and congressional resistance, he backed down.

Political scientists have pointed out the folly of these so-called mandates, starting with Robert A. Dahl’s article, “Myth of the Presidential Mandate” in 1990. The myth is that a vote for the president means the people want whatever policies the president seeks, and that Congress should play along. Alas, life in Washington does not work that way. As political scientists David Brady and Craig Volden point out in their book Revolving Gridlock (2006), the real test of a major reform is whether the median senator (#50 on the conservative-liberal scale) and the median member of Congress (#218) would support the reform. If not, “attempts at dramatic change … will fail,” they conclude.

By that test, all of this pie-in-the-sky legislation will surely fail. Only President Roosevelt has carried out dramatic policy change in the last 100 years, and that was in the wake of the Great Depression. Perhaps politicians like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez think the Great Recession will be enough to fuel a new New Deal, but that song will not play in Washington, especially in this polarized federal government. The only real case for the bold Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez proposals is to use their ideas rhetorically in an effort to reposition the Democratic Party. They might succeed in that battle, but it will likely cause the party to lose the war in the next election.

So, Democrats, knock yourselves out. Order up new legislation with those eyes too big for your stomachs. Proceed, as they say in football, to outkick your coverage. Make haste toward that bridge too far. Overreach your limited electoral mandate. Try to out-Roosevelt Franklin Roosevelt and create your own green or new New Deal.

It will prove again what politicians should have learned by now — there is no electoral mandate for major policy change.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:



Bypassing the Constitution Wasn’t Enough–Popular Vote Fanatics Resort to Lawsuits to Get Their Way (Washington Examiner) November 28, 2018

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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One of America’s oldest colleges is under legal attack. No, I don’t mean Harvard University and the lawsuit over its admissions policies. The Electoral College is under attack, facing lawsuits filed in four separate federal courts this year, while also the subject of a stealth attack in state legislatures across the country. A concerted effort to change presidential voting from the constitutional elector system to a national popular vote would accomplish this through the courts and a clever end run rather than through legislatures and a proper constitutional amendment.

Although the Electoral College has faced more than 700 attempts to reform or eliminate it, passions run high now because in two recent elections (2000 and 2016) presidents were elected who had lost the national popular vote. This has happened only four times in our history, ironically twice in a twelve-year period in the late 1800s and now twice in the young 21st century. In all the other elections (save one decided in the House of Representatives), the same candidate won the popular vote and electoral vote. That’s a pretty good record (unless your name is Al Gore or Hillary Clinton).

The lawsuits seem thin, legally. Each case, brought in federal courts in two blue states (California and Massachusetts) and two red states (Texas and South Carolina), charges that the winner-take-all vote through the Electoral College denies a citizen’s right to an equal vote under the “one person, one vote” principles of the 14th Amendment. In their view, if you vote and lose, your vote did not count because it was not ultimately represented in the Electoral College. But the Constitution provides that presidential elections are a series of state elections, and that’s where the votes are counted. Your vote was counted, all right — it was just a losing vote in a state-based election.

What these suits really attack is the winner-take-all aspect of electoral voting and, under the Constitution, that is a policy for states to make. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, allocate their electoral votes by congressional district, reflecting the mix of red and blue one might find in a given state. The others allocate their votes on a winner-take-all basis, which has produced high stakes presidential campaigns in a few battleground states. But the right way to change that is to persuade more state legislatures to follow the Maine and Nebraska approach, not to ask the federal courts to take over one more state policy decision.

If the Electoral College lawsuits are a search for federal judicial mandates rather than persuasion and deliberation in state legislatures, the National Popular Vote Bill seeks a similar result through stealth and constitutional cleverness. This bill, being passed by state legislatures, seeks to obligate electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote, even when it differs from the state’s own election winner. So far, the bill has passed in 12 states (including the District of Columbia) with their 172 electoral votes. When enough states have passed the law to total the needed 270 votes to elect a president, the legal obligation for those states’ electors to vote according to the national popular vote comes into effect. It is a clever attempt to get around the constitutional electoral system, pure and simple.

The Electoral College was intended to provide a role for both the states and the people to elect their president, a hybrid system reflected throughout the checks, balances, and separations of power in our federal system. Today it plays an important role in preventing a national recount and it requires candidates to campaign around the country, not just in the major population centers. In the name of greater fairness, proponents of changing to a national popular vote have pursued their own brand of unfairness. Through lawsuits, they seek federal judicial mandates rather than persuading state legislatures of the best policy. Moreover, through a clever end run, they seek to undo the Electoral College without a proper constitutional amendment.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.


To read the column at the Washington Examiner:




States are Experimenting with Voting Systems–Some Work Better than Others (Washington Examiner) November 12, 2018

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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Although the 2018 elections were held last week, the madness continues. As it was in the 2000 presidential election, Florida is once again embroiled in recounts for both its gubernatorial and Senate races, accompanied by allegations of lost and stolen ballots and lawsuits. Meanwhile Maine’s secretary of state is overseeing a complex instant runoff process to decide one of that state’s congressional seats. Other races around the country have been too close to call now for days.

What few people realize is that the election for federal offices, including not only the House and Senate but also the presidency, are actually 51 separate state (and District of Columbia) elections, all with their own rules and procedures. Under the Constitution, the “times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof” (Article I, Section 4), which means there are variations across the country.

In Florida, for example, a state law enacted after the chaos of the 2000 presidential election requires a recount when margins of victory are 0.5 percent or less. If, following a machine ballot recount, there is still a margin of 0.25 percent or less, a manual recount is ordered. Twenty states plus the District of Columbia have such automatic recount provisions, each with its own triggering margin. Most states allow a recount to be requested, though in a few a lawsuit would be required to challenge an election.

While Florida engages in its bruising recounts and lawsuits, Maine is undertaking a more clinical “instant runoff” through its “ranked choice” system of voting. Rather than voting for one candidate, Maine voters rank all the candidates. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes, the last-place candidate is dropped and the results are then recalculated, which could go on for several rounds. In Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, none of the four candidates received 50 percent of the vote, so the process is underway, with memory sticks and paper ballots all being rounded up. Maine’s secretary of state acknowledged that a “tortured, long journey” is now “going to get a little longer.” While Maine is the only state to use ranked voting, several cities in California and elsewhere use it in local elections.

Another state peculiarity rose up in California again this year when voters in the general election were faced with either two Democrats or two Republicans — for example, Democrat Dianne Feinstein running for re-election to the Senate against Democrat Kevin de Leon. In 2010, California voters approved a proposition establishing a top-two primary in which the two biggest vote-getters in the primary advanced to the general election, regardless of party. In a few conservative strongholds in the state, that may mean two Republicans running, although in blue California it is more often two Democrats. Experts argued that the top-two primary would lead to more moderate and centrist candidates. So far, there has been little evidence of that, but it has reduced voter choice. I call the options in the last two Senate elections there “left and lefter.”

One of the more promising electoral experiments is in Nebraska and Maine where, in the presidential race, they assign electoral votes by congressional district rather than winner-takes-all. This seems to reflect more accurately the purple color of many districts in the country, rather than exaggerate the reds and blues. A more radical approach is the National Popular Vote Bill, adopted in 11 states plus the District of Columbia representing 172 electoral votes. If that bill is passed by enough states to represent the 270 electoral votes needed to elect a president, those states will be obligated to cast all their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote, even if that nominee lost the state — an obvious end run around a constitutional amendment to change the electoral system.

The states are still what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called “laboratories of democracy,” where experiments may be conducted with lower risk. As we are learning again in 2018, some of these voting experiments work better than others.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.




To view the column at the Washington Examiner:  https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/states-are-experimenting-with-voting-systems-some-work-better-than-others

What’s at Stake in the 2018 Elections (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) October 26, 2018

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435 House and 33 Senate seats.  36 governorships.  6,665 state offices and tens of thousands of local ones.  And you ask what’s at stake in the 2018 elections?

There’s more: important ballot measures like the gas tax in California, carbon emissions in Washington, Medicaid expansion and voting rights.

Beyond the direct effects of your vote lie other questions.  If we split the House and Senate, will anything be passed in the next two years?  Even though Donald Trump is not on the ballot, this election will largely be a referendum on his performance.

It’s embarrassing but, according to the Pew Research Center, voter turnout in the U.S. is only 26th out of 32 democratic countries.

Isn’t there enough at stake for you to vote?  Believe me, this is not a year to be disengaged.  Turn out and do your part.


Trump: A Presidency Perpetually In Search of a “Better Deal” (Washington Examiner) October 25, 2018

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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President Franklin Roosevelt had his “New Deal” and Harry Truman his “Fair Deal,” both of which were anchored in philosophical ideas about American domestic and economic policy. As we near the end of two years of Trump’s presidency, it seems fair to characterize his non-philosophical approach to governing as a continuous search for a “better deal.”

What underlies President Trump’s policy toward one of America’s most dangerous enemies abroad, Iran, for example? It continues to be based on his campaign observation that the nuclear agreement struck with Iran was “a disastrous deal.” His approach does not derive from any international grand strategy or understanding of the role Iran plays in the world. It is simply a bad deal, and we need to get out of it, presumably to work toward some unspecified better deal.

An even more obvious application of Trump’s “better deal” philosophy has been his approach to tariffs. Republicans have long argued for free trade and no tariffs, so Trump was off the script when he began blowing up trade agreements—first the TPP and then NAFTA—and imposing tariffs on friends and enemies alike. But as this has played out, it turns out that he is not so much interested in tariffs as he is in using tariffs to negotiate better deals, one nation or region at a time: Mexico, Canada, the European Union and soon others. Of course, the negotiating may stop at the Chinese border, and isolating China economically may be the end game for his tariff negotiations.

To negotiate better deals, of course, one must first undo existing deals, and that is where Trump the disruptor is unlike any president we have seen. He proclaimed the Paris climate change pact “an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the benefit of other countries” and poof, we were gone in a flash. The Iran nuclear deal, involving seven countries over two years of negotiations, was declared by Trump a “horrible, one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made” as he led America out the door. In one of his first actions as president, he pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership and famously declared NAFTA “the worst trade deal” ever entered into by the U.S. He told our allies “NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” leaving them to wonder whether we would even withdraw from that defense pact. Trump’s recent declaration that he wanted to pull out of the INF nuclear deal with Russia seems to be following this same disruptor path.

Does a president have the constitutional power to withdraw from international agreements? The Constitution gives the president the power to enter into treaties with the consent of two-thirds of the Senate, but it is silent on the question of where the power resides to withdraw from treaties. When Congress approves trade agreements, it has never explicitly given the president power to undo them. On one hand, Congress clearly has the power to “regulate commerce,” but Congress has been yielding its powers to the president on a whole list of things, including its war powers, for decades. It would be an interesting constitutional question, but with the presidency in the ascendancy and Congress in decline, such a difficult question might not even be raised.

Then remains the ultimate question: Can Trump not only undo bad deals but also make “better deals?” That is the question by which Trump’s foreign policy may ultimately be judged. Bilateral negotiations on tariffs may be easier to accomplish, though the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is not being hailed as an unqualified success. But any new deals involving NATO or Iran or Russia on matters of national defense and nuclear weapons are far more complex and require a patient, long-term diplomatic approach that the Trump administration has not yet demonstrated.

So far, the author of The Art of the Deal is largely in search of a series of “better deals” for America. It seems clear that Trump is willing and able to undo deals, but less clear whether he can bring about better ones.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Time’s Up: Brett Kavanaugh Chaos is Why the Supreme Court Needs Term Limits (Washington Examiner) October 3, 2018

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The Founders of our republic would be shocked because, according to Federalist No. 78, they saw the judiciary as “beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments” of the federal government. Having the power of neither the sword nor the purse, the role of the courts was to be minimal. By now, however, the Supreme Court makes the most important social decisions, and many of the biggest economic ones, of our day. With gridlock in Congress, you can nevertheless count on the high court to decide hard questions, and most of the difficult ones make it there.

It is fair to say the Founders would also have been surprised that a lifetime appointment might some day mean 30-40 years on the court. Justice Anthony Kennedy recently retired after 30 years on the court, and Justices Clarence Thomas at 27 years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg at 25, and Stephen Breyer at 24 are close behind. Most acknowledge that William O. Douglas, who served the longest of any Supreme Court justice (37 years), was not entirely capable late in his term.

In the last 100 years, the average tenure of a justice was 17 years, and it will doubtless be twice that in the near future. As people live longer and retire later, it is partly the natural course of things, but as contentious and important as the selections are politically, presidents choose younger justices (Neil Gorsuch was 49, Brett Kavanaugh 53) who can serve longer and extend their political legacy. Justices generally do not retire unless their party of choice is in the White House to appoint a favorable replacement.

I am not a fan of term limits, generally. I believe they limit the right of the people to vote for whom they wish. But the people are not voting for Supreme Court justices. Further, in my view, there are not sufficient checks on the power of the Supreme Court so term limits, or even age limits, make more sense. There are several interesting proposals out there to do this. Staggered terms of 18 years, after which a judge could return to another court within the federal judiciary, is one of the better ideas. In effect, a president would be choosing a new Supreme Court justice every two years, greatly reducing the political pressure and all-out warfare we see today. Justices would not be serving 30-40 years, often well past their prime.


The high stakes and contentious Supreme Court appointment process we now have is clearly dysfunctional. One silver lining from the dark Kavanaugh appointment cloud should be serious attention to term limits for Supreme Court justices.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:  https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/times-up-brett-kavanaugh-chaos-is-why-the-supreme-court-needs-term-limits

Kids Don’t Know Enough About Civics–But This Could Save Them (Washington Examiner) September 22, 2018

Posted by daviddavenport in Education, Op/Eds.
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An important life was cut short this week in Ashland, Ohio, when 44-year-old Roger Beckett passed away. As executive director of the Ashbrook Center, Roger’s noble goal was nothing less than saving the republic by strengthening America’s anemic approach to civic education. The tool he chose to do this was both surprising and powerful: training and retraining teachers of history and civics to teach using primary documents.

Roger had followed the normal course to prepare himself to be a teacher, completing a master’s degree in one of our nation’s notable schools of education. But he finished the program dispirited and discouraged about teacher preparation. He felt he had been taught the wrong things — techniques of teaching, but not the subject matter he was to impart. Did you know that high school teachers of history or civics (or math or science for that matter) may have studied very little of those topics themselves? That was lesson one for Roger’s campaign to reinvent civic education: Teachers need to know and be excited about their subject.

Roger was also disheartened by the boring and biased textbooks used to teach American history. Textbooks manage to take spirited debates about turning points in our history and turn them into a few paragraphs of dry summary material. Some textbooks (such as the widely used People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn) are so skewed politically as to lose all objectivity and undercut students’ appreciation for their country. As one of the Ashbrook Center’s teachers, Gordon Lloyd, has said, “It’s hard to love an ugly founding,” which is what textbooks such as Zinn’s portray. Augmenting or even replacing these textbooks with more exciting and straightforward historical material became plank two in Roger’s civic education platform.

By the time we realized there was a civic education problem, Roger and his colleagues were hard at work. They began training hundreds of teachers on the campus of Ashland University in Ohio to teach using primary documents, and then thousands of teachers around the country in weekend seminars called “Rediscovering America.” Teachers read documents of the period they are studying. Not only traditional documents such as the Constitution, but also speeches, debates, and articles written by participants in the history, and the documents bring to life important issues of that time. Participants are then encouraged to draw their own conclusions, not that of some textbook author or editor, about history. Then, teachers are prepared to take that approach to teaching back to their own students, multiplying the effect of the training many times over.

Think how much more interesting history would be if students understood and entered into the debates of the time. It reminds me of books I used to devour as a kid myself, the We Were There series, taking a child like me into the life and times of historic events. Imagine how relevant it could be to debate the causes and solutions to the Great Depression in times of modern economic difficulty, to finally understand how valuable it could be in our time of political polarization, as we topple statues and erase names from history without truly knowing their life and times, to enter into the study of American history without our 21st century glasses.

We live in a day when only 23 percent of our students test at the level of basic proficiency in American history and only 18 percent in government. A mere 1-2 percent reach the advanced level on tests. Students cannot name one of their home state senators, and many believe Judy Sheindlin (Judge Judy) is on the Supreme Court. Polls show young people increasingly discouraged about and disengaged from our democracy.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner ‘s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

To view the column at the Washington Examiner: