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The International Criminal Court Plays Politics In Palestine (Washington Times) February 17, 2021

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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The International Criminal Court will celebrate its 20th birthday next year. It was touted at its founding as a permanent judicial solution to mass cases of injustice such as the genocide in Rwanda and war crimes in the Balkans in the 1990s. This aspect of the new court’s work has certainly been disappointing as it approaches 20 years and $2 billion of expenses with a handful of convictions of African warlords to show for it.

Beyond its legal agenda, from its inception the ICC has had a political one as well. The political designs of the ICC took a big step forward recently when it decided it had jurisdiction over alleged war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank, potentially bringing Israeli soldiers before the court. This controversial decision flies in the face of international law, but drives right up the middle of the political agenda of the court to bring military powers such as Israel and the United States under its jurisdiction.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly called out the court as a “political body and not a judicial institution.” U.S. State Department representative Ned Price correctly pointed out that Palestine is not a sovereign state and therefore it was not qualified to call for an ICC investigation. Not everyone agrees, of course. Human Rights Watch called the decision “pivotal,” as it finally offers victims of serious crimes some legal recourse. It’s pivotal alright, but pivots in the wrong direction.

When the court was formed, the plan had been for cases to be taken up when they involved state parties to the treaty creating the court. This is one of the limitations of international law, requiring agreement from sovereign nations to be acted upon. There was also a way for cases to be referred to the court by the U.N. Security Council.

But late in the negotiations, a group of small and medium-sized nations joined with aggressive human rights groups to take the court in a much more expansive direction. In the end, cases could be brought for crimes on the territory of nations that were members of the court, regardless of the nationality of those committing them. And an independent prosecutor would have the power to bring cases.   

These aggressive changes to the structure of the court caused the U.S., an early proponent of the court, to drop out and even today, some 70 nations have not joined the court, including the U.S., Israel and other world powers. This must not surprise the founders of the court because they intentionally pursued an aggressive and independent direction, saying they wanted “a court worth having.” A court worth having meant one that could come after the U.S., Israel and other nations that had significant military deployments.   

The court has rattled its sword over alleged American war crimes in Afghanistan, but it has not taken the bold step of bringing cases against Americans there. Israel, however, sometimes finds itself a proxy for the U.S., a younger brother easier to pick on. The recent 2-1 decision of a three-judge panel of the ICC does just that, advising the prosecutor of the court that the ICC does have jurisdiction over alleged war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank, so now the fuller political agenda of the ICC is in play.

There is more politics here, too, namely the politics of the Middle East peace process. Palestine has long angled to be accepted as a state, but its statehood has been wrapped up in the larger peace negotiations. As a consequence, Palestine has tried to join any number of international organizations to bolster its case, signing on to the treaty of the ICC in 2015. That, too, was objectionable, since only states may join the court.

To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, the International Criminal Court’s larger agenda is politics by other means. Its decision to allow cases against Israelis, whose nation is intentionally not a member of the court, violates international law and is politics by other means. It must be opposed.     

To read the column at the Washington Times:


Banning the Teaching of the 1619 Project is the Wrong Solution to a Real Problem (Washington Examiner) February 15, 2021

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Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) may have referred to the ancient practice of bloodletting when he famously said, “Sometimes the remedy is worse than the disease.”

We need not go that far here, but new laws proposed in five states to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project are the wrong solution to a very real problem. The New York Times introduced the 1619 Project in 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in the American colonies. Its goals were not modest. The project seeks to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery … at the very center of our national narrative.” The project sought to redefine the founding of America to 1619, with its economic system of slavery, rather than in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence or the 1787 signing of the Constitution.

The project has had a surprising impact on the teaching of history. The Pulitzer Center, which has collaborated with the project to offer lesson plans to teachers, reports that more than 4,000 teachers from all 50 states are teaching their materials. It is reminiscent of Howard Zinn’s infamous textbook, A People’s History of the United States, which was introduced in 1980 as an alternative telling of the American story, one that emphasized the sins and errors of the founders and leaders, and has become a widely used, even mainstream, text.

The political nature of the 1619 Project was recognized immediately, with President Donald Trump appointing a “1776 Commission” to reassert the primacy of the Declaration in America’s founding. Sen. Tom Cotton introduced the “Saving American History Act” to remove federal monies used to teach 1619 materials and ideas. Cotton called the 1619 Project a “racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded.” Now five states, Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota, have seen bills introduced to block state funding also.

The problems with the 1619 Project and these proposed state laws are legion, but let’s start by acknowledging that we do a terrible job of teaching civics and history in schools.

In the most recent “Nation’s Report Card” testing, only 24% of eighth-graders tested “proficient” or better in U.S. history, a mere 15% in civics and government. So, before states put energy into the politics of history, they need to prioritize teaching the basics of history and civics. Standardized testing in reading, science, technology, engineering, and math education have all but pushed civics out of the curriculum. As I outlined in a recent report, states need to mandate the teaching of history and civics, not only in high school but in the elementary and middle school as well. The federal government should be embarrassed that it spends $54 per student annually on STEM education and only 5 cents on civics!

A further problem with politicizing the teaching of history is that we basically have adults working out their politics on the backs of children. As professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University has observed, kids don’t get the interpretive game. We hardly need to subsidize more “presentism” (seeing history through 21st-century glasses) in education. People should also bristle at state governments censoring particular books or ideas. Education is still the responsibility of local government, and such matters should be worked out there. Let states address the larger questions of curriculum and funding without engaging in dueling bills over the particulars.

What we need is what Ronald Reagan called “an informed patriotism.” Neither the 1619 Project nor state bills banning it will get us there.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Elites Battle Over History While Students Fail Basic Civics (Washington Examiner) January 21, 2021

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It’s bad enough that civic education is in the tank. In the most recent national testing, only 24% of 8th graders were “proficient” or better in U.S. history, while a pitiful 15% were proficient in government and civics. Only one-third of Americans can pass the basic citizenship test. Funding for civic education is a pittance, as the federal government spends five cents per student per year on it, while investing $54 per student on STEM (science, technology, education and math) education.

But don’t worry, supposedly the experts have our backs. Their answer is to launch a series of wars over the content of history and civics to be sure that what little students might learn or retain is politically correct.

Nationally, the New York Times weighed in during 2019 with its 1619 Project, aimed at changing the understanding of our founding from the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the signing of the Constitution (1787) to the arrival of the first slaves in 1619. Nevermind that there was no country then being founded because the project sought, above all, to redefine the essence of America as its unjust and discriminatory economic system, not its proclamations of freedom and equality or the primacy of laws.

This week, then, the political football was returned by then-President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which released “The 1776 Report.” This was a product of a hurry-up offense, to be sure, because the commission, composed of conservative academics and activists, was appointed a month ago, whereas most projects of this nature take months or years to complete. Perhaps further time was not really needed to, as the commission put it, “restore” the events of 1776 and the Declaration of Independence as America’s true founding.

The sad truth is that instead of debating how to improve civic education, experts are turning it into a political football. The writer Thomas Mann was evidently describing our day when he said, “Everything is politics.” So what we have increasingly in the teaching of U.S. history and civics is adults fighting their political wars on the battlefield of their children’s education — children who, by the way, need Civics 101, not The Politics of Civics.

The California Legislature is doing its part to improve civic education, debating over the terms of teaching ethnic history. California educators are on their third draft to try to create an ethnic studies curriculum that, instead of celebrating and teaching ethnic heritage, seems to prefer attacking white nationalism, colonialism, and the like. The attempt to incorporate critical ethnic studies has had even proponents of ethnic studies divided and unable to agree on a proper curriculum.

Or consider the California schoolteacher who required third graders to deconstruct their racial profile and identify their “power and privilege” ranking. The teacher, in math no less (everything is politics), explained that they live in a “dominant culture” made up of “white, middle class, cisgender, educated, able-bodied, Christian, English speakers,” all of which is a problem in critical race theory. The parents were aghast, and the battle lines were drawn. This was not high school or college, mind you, but third grade.

The point is that battles over political correctness are not what students need in order to improve their civic education. Our lack of national civic knowledge speaks clearly of the need to learn the basics first. As Professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University has said, younger students “do not get the interpretive game [and] are just learning that claims must be judged not for alignment with current issues of social justice but for the data they present.” It is in college where students are best prepared to read multiple accounts from different perspectives and make comparisons and judgments.

Cancel culture, covering up art, taking down statues, redefining the founding, critical race theory — these are all efforts by highly political adults to rewrite the script of history. Fine, let academics publish their articles and have their debates. Just not on the backs of young students who desperately need to learn the basics.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


The Seeds of Civic Ignorance and Disrespect Reap a Harvest of Misunderstanding and Violence (Washington Examiner) January 13, 2021

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The United States suffers from a pandemic of civic ignorance and a deep deficit of civic respect. Only one in three Americans can pass the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test. A mere 24% of eighth-graders test “proficient” or better in civics and government, while a pitifully low 15% are proficient in U.S. history.

The recent assault on our nation’s capital and the subsequent response should be a wake-up call to the profound consequences of civic ignorance and disrespect.

The assault itself, an act of deep disrespect never seen before, was based on the deeply flawed premise that Congress or the vice president could and should change the outcome of the 2020 presidential electoral vote. The fact is that the meeting in Washington on Jan. 6 was not a session of the so-called Electoral College. In fact, what we call the Electoral College does not exist as a formal body or hold meetings, and it is not even mentioned in the Constitution.

Instead, the civic facts are that our presidential election is really 51 separate elections run by the states and the District of Columbia under the Constitution. These elections choose electors in each state who, in turn, vote for their candidate. Those results are then sent to Congress, and it meets, as it did on Jan. 6, to receive the votes and certify the outcome.

What an act of civic disrespect, then, when protesters scaled the walls of the Capitol and barged into chambers and offices to protest electoral votes that are not even under the control of Congress. If people want to violate the law and risk arrest to make a statement, it behooves them to at least understand whose work they are protesting.

Now the people want Congress to “do something” about removing President Trump from office before his term ends next week, and the first idea brought forward is to use the 25th Amendment. Neither the people nor even members of Congress seem to understand that the amendment is focused on presidential “disability,” not disagreement or lack of trust. The three times it has been invoked involved medical procedures that “disabled” a president, as intended.

If not the 25th Amendment, people want impeachment, apparently without understanding that it is a two-step, lengthy process that would run well beyond the remainder of Trump’s term. Yes, the House can “impeach” by taking a simple vote, but a full trial in the Senate will take weeks, after awaiting the end of the current Senate recess next week. Impeachment is about removing people from office for high crimes and misdemeanors, not just making a political statement after the fact.

This unfortunate chapter in our current history is riddled with civic ignorance and misunderstanding, from citizens and leaders alike. It would be nice if we could send members of Congress to a civics or constitutional law class before they serve. In fact, a colleague has told me he will introduce a ballot proposition in his state to require that political candidates pass a civics test before they qualify to run for office. His intentions are good, but I doubt his measure will be enacted.

What we can do is redouble our efforts toward better civic education in our schools so young people will develop a better understanding of how our republic works before they are in charge of running it. We need a full year of civic education to be required in every state (only nine states require that now). We need to resume teaching civics in elementary and middle schools, from which it has largely disappeared. We need to spend more than 5 cents per student per year on civic education when we are spending $54 per student annually on STEM education.

Yes, our present circumstance is a problem of hyperpartisanship and division. Yet have allowed this to occur because of the failure of civic education. We desperately need to develop, as President Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address, “an informed patriotism” among our people.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


The Best Path Forward Is Bipartisan Statesmanship, Not The 25th Amendment Or Impeachment (Washington Examiner) January 8, 2021

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Americans are bandwagon people, jumping quickly from one opinion to another. Once we jump, we want to fire up the engines and go full speed ahead.

Now, in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, many want to impeach the president right now, or use the 25th Amendment of the Constitution to remove him from office less than two weeks before his scheduled departure.

The fact is that our Founders designed an ocean liner government, not a speedboat. The government is intentionally designed not to take sudden turns or execute instant changes of course. The republic was constructed with all manner of filters, checks and balances, and separations of power, requiring time and deliberation to change course. Our Founders urged that we follow “the cool, deliberate sense of the community” over time, not the passions and factions of the moment.

Impeaching a president requires not just a vote of the House to impeach but a subsequent trial in the Senate. The most recent impeachment trial, of President Trump himself, took approximately three weeks to complete. At five weeks, former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial was even longer.

The notion that a president would be impeached, prepare, and stand for a full trial in less than two weeks (with both chambers on recess and out of town, no less) is simply not realistic. Our system was not built for that kind of speed. It was built for deliberation.

Use of the 25th Amendment is also problematic. It is really designed for a president who is disabled, not one we no longer trust. All three times it has been used involved medical procedures for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Like impeachment, it is also a complicated process that will take time, requiring first a declaration by the vice president, supported by the majority of the Cabinet, that the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Does not liking or trusting how he is discharging them render him “unable?” I doubt it.

Then, the president could dispute the declaration, causing Congress to reconvene and decide the matter (requiring a two-thirds majority vote to find him “disabled”) within 21 days. By then, of course, Biden will be president.

Removing the president promptly, then, is highly unlikely through the push of a constitutional button. But there is another alternative, one that the Founders also contemplated: We will need statesmen and leaders to help guide us through the next two weeks.

We will need Vice President Mike Pence, who stood up and told the president he could not change the electoral vote, and who apparently also called for the National Guard to help quell the riots, to step up. It will mandate that members of Congress worry less about how they look to Trump’s political constituencies and care more about how they lead the republic. It will call for more from Republican Sens. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse, and less from the intemperate Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.

In our time, we think any problem should be fixed immediately, like that truck I saw hauling sod down the freeway with its sign reading, “Instant grassification.” But a democratic republic is a slow, careful, deliberative, sometimes messy business. However, it does respond to the voice of the people, more often through leadership than through structural processes.

We will be healthier in the long run if we survive the next two weeks through greater bipartisanship and leadership rather than through more Senate trials or divisive impeachment and 25th Amendment votes. Let the rational voices stirred by the mob this week, and the steadier leadership we have seen from some of our leaders, see us through.

It’s not only the best way. Given the limited time for the alternatives, it is the only way we will make it.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Wanted: The Third Coming Of Modern Conservatism (Washington Examiner) December 16, 2020

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If “conservatism” is a political noun, it is always in the company of varied adjectives. There are national security conservatives, fiscal conservatives, neoconservatives, social conservatives, reform conservatives, and on we could go. George W. Bush, apparently thinking it was not enough to be just a conservative, campaigned as a “compassionate conservative.” John McCain was a “maverick conservative.”

Yes, one of conservatism’s problems is that it is not a single ideology, able to stand on its own and collect supporters. Rather, it is more in the nature of a tent (sometimes a big tent, other times smaller) with a variety of conservatives jostling for primacy. Especially difficult to reconcile are the liberty conservatives, who believe individual freedom is the bedrock of the conservative philosophy, and the virtue conservatives, who are committed to getting people to do not what they want, but what they ought. Libertarians would be prime examples of the former, with the religious right standing for the latter.

Twice in its history, modern American conservatives have managed to come together and have a real impact. The first was in the 1950s and 1960s when a new publication, National Review, edited by William F. Buckley, managed to speak for most conservatives, fueling conservatism’s rise as a political movement. National Review editor Frank Meyer called it “fusion” conservatism, actively seeking to bring the several strands together. All this was greatly aided by the threat of communism, against which conservatives were eager to unite.

The second coming of modern American conservatism arose in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Reagan, the great communicator and eternal optimist, managed not only to join the various branches of conservatism but also make it appealing to a majority of the country. For the first time, conservatism was not just a viable philosophy and political movement, but a tent big enough and with sufficient comforts to be a home for a majority of the country. Reagan’s optimism about America and its freedoms, and his attacks on big government, came to be accepted by working men and women and by the silent majority.

Since Reagan, it has been a bit of a drought for modern American conservatism. When George H.W. Bush spoke of a “kinder, gentler” conservatism, and George W. Bush of “compassionate conservatism,” those seemed to many conservatives to be hedging their principles, not unifying the movement. President Trump’s disruptive style has not only challenged norms of politics broadly, but also the principles of conservatism. National security conservatives and neoconservatives are nervous as troops leave important outposts in the war on terror. Fiscal conservatives are uncomfortable with abandoning free trade in favor of aggressive tariffs and the dramatic rise of the national debt.

It is time, then, for the third coming, a new rising, of modern American conservatism. But it won’t be easy. The monolithic communist threat that once brought conservatives together has been replaced by a myriad of international challenges. Moreover, there is no obvious Reagan on the horizon, ready to ride into the picture to galvanize his forces.

So, where might conservatives turn? They must again become a movement of ideas, not merely one of disruption. It was a conservative, Richard Weaver, who penned the book Ideas Have Consequences in 1948, and this must again become the conservative mantra. They need to return to notions of free trade and lowering the federal debt. Instead of anti-communism, conservatives should seek to sharpen America’s understanding of the dangers presented by China and articulate a strong response.

They actually have a few political advantages to work from. For one thing, President Joe Biden will seek to build out the welfare state and the federal role in people’s lives, and that gives conservatives a natural focal point to push back against. Conservative control of the Supreme Court will provide some leadership on key issues, especially freedom of religion and social matters.

Basically, conservatives and Republicans need to turn away from governing by disruption to governing by leadership and ideas. That would be a welcome change in our politics and might lead them back to the more unified and mainstream place they held in earlier times.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Californians Frustrated By State Coronavirus Rules Should Look In The Mirror (Washington Examiner) December 10, 2020

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The song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” has taken on new meaning in California, as most of the state has come under a new three-week “stay-at-home” order to slow the rapidly growing spread of COVID-19. Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steele complains that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new order is “not based on science or any clear standards.” The sheriff of Riverside County calls the new mandate “ridiculous” and says his department will not enforce it. Many have been quick to point out the hypocrisy of Newsom dining at the swank French Laundry restaurant with friends while ordering everyone else to stay home.

But hold on here. Is the problem really the governor and his sweeping new order? Or is it the people of California who would not follow previous guidelines and now must face the music? My verdict is the latter.

There has been too little discussion of the underlying issues of individual freedom versus state mandates in the COVID-19 crisis. On one hand, living in a free country means our first impulse should be to give people good information and guidelines but leave them free to make their own decisions. On the other hand, the government bears responsibility for making certain that the hospital and medical systems can handle the flood of cases coming their way. It is on this latter basis that the governor has taken stronger measures, mandating a stay-at-home order in regions where the available ICU bed capacity in hospitals has dropped below 15%. Preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed by sick patients is clearly within the state’s health and safety power.

Let’s be honest here. We came to this point because people were not willing to follow guidelines and take responsible voluntary action. Despite warnings not to travel and gather during the Thanksgiving holidays, millions did, and we now face the consequences: the biggest COVID-19 surge since July. Political leaders such as Newsom didn’t just wake up one morning and say, “I’d like to exert more power and control.” Instead, they were left to respond to the irresponsibility of their own people.

As the old car repair commercial put it, “You can pay me now (preventive maintenance), or you can pay me later (expensive repairs).” Californians would not pay the price of voluntarily staying away from travel and crowds, so now, they pay the higher price of staying home involuntarily for Christmas.

I grant that emergency action is often used too readily by leaders, noting especially how presidents employ hundreds of executive orders to do their bidding. I also understand that governments often do not give up their emergency powers when the crisis has passed. You and I currently live under some 30 states of national emergency declared as far back as the Carter administration and never removed from the books. That is shameful government overreach that ought to be stopped.

But a stay-at-home order based on hospital capacity after voluntary efforts failed to stem the crisis is exactly what government can and should do. A tailored order based on the ICU capacity of hospitals in specific regions of the state further limits the government reach.

When you see people not wearing masks and refusing to distance properly, they are exercising their freedom, yes. But just as the freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins, your freedom not to follow voluntary COVID-19 protocols risks others, not just yourself. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out, shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech when it risks the lives and safety of others. That is where we are with COVID-19.

So, Californians, complain about your governor if you want, but you would do better to look in the mirror. The rest of you, beware the words of Jimmy Carter: “Whatever starts in California, unfortunately, has an inclination to spread.”

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


If Trumpism Survives Trump, It Will Be A Political Coalition, Not An Ideology (Washington Examiner) November 30, 2020

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One of the big questions on the table today is whether Trumpism will survive President Trump’s time in the White House. The short answer is: maybe as a political force, but not as an ideology. In fact, when it comes to Trumpism as a set of policies or beliefs, I am inclined to quote Gertrude Stein, who said of her childhood home in Oakland, California, “There is no there there.”

First, we must admit that there has been surprising political power to Trumpism. It came out of nowhere to take over the Republican Party and win the presidency in 2016, and it rallied over 73 million voters in defeat four years later.

However, as its name implies, Trumpism centers around a person, not a set of ideas. This came home to rest clearly when the Republican Party decided not to bother with a platform in 2020 but just ran back the same one from 2016. We have no new ideas, it effectively admitted. Our platform is whatever Trump thinks when he wakes up and starts tweeting every day. Devoid of a political philosophy, it changes regularly.

The defeat of Trump leaves the field wide open for conservatives to redefine, or at least restate, their principles. Do they believe in smaller government or reducing the federal debt, as they have claimed in the past, or are they prepared to spend and grow the debt as Trump did even before the coronavirus hit? Do they stand behind national security commitments with our allies in the Middle East, or will they continue to bring home troops and stand down as Trump has done? Do they embrace free trade as they did for decades, or are they now committed to tariffs, a la Trump?

Conservatism has not been tried and found wanting in the Trump years. It has barely been tried at all. Admittedly, conservatism is a big tent with lots of factions: national security conservatives, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, Right-leaning libertarians, the religious Right, and more. It could be a fruitful time for conservatives to debate the big ideas of their movement and set a new course for the Republican Party.

Trumpism, on the other hand, is a whole different thing. It is not so much a philosophy as it is a man who, on any given day, is full of opinions and, especially, grievances. And it is especially the grievances that have connected, in a populist sense, with a lot of people in the country who are also unhappy. He wanted to “drain the swamp” in Washington, and many people rallied to that. He was tired of America being taken advantage of in trade deals and by our allies in NATO, and he wanted to stop that. To Trump, a platform is not a set of policies or ideas. It’s something you stand on to rally, tweet, and try to connect with people who are stirred up by the same things that bother you.

Trumpism in the future, then, will not solve any problems or define any new directions for Republicans. It is a political coalition of people with shared frustrations. It requires a person to lead it and, therefore, can survive in only two ways: Either Trump himself runs again for president in 2024 or in some active way holds his coalition together, or another politician recreates himself as the second coming of Trump. A few possibilities come to mind: Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Mike Pompeo.

This is the fork in the road facing Republicans. Either they spend the next couple of years productively discussing and figuring out what they stand for again, or they simply roll over into a new phase of Trumpism. One would hope that redefining conservatism for the 21st century would rule the day, but the temptation to politics over policy, to winning over doing the right thing, is always powerful.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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

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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: