As a wave of liberty seems poised to topple historically authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, the possibility of democracy in Egypt or Libya should compel us to look in the mirror, at our own experiment with republicanism more than two centuries later. Even as we embrace the possibility of reform overseas, we neglect civics as the core of democracy here at home.
Two years into the Obama administration, high-level commissions have addressed a variety of key issues facing the country, from our crippling deficits to the BP oil spill and the meltdown of the financial system. But we are in desperate need of yet one more: a Presidential Civics Commission.
Such a body would be charged with confronting the problem few want to talk about: the alarming ignorance of millions of Americans about politics and government. Studies show that a majority of Americans cannot name the three branches of government. Only one in five know the Senate has a hundred members. And only one in seven young people can find Iraq on a map.
The real-world consequences of this ignorance became abundantly clear during the debate over the decision to go to war with Iraq. In January 2003, three months before our invasion of Iraq, the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that a majority of Americans falsely believed that "Iraq played an important role in 9/11."
Over the next year and a half, polls indicated that a persistent 57 percent believed that Saddam Hussein was helping al-Qaida at the time we were attacked. In the spring of 2004, the 9/11 Commission flatly stated that Hussein had not provided support to al-Qaida. The commission's findings received saturation coverage. Nonetheless, in August of the same year, according to a PIPA poll, 50 percent were still insisting that Hussein had given "substantial" support to al-Qaida.
Suffice it to say most Americans aren't committed to attending town hall meetings, political assemblies or rallies. Perhaps some people subscribe to the belief that one town hall doesn't matter.
But the series of meetings and delegations of citizens that founded our country suggest that in a republic participation is vital. It's the political equivalent of the talking cure. Talking about our problems helps us come to terms with them.
A Presidential Civics Commission would galvanize the vibrant civic leaders already engaged in grass roots volunteer and professional training across the country. More important, it would draw attention to the problem and suggest the tools teachers and families can use to bolster civic engagement.
Just one example of why this is so necessary: In the election that led up to today's runoff in Tampa, the lowest turnout across the entire city was on the campus of the University of South Florida. Of 1,422 registered voters in USF's two precincts, just seven voted on March 1 — less than one-half of one percent.
America's disconcerting civic deficiencies show up in every state in the union. According to the National Civic Index, in every state polled from North Carolina to Ohio to California, no more than 30 percent of the citizenry participate in a nonelectoral political event each year.
One explanation is that citizens are so ill-informed that they are embarrassed — and have little motivation — to participate. In terms of the practical know-how required in order for a republic to thrive, we are, at best, uneducated, and, at worst, happily oblivious as we amuse ourselves to death, as author Neil Postman put it decades ago.
President Barack Obama should join the National Conference on Citizenship and its partnerships with state nonprofits in their calls to strengthen national and state civic traditions. As he travels around the country, he should promote civic engagement and celebrate the people who volunteer their time on behalf of their communities.
It is time to bridge the disconnect between the voter and her government. The backbone of American democracy is gradually deteriorating, and a Presidential Civics Commission is needed now more than ever.
Rick Shenkman, a New York Times bestselling author and associate professor of history at George Mason University, is vice of president of Vote IQ. Alexander Heffner, a junior at Harvard, is director of Scoop Seminar, a civics and journalism education program he designed and teaches.