1. Archive

Don't know much about democracy

Published Feb. 26, 2006

Ignorance is dragging down democracy. Most Americans are increasingly on automatic pilot, paying less attention to each new war, each new power grab, each new presidential assertion. But citizens need not slavishly follow every public debate in order to tilt the playing field against demagoguery.

The typical voter fails to comprehend even the basics of government. Most Americans do not know the name of their representative in the House, the length of terms of House or Senate members, or what the Bill of Rights purportedly guarantees, according to surveys by the University of Michigan.

A survey by the Polling Company after the 2002 congressional election revealed that less than one-third of Americans knew "that the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives prior to the election." Almost two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice, according to another Polling Company survey.

An American Bar Association poll last summer found that barely half of respondents recognized the three branches of the federal government, and even fewer knew what "separation of powers" meant. Yet, that issue goes to the heart of controversies including the recently disclosed wiretapping program and congressional meddling in the Terri Schiavo case.

Power grabs by politicians are rarely accompanied by multiple-choice questions for the benefit of citizens. Instead, when the president is seizing new power, he can deploy his prestige and top advisers with focus-group-tested phrases. The president can address the nation in choreographed settings with hand-picked audiences guaranteed to applaud. Few citizens have the knowledge (or the self-confidence) to resist such tidal waves.

The number of government agencies that can accost, prohibit, tax, impound, impede, detain, subpoena, confiscate, search, indict, fine, audit, interrogate, wiretap, sanction and otherwise harass and subjugate citizens or their property and rights has skyrocketed. But few citizens have made a corresponding buildup of knowledge of their rights and government processes. It takes more than invocations of high school civics lessons to rescue ordinary people in the bureaucratic cross hairs.

With the rise of the Internet, it has become much easier to find politicians' speeches, proposed new laws and media reports and analyses of government policies. Still, people probably spend a hundred times longer online checking out pornography sites than they do tracking down government abuses.

It is unrealistic to expect the typical American to become a devoted reader of the Congressional Record or of Supreme Court decisions - to say nothing of the footnotes in dissenting opinions. But the political system can be improved even if most citizens don't immerse themselves in the arcana of government.

The key is not the raw amount of data ingested, but a more enlightened attitude. An ounce of skepticism is worth a shelf of Federal Registers. The U.S. system of government functioned fairly well in its early decades partly because citizens were wary of politicians offering favors.

The more deference government receives, the more damage politicians can inflict. Government has expanded in recent decades in part because many people forgot the perils of permitting some people to acquire sweeping power over them. Americans should recall why Thomas Jefferson trumpeted the need to "bind" all rulers "down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

But even with the right attitude, Americans must read more about political developments and pay closer attention - especially when politicians raise the stakes with saber-rattling for war or propose sweeping new laws. Reading the Bill of Rights takes less time than watching a Super Bowl halftime show. If people don't know the basic rules of the game, they will be oblivious when the government fouls them.

Even if the majority continues to be apathetic about almost all political issues, the rise of a savvier minority can make a difference. Every 1 percent of the population that understands and opposes unjust policies sharply raises the cost of political abuse. Remembering past political falsehoods and follies can stack the deck in favor of prudence and liberty.

In 1693, William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, declared, "Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed." Penn's words should make Americans recognize the choice between knowledge and subjugation. People must either better understand government and politicians, or kiss their remaining rights and liberties goodbye.

James Bovard is the author, most recently, of Attention Deficit Democracy.

Special to Newsday; distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service