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Can the U.S. Save Democracy Through Civics?

A new poll shows that America's polarization problem is only getting worse.
Protesters clash in Charlottesville, Virginia.

White nationalists clash with counter-protesters on August 12th, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A new Public Religion Research Institute/The Atlantic poll reinforces what's become apparent in the years since President Donald Trump's surprise election victory: American voters are sharply divided by party and race in their perceptions of the country's core democratic values. But the discontinuity extends beyond issues like police violence and racial and socioeconomic inequality; it's who Americans hold responsible for corrupting the country in the first place. While Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to say corporations and rich people exercise outsized influence over American democracy (82 percent vs. 42 percent), those numbers are reversed when it comes to questions of media bias (41 percent vs. 81 percent).

"In one version of America, the country is headed in the totally wrong direction. Billionaires control politics. Foreign governments meddle in elections. And not enough people vote to demand a change," The Atlantic's Emma Green reports. "In the other America, things are looking up, particularly with a good president in office. But some civic functions are still broken—especially the media, which is politically biased against certain candidates."

The PRRI/The Atlantic survey also reveals a frightening degree of ignorance around the electoral process. More than a quarter of Americans (26 percent) said they simply don't know if citizenship (which PRRI dubs "perhaps the most basic question of voter eligibility") is a requirement to actually cast their vote. This comes on top of polls that show a significant portion of Americans know nothing about the Constitution or the Supreme Court, or that the Bill of Rights guarantees a right to a trial by jury. Americans have their rights bestowed upon them by birth, but most cannot pass a citizenship test, let alone grapple with concepts like voter suppression.

"Americans' lack of understanding of their state's voting laws is alarming for a mature democracy such as ours and indicates a broad need for civic education," said PRRI chief executive Robert P. Jones in a statement. "As political campaigns become more sophisticated and competitive, there is a real danger that voters—particularly voters of color who report more difficulties voting—can be manipulated or discouraged from casting an eligible vote."

Misinformation takes root in ignorance. Trust in both public institutions and fellow voters has fundamentally collapsed in the United States as epistemic chaos becomes an increasingly appealing political strategy. The result of this apathy is the lowest voter participation in two decades for the 2016 presidential election. And while that election brought a renewed surge in youth engagement unseen since Barack Obama's 2008 bid, a February 2018 report from the Center for American Progress found that only 23 percent of eighth-graders performed at an acceptable level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam that's served as a measure of civic engagement for decades.

Indeed, civics education in the U.S. has a long way to go before it can become any sort of vaccine against misinformation. While the 2018 CAP report indicates that the 10 states with the highest rates of youth civic engagement and volunteerism are also those that prioritize civics and U.S. government courses in their curricula, only nine require a full year of the classes. And while these curricula provided "instruction on American democracy and comparison to other systems of government; the history of the Constitution and Bill of Rights; an explanation of mechanisms for public participation; and instruction on state and local voting policies," according to CAP, none of them offered "experiential learning or local problem-solving components"—essential pedagogical tools for developing a critical mind.

There's a clear solution: Funnel money into civic engagement in American public schools, a measure embraced by several cities and states in recent decades. In Massachusetts, for example, lawmakers have eyed a measure to expand high school U.S. history requirements to "teach the electoral process and help students participate in civics projects and develop media literacy skills to better analyze online, television and social media," according to the Associated Press.

An emphasis on media literacy remains equally essential, especially when facing a White House that rules just as much by tweet as it does by executive order. Voters can blame corporate influence or misinformation for the skewed nature of their news consumption, but a recent survey revealed that "reader error" was the top reason for the "fake news" phenomenon, not deliberate fabrication or skewed stories.

At what point does the reader start to take responsibility for their role in the news ecosystem?