Guest Column

Preserving Our Democracy: The Necessity of an Educated and Engaged Citizenry

The erosion of an informed and effectively engaged public that serves as a guardrail of our democratic principles and norms puts our entire democratic system at risk

By Open Dialogue Discussion Group

Most Americans believe it is important to live in a democratically governed country. And a substantial majority say that democratic government is a very important factor in this nation’s success. But there is a significant gap between the attachment to democracy as an ideal and perceptions of how well our democracy is functioning and whether it is sustainable.

More than 60% of Americans believe our democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing. And there is growing public contempt for many of our democratic institutions and norms. A large number of our citizens no longer even trust their government. Many express doubts about the integrity of our electoral system and still refuse to accept Joe Biden as our duly elected President despite the absence of any evidence that his election was not fair and not rigged. This includes both the former President, who lost the election, and many Republicans in both Congress and the public. It’s glaring proof that one of our two major political parties is now permeated with people who are not committed to democracy.

Unfortunately, too many citizens either exhibit no concern about this or are indifferent about what it could portend. They have a false belief that our democracy is a self-sustaining system that doesn’t require both an open public commitment to democracy that transcends politics, and an educated and actively engaged citizenry which holds their elected representatives accountable when they abandon democratic norms.

While our Constitution prescribes many fundamental rights, neither it or the institutions of government or our written laws are, by themselves, enough to protect and sustain our democracy. Its ultimate protector is “We, the People.” It is the citizens who must foster and enforce democratic norms. This is an unwritten requirement of responsible citizenship. It is based on a core premise of our indirect democracy that those elected to represent all of us in government are committed to democracy and are held accountable by the electorate when they fail to do so.

But an unfortunate side effect of our democracy is that it incentivizes citizens to be apathetic and passive observers, politically uninformed, and blindly tribalistic. There are no incentives or requirements for citizens to vote, to inform themselves about political issues, to use their civic voices and votes in a serious and informed way, and to actively practice and protect democracy.

This is a serious problem because history tells us that public apathy, indifference, and political ignorance are the silent killers of democracy. The erosion of an informed and effectively engaged public that serves as a guardrail of our democratic principles and norms puts our entire democratic system at risk. It opens the system to influence and control by populist demagogues and their enablers who embrace both antidemocratic tactics and undemocratic policies and are committed to sowing seeds of division, mistrust, and political retribution. It also exposes our democratic government to even greater plutocratic influence than now exists by wealthy individuals, groups, and corporations whose interests are financial and self-serving instead of advancing the common public good. History is replete with examples. But, unfortunately, too many seem to naively think ‘it can’t happen to us.’

Solving this problem must include improving public education about democracy itself, including the democratic rights and responsibilities of all citizens. All citizens must be taught civic responsibility and be motivated to actively and effectively both participate in and practice democracy by becoming more knowledgeable and politically informed voters. This is essential for both the protection of our democracy and the overall progress of our society. As James Madison, the father of our Constitution, wrote, “The people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Democracy education must start by teaching its’ core values, principles, and norms. Where did democracy come from, what are its characteristics, and what are the alternative forms of governments, including other forms of democracy? Education must teach the vital role of democracy in promoting social cohesion and tolerance within our diverse democratic society. It must promote understanding, empathy, and respect for diversity. It should also foster a sense of inclusivity and social cohesion, and instill values such as tolerance, equality, and respect for human rights and the law.

Moreover, education must cultivate a culture of critical thinking in the public. The unfortunate truth is that all humans are, to some degree, biologically prone to intellectual laziness, emotional decision-making, confirmation bias, and other natural impulses and biases that often obstruct critical thinking and sound judgment. If our democracy is to survive and function properly, its citizens must possess an ability to reason, to understand opposing viewpoints, to separate subjective opinions from evidence-based facts, to think objectively and critically about social issues so as to both inform their judgments about proper governance and overcome their biases and prejudices. In other words, people should learn how to think rationally and objectively. This is essential for a healthy democracy because it promotes wise decision-making among voters.

And regardless of whether education stems from time in public schools, private schools, or at home, it should include value education, including moral reasoning. This is necessary if citizens are to possess the ability to judge right from wrong, understand ethical issues, and make informed moral decisions based on ethics, compassion, and the common good. 

Education should also demonstrate the power of democratic citizenship. It should reveal the need for citizens to proactively exercise this power, not surrender it.  The Founding Fathers of our Republic were so convinced of this that they pushed for the establishment of public education as an institution, which they thought was crucial to the success of a self-governing democracy.

And all those committed to democracy must continue to have faith in it and contend with the key challenge of sustaining and improving it despite its structural and functional shortcomings. It is, after all, still a work in progress. But it is our best hope of addressing this nation’s shared problems instead of turning to an authoritarian form of government or to politicians who favor undemocratic and divisive tactics and policies that would result in domination and exclusion.

The Open Dialogue Discussion Group includes Jerry Elwood of Kalispell, Alex Berry of Kalispell, William Dakin of Bigfork, Dan King of Bigfork, and Robert Harris of Whitefish, Bill Cox of Kalispell, Lawrence “Max” Maxwell of Kalispell, Randy Ogle of Kalispell, Joe Carbonari of Kalispell and Bart Erickson of Whitefish.