Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tunnels and Bridges, Part III: A Bigger World

by Sara Robinson

As we saw in Part II, isolating authoritarian leaders and confronting their followers is a proven strategy for dealing with hate groups, whether it's a local band of skinheads a national movement of several thousand, or a coast-to-coast televangelist gone rogue. But these groups will simply reform and reappear unless we take essential steps to change the cultural atmospherics, and reduce the appeal of their message in the future.

We've seen that liberal tolerance and openess to others' ideas grows as one's fear decreases, and one's sense of the world expands. RWA followers tend to be somewhat less educated and much less familiar with other cultures; our recovered fundies commonly find that the fear that keeps them inside the system dissipates when their exposure to different religions and ethnicities increases, and the unknown world becomes known.

On the other hand, if you were going to deliberately set out to create an authoritarian society, you could hardly do better than some of the GOP's misbegotten social policies over the past couple decades. Here are a few ways in which Americans' understanding of the world has narrowed in recent decades, setting the stage and creating the atmosphere that allowed right-wing memes to take root and fester.

Civics Education
I was at a conference at a small university in the Southwest last year, debating media topics with several other panelists. The conversation included a lively debate over the intent of the First Amendment. It soon became clear, judging from the questions we were getting from the 150 students, that many of them weren't entirely clear on just what that amendment said.

Finally, on an ominous hunch, I peered out into the darkness and asked for a show of hands. “How many of you had a high school class in government or civics?”

Three hands went up. All of them belonged to faculty members over 30. It was, I freely admit, one of the most frightening moments I've had in the past several years.

It turns out that civics classes – the essential information one needs to function as a citizen – have been gutted by tight school budgets over the past 20 years. As a result, we now have an entire generation of Americans who don't know how their government works, how the laws the live under get made, or what rights they have as citizens. They don't know who the Founders are, or what's in the Federalist Papers. They can't really articulate the Enlightenment ideals that led to the formation of this country. They are frighteningly ill-prepared to exercise or defend a birthright they don't even understand.

Small wonder, then, that the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that three-quarters of American high school students lacked basic proficiency in civics. According to a commentary published that year by William A. Galston of the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland:

"The NAEP is administered biennially in what are deemed "core academic subjects." Unfortunately, civic education has not yet achieved that exalted status, and we are fortunate if civic knowledge is assessed once a decade...The results of the 1998 NAEP Civics Assessment were released a few months ago. They were not encouraging. For fourth, eighth, and (most relevant for our purposes) twelfth graders, about three-quarters were below the level of proficiency. 35 percent of high school seniors tested below basic, indicating near-total civic ignorance. Another 39 percent were at the basic level, less than the working knowledge that citizens need.

"When we combine these NAEP results with other data from the past decade of survey research, we are driven to a gloomy conclusion: Whether we are concerned with the rules of the political game, political players, domestic policy, foreign policy, or political geography, student performance is quite low. This raises a puzzle. The level of formal schooling in the United States is much higher than it was fifty years ago. But the civic knowledge of today's students is at best no higher than that of their parents and grandparents, know no more than they did. We have made a major investment in formal education, without any discernible payoff in increased civic knowledge...

"...It is easy to dismiss these findings as irrelevant to the broader concerns with which I began. Who cares whether young people master the boring content of civics courses? Why does it matter whether they can identify their congressman or name the branches of government? Surprisingly, recent research documents important links between basic civic information and civic attributes that we have good reason to care about.

1. Civic knowledge promotes support for democratic values. The more knowledge we have of the working of government, the more likely we are to support the core values of democratic self-government, starting with tolerance.

2. Civic knowledge promotes political participation. All other things being equal, the more knowledge people have, the more likely they are to participate in civic and political affairs.

3. Civic knowledge helps citizens to understand their interests as individuals and as members of groups. There is a rational relationship between one's interests and particular legislation. The more knowledge we have, the more readily and accurately we connect with and defend our interests in the political process.

4. Civic knowledge helps citizens learn more about civic affairs. Unless we have a certain basis of knowledge, it is difficult to acquire more knowledge. The new knowledge we do gain can be effectively used if we are able to integrate it into an existing framework into an existing framework of knowledge.

5. The more knowledge we have of civic affairs, the less we have a sort of generalized mistrust and fear of public life. Ignorance is the father of fear, and knowledge is the mother of trust.

6. Civic knowledge improves the consistency of the views of people as expressed on public opinion surveys. The more knowledge people have, the more consistent their views over time on political affairs. This does not mean that people do not change their views, but it does mean that they know their own minds.

7. Civic knowledge can alter our opinion on specific civic issues. For example, the more civic knowledge people have, the less likely they are to fear new immigrants and their impact on our country."

Perhaps more horrifying of all: that 1998 NEAP survey was apparently the last time the federal government even looked at this issue. Another eight years of high school seniors has graduated in the meantime. Too many of these, no doubt, are getting their remedial civics education from Rush Limbaugh, their pastors, and their skinhead co-workers. When confronted with bad facts, these young adults simply have no idea what the Constitution says, or how a true patriot responds.

Making sure that our high school seniors get at least a year or two of civics education, delivered by well-trained teachers using sound curricula, is arguably even more important that what's being taught over in the science lab. We will not stem authoritarianism over the long haul unless we establish a civics as a core requirement for high school graduation in all 50 states. We can't have an effective democracy -- and will be sitting ducks for would-be tyrants -- until every one of us knows this stuff. It's that simple.

Liberal Education
There's a reason they call it “liberal education.” The more of it people have, the more liberal they tend to become.

Yet it's much harder to get to college now than it's been since WWII. Pell Grants and federally-supported low-interest loans have all but vanished. Now, students who want financial help for college have to fight for it – literally, by joining the military. Construction of new public universities has stalled, making it hard for the Echo Generation to find a place that will take them even if they can afford it. Our grandparents' firm belief that the more education Americans have, the stronger and richer the nation becomes, seems to have been abandoned: today's policy-makers would rather have less-educated workers that they can readily control.

That's only going to change when we realize our government is only as good as the education of the average voter. It's not a coincidence that America's most prosperous decades were also the ones in which we invested the most in education. While most Americans understand (at least vaguely) that our national prosperity and all that goes with it -- good jobs, growing industries, global prestige -- correlates strongly with the number of university degrees we're minting in any given year, we've somehow misplaced the understanding that the advanced thinking skills learned in college are also critical to making us canny, discriminating, well-informed voters.

Either we build the classrooms, pony up the tax money for tuition, and get more Americans back in college -- or we're going to keep ending up with politicians picked on the basis of their suitability as drinking buddies -- and voters who are easily led by their fears instead of by reason.

Cultural Exchange
Americans hold fewer passports per capita and do less foreign travel than the citizens of any other industrialized democracy. We just don't get out much – and the less we travel, the more conservative we tend to be. According to Diana Kerry, who organized U.S. Expatriate voters for her brother John's 2004 campaign, 75% of passport-holding Americans vote Democrat.

We also travel less than we used to. Americans take fewer, shorter vacations than workers in any other first world country. Increasingly, we are not taking vacations at all. And, when we do get away, the costs and post-9/11 hassles of travel are keeping us much closer to home. Over time, these trends are going to seriously narrow our collective view of the world beyond our shores -- with potentially disasterous effects on our ability to make sound political decisions, especially where foreign policy, trade, and war are concerned.

We can fight back, to some degree, by bringing the world to us. The liberalism of urban Americans is fed by the rich cultural mix of our cities -- it's perhaps the main ingredient that turns our cities blue. But xenophobia grows like tansy in the vast rural stretches of the country -- not usually because the folks are naturally mean, but because they simply don't know anyone who's not like them, and therefore can't really imagine what it must be like to be, say, non-white, non-Christian, gay, lesbian, or an immigrant. In the hands of an ambitious right-wing leader with an anti-democratic agenda of his own, this unfamiliarity can all too easily be stirred into outright hostility and fear.

In better days, service groups like the American Field Service, Rotary, mainstream churches, and others historically stood on the small-town front lines against this impulse. AFS imported steady streams of foreign exchange students into small towns, giving rural high school students one-on-one friendships with peers from every corner of the planet. Returning AFS students from our own school were treated like local celebrities when they got back, bearing slides and stories and fluency in languages from Chinese to Afrikaans. At the adult level, international service clubs and church mission groups (run mainly within the largest denominations) provide adults with opportunities to go abroad, often to work on local projects in remote areas; and, at the same time, bring foreign visitors into their towns.

These efforts may look quaint and dated -- but it's hard to overstate the effect this kind of one-to-one cultural exchange can have in opening the horizons of people in rural areas. If we want to dissipate the fear of the Other that drives people into authoritarian thought systems, we need to make sure these networks survive, thrive, and expand. It's not a complete answer, but we need to identify and support the groups that keep these doors to the world open in rural America.

Goin' Up to The Country
The Democrats bear their share of the blame, too. The post-McGovern retreat from the party's traditional blue-collar and farming base ensured that liberals were thin on the ground in much of rural America by 1980. The party's decision to centralize campaign planning in Washington led to the shuttering of thousands of local Democratic offices, many of them serving small towns. The GOP grew like kuzdu into the social void they left behind. By the late 80s, liberals were so invisible in so much of America that the right-wing radio talkers could tell their listeners we had horns and ate babies – and there was nobody actually on the home front left to stand up and contradict them.

They couldn't have gotten away with this if more rural Americans had simply known their liberal neighbors. “Wait – Rush is talking about those nice old ladies down at the Democratic office who did that great float for the Memorial Day parade.” “Hey, my fishing buddy Joe's a Democrat, and he's no traitor – he's a Vietnam vet.” The demonization of liberals happened one person at a time, and counted on the fact that rural liberals had been so effectively scattered and silenced that they couldn't mount a coherent response.

This is why liberal talk radio and Howard Dean's 50-state strategy play a critical role in changing the atmospherics. As we've seen, it's hard for RWAs to demonize a group when they feel affinity and loyalty to a member of that group -- or when they see the actual faces, and hear the actual voices, of those people every day.

We need to get our faces and voices back out there, on every street in America -- and Dean's plan to plant full-time, permanent activists and offices on the ground in every county in America will accomplish that, giving Democrats that missing high local profile again. Rural Americans, even those brainwashed hate-radio fans, will be reminded that those traitorous liberals are people they know, and interact with daily – the teacher, the preacher, the guys in the union and down at the veterans hall. Organizing local progressives, raising their profile, and restoring their voices is the first step to breaking the back of national authoritarian politics.

Our GI grandparents were lifelong liberals not just because of the New Deal, but because WWII took them off the farms and out of the cities and showed them the world; and because the GI Bill opened the university doors to them -- a hope many had never had before. They stayed generally liberal in their outlook -- even when they became prosperous and started voting Republican -- because everybody they knew agreed that travel, education, and tolerance were essential to both the spiritual and economic well-being of a growing empire.

The investments America made in this generation and these goals were, in a very real sense, investments in its own democratic future. We are losing our democracy to the authoritarian movements because we are no longer making these investments. This stuff is basic -- perhaps so taken for granted that it doesn't even need to be said out loud. But, given the decay evident in our civics classes, our college attendance rates, and our overall exposure to the larger world (including the other cultures we share the country with), it's time to step back and start giving them the attention they deserve.

Democracy begins when we value essential liberal values enough to invest in them for the long haul. And, without that investment, it dies.

Next: Landing Zones

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