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Federal Opinion

Participation Is Only a Part of Democratic Education

By Rick Hess — November 02, 2020 5 min read
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In the run-up to the election, attention to civics education has especially emphasized participation. As a once-upon-a time high school civics teacher, I believe this to be a very good thing.

But it’s not the only thing.

Civics education should certainly encourage participation: voting, volunteering, attending rallies, and all the rest. But, in one sense, this is the easy stuff. Telling students to pick their favorite candidate or cause and support them is important but also pretty intuitive. Free nations also rely on norms and habits of mind that are less intuitive. Civics education needs to focus on these too—precisely because they’re less obvious. I want to touch on three in particular: the conviction that laws should be uniformly applied, an appreciation for checks and balances, and the confidence that victories and defeats are never final.

Laws which apply to some must apply to all. The expectation that laws should be applied uniformly—and that leaders will be subject to the same laws as everyone else—is integral to a healthy democracy. The expectation that those in power will live under the laws they make can temper the urge to wield authority in punitive ways, especially when lawmakers contemplate a day when they’re no longer in power. The notion that laws are universal lends them legitimacy and encourages citizens to abide by them. When laws are applied unevenly or unfairly, as in the case of criminal-justice practices illuminated by this summer’s protests, it calls their validity into question. This is doubly true when public officials seem to apply different standards to their friends and their foes. In an era when public officials on both the left and right offer plentiful examples of flagrant hypocrisy and double standards, it’s vitally important that students learn that democratic government is about principle as well as power.

Checks and balances ensure that elections are not winner-takes-all. Elected officials in the U.S. are checked by the design of Congress, competing branches of government, constitutional strictures, federalism, and more. The very structure of our government pre-empts cries of despotism and dampens the impulse to deny the legitimacy of elections when it seems that everything is on the line. For all the concerns about the depredations of the Trump administration, its ability to significantly alter policy on immigration, health care, spending, and much else has been sharply curtailed by these arrangements. Imagine how much more desperate, furious, and violent our divisions would be right now if voters were convinced that Trump could unilaterally outlaw abortion or Biden could start his tenure by ordering the police to start confiscating handguns. Of course, when one supports those in power, constraints can seem frustrating—even illegitimate. But students should understand that the same “anti-democratic” impediments they’re tempted to bemoan may, under other circumstances, seem like an invaluable defense against the forces of malice.

Citizens can be confident that democratic defeats are never final. Modern democracies require free citizens to honor many rules, regulations, and laws they may find objectionable even as they seek to change them. That citizens do so with little coercion and a lot of cooperation is essential to civic health and community well-being. Citizens are far more amenable to this arrangement when they can have faith that their concerns will be heard, that wrongs will have the opportunity to be righted, and that officials they oppose will not be in power forever. That assurance reassures those citizens frustrated by certain governmental policies or practices to channel their anger into peaceful protest and political mobilization. They will only do so, however, if sufficiently confident that the rules are fair, that officials will accept defeat gracefully, and that power will change hands peacefully. Absent those things, civic cooperation and peaceful protest start to feel like a sucker’s game. The more some citizens feel they’ll never have a chance to win, the greater the chance they’ll start to bridle at the civic compact.

A participation-centric approach to civics education is insufficient because it emphasizes what citizens must do to get their way but slights the reality that we frequently won’t get our way—and can even give students the sense that it’s somehow illegitimate when we don’t. In a nation as sprawling, dynamic, and diverse as ours, it’s a sure thing that many citizens won’t get their way—even when everyone is engaged and operating in good faith. Civics education must help students understand this reality and the safeguards that protect us when we don’t get our way.

Civics education can do much better on that score. Over the years, for instance, I’ve talked to plenty of teachers who decried Republican “obstruction” during President Obama’s tenure only to celebrate Democratic “resistance” during President Trump’s. That’s a dangerous habit. The value of checks and balances ought to be understood independent of particular agendas and policy prescriptions. Otherwise, it’s a recipe for increasingly unconstrained aggression. Consider how the Democratic Senate’s 2013 decision to end the filibuster of judicial nominees fueled Republican outrage and led to predictable consequences when the GOP retook the Senate, while Republican maneuverings, in turn, have fueled promises of Democratic retaliation. This is how destructive cycles are born.

We must teach students that the habits and institutions of democratic government are important in their own right, not only when they advance their political preferences. Quite frankly, however tomorrow’s elections turn out, I don’t expect to be thrilled. But that’s OK. Democratic government doesn’t mean that we can expect to be happy with our elected officials or public policy. It does mean that we can have faith that the reach of the state will be limited, that our rights will be protected, and that the practical consequences of an election result go only so far.

Political participation is a very good thing, but it’s not the only important thing. The eve of a momentous election is a propitious time to remember that.

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