There is a deep connection between education and a successful, well-run representative democracy. Voters need significant education to be able to judge the people to whom they delegate the power to make governing decisions and to assess how their governing system is operating. Without adequate education generally and specifically about representative democracy, the system itself is at risk.
This is one reason that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, after she retired from the Supreme Court, dedicated time and resources to establish www.icivics.org, which is dedicated to providing engaging content about the federal government and especially the courts to junior high and high school students. It is also why attorneys have worked together to establish the James Otis Lecture Series, which brings leading scholars together to debate current issues before groups of high school students. And those are just two of the many offerings seeking to fill a perceived gap in civics and government education across the United States.
The Constitution’s Framers labored to construct a constitutional system that would deter abuses of power and keep elected representatives on the road to serving the public (rather than themselves). The Constitution is filled with checks and balances and limits on the exercise of power generally. The Framers were aware of their limitations, however, and knew full well that humans would try to drive the governing system off of its track in order to serve themselves. In that era, after a failed Articles of Confederation, the last thing they believed was that they could concoct a foolproof, perfect system that would inevitably serve the public good. Rather, this system would need careful attention to ensure that the public is being served. The task they left to later generations was to identify when the system goes off the rails. When that happens it is that generation’s obligation to bring the system back to accountability, or risk letting the system devolve into one that is both unaccountable and unworkable. While there are constitutional amendments that could increase accountability and take out some of the chicanery that goes into lawmaking, as Professor David Schoenbrod has pointed out repeatedly in his visionary work, the people have been the primary means by which the United States has righted itself.
The most potent weapon the people have is the ballot box. One of the more interesting developments in the 2016 election cycle is that there is an educational divide among voters. Hillary Clinton is significantly ahead of Donald Trump among college-educated voters, while Trump is more appealing to white, less educated voters.
She is also significantly ahead generally, and with millennials.
Trump, apparently tailoring his message to his less educated base, has made statements that indicate he need not respect the Framers’ governing system, e.g., saying he would not concede if he lost the election. But if he won the election, he would happily accept the result of the system. His apparent inclination to respect the system according to the result is precisely the type of power grab the Framers rightly feared and sought to deter. He also has implied that his supporters could or should use guns against Hillary Clinton, his rival. Again, he is advocating dealings with the government that go beyond the constitutional system into the fields of anarchy and ipse dixit power. His statements would have been the stuff of the Framers’ nightmares.
Why are white, uneducated voters willing to vote for Trump? Job unhappiness to be sure, but I would posit that it is also because they have not been adequately educated to understand just how dangerous a President Trump would be to the Constitution. I would further posit that the failure of their education is attributable to the country as a whole for failing to ensure that every student is adequately educated, in particular regarding the government.
If Trump has done anything for the United States in this election, he has brought to center stage the struggles and unhappiness of under-educated citizens. There should not be an educational divide in the United States. Every child deserves a full education through high school and then realistic opportunities by means of a technical education or a college education.
The focus on improving educational levels for all of our sakes applies to all students really, not just those at risk of being severely undereducated. In fact, there are strong arguments to augment the school day and/or school year because even our top students are not the best in the world. This election cycle makes clear that we no longer can afford to leave education off the table for millions of children.
The Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Yoder blithely reasoned that letting the Amish take their children out of high school several years early posed no threat to the system of representative democracy. The Court was wrong then but even more wrong now when there is so much more to learn and master to be a fully functioning citizen in this complicated, tech and data-heavy era. The religious entities that embrace the reasoning of Yoder that religion should trump minimum education requirements are not just harming their own children, as I discuss here, but also the rest of us. The problem of educational neglect is not limited to religious entities, however. There are whole states that are simply not making quality education a high enough priority. Where Trump does lead, it is in states that occupy those lower rungs on the education ladder, like Alabama.
The time has come to be frank about the educational divide and to solve it. Not only does our economic future depend on it, but so does the future of our very democracy.