Americans need civics refresher to understand democracy’s values

Judy Patrick

Americans learned a lot about government – especially that once-obscure process of impeachment – in the past year. But over time we’ve lost ground when it comes to understanding and embracing our democracy’s basic values.

That loss goes a long way to explaining our political division, brutal lack of civility in public discourse and erosion of trust in our basic institutions.

Many people know basic events and processes of U.S. history. We remember, from our school days, the three branches of government, the concept of separation of powers and how a bill becomes a law.

But Americans themselves are increasingly saying they aren’t living up to the democratic ideals and principles on which our country was founded. And fewer people see some principles, such as freedom to peacefully protest, as very important at all.

The fundamental value of our democracy, for example, is self-government. Yet just 62 percent of citizens voted in the 2020 presidential election, turnout considered high compared to previous elections.

The findings are part of the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel 2020 study of U.S. democracy. While large majorities of Americans agree on the importance of a number of democratic principles, the survey found clear disagreement about how well the country is doing living up to those principles.

Take the freedom to protest, for example. The share of Americans who say the phrase “people are free to protest” describes the U.S. very or somewhat well fell from 73 percent in 2018 to 60 percent in 2019, according to the survey.

The concept of free speech is easy to love until you hear something especially distasteful. That’s why understanding the reasons free speech are important is necessary to give life to the concept. Government transparency seems like a good idea until you’re a public school teacher with your salary posted for all to see.

Learning how a bill becomes a law is fairly simple. Understanding the value of hearing all sides of the debate on that bill is more difficult. Wading through a torrent of misinformation, spin and hyperbole is enough to make most people walk away in frustration.

Certainly there’s a need for re-energizing civics education for our schoolchildren. That work has been neglected for far too long. But adults, too, need to work harder at understanding the past, the present and the future of our democratic system. For them, the best learning tool may be the newspaper on their doorstep.

Newspapers do more than report on the village board meeting or school board election. Solid reporting offers clarity. Attention to detail and truth creates trust. The focus on community generates mutual respect. Being a watchdog underscores the value of good government. By listening, we promote dialogue. And by doing all of this edition after edition, they slowly fortify our democracy.

Judy Patrick is vice president for editorial development for the New York Press Association, a member organization of 800 newspapers in New York State. The NYPA provides editorial assistance, advice and counsel to its member newspapers, advocates for best journalism practices, provides a libel hotline for member papers, and promotes journalism education. The association was founded in 1853.

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