Civil Civics

A front-page article in The New York Times April 7, 2019, entitled “A More Perfect Civics Lesson?” raised the issue of “whether the United States is a unified entity of citizens or a conglomeration of groups divided by race, class, language and other identities.”

The article quoted Becky Debowski, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Michigan, who said, “I’m really proud of my students. They can really handle complexity.” So, she was angry last year when she learned of a proposed revision to the Michigan state standards to drop the word “democratic” from “core democratic values,” and that the word “democracy” would be replaced with “republic” to describe American government.

According to the article, “That the two sides in that tussle tend to fall along party lines, each preferring the term that resembles their party name, plays no small part in the debate.”

State legislators behind this and other changes sought to “remove partisanship from the classroom” and provide a more “politically neutral” view of historical issues, in their words.

Ms. Debowski said she could explain the difference between party names and political concepts to her students, and that they were capable of understanding them. “It belittles my subject,” she said.

While our nation’s founders were indeed skeptical of direct democracy, mainstream historians, political scientists and legal scholars say that the United States is both a representative democracy and a republic—despite the appearance of a contradiction, absent historical context.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh provided that context in a Washington Post editorial on the subject. James Wilson, he wrote, one of the main drafters of the Constitution and one of the first Supreme Court justices, defended the Constitution in 1787 by saying that in a democracy sovereign power is “inherent in the people, and is either exercised by themselves or by their representatives.”

“I often hear people argue (often quite militantly) that the United States is a republic, not a democracy,” Volokh wrote. “But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of ‘republic’ is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them’ —we are that. A common definition of ‘democracy’ is, ‘Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives’—we are that, too.”

More than 115 subcommittee members reviewed the Michigan standards and prepared a proposed 145-page curriculum for the Board of Education, restoring such vexing subjects of study as climate change, Roe v. Wade, and gay rights. It also added the Flint water crisis and the Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States, which permitted the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.

The list of core values that the standards writers eventually agreed on was “equality; liberty; justice and fairness; unalienable rights (including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness); consent of the governed; truth; common good.” 

If we are to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people, we must participate in debates like this to identify, explore and resolve the issues we face, like them or not, come what may. We can’t do that without listening to each other’s opinions as equals and basing our judgments on verifiable facts instead of indulging in a melange of vilification and invective, driven by prejudice, ignorance or fear. 

If we are not united around the idea that the power to rule belongs to the people, with liberty and justice for all, then we had better get used to the idea that the law is what the people in power say it is. 

Frank Slater, retired math teacher and Korean War veteran, lives in Vaughn.

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