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Commentary: Is July 4th Just Another Holiday?

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Robert Smith

The following is a commentary from Dr. Robert Smith, Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Illinois Springfield.

As we enter the July 4th Holiday and celebrate our independence as a Nation this gives me an opportunity to share some concerns an old friend and colleague shared with me some 20 years ago. His comments had to do with American citizens understanding freedom, democracy, elections, representative government, and our obligations in our duly constituted republic. The “birthday” of our country seems like a good time to circle back to his comments and concerns.

What he shared with me was not very complimentary of American citizens. But what he conveyed to me is important to highlight now more than ever as we struggle to make sense of our divisive politics and perhaps a loss of faith in our political system as we know it. As I share his views, most listeners will likely take issue with his point and my observations. Nonetheless the message he shared, and the views I am passing along, are absolutely crucial for American citizens to reflect on in 2021.

Some 20 years ago a friend and colleague used a term to describe some statewide election results. He commented that this outcome reflected a general “dumbing of America” (meaning the electorate). I laughed, thought that was clever, and in our subsequent talks about history and politics, I occasionally used the phrase as well.

Over the years, his description of the “dumbing of America” has become almost a universal concept or descriptor. I think back and say he really should have somehow copyrighted that saying. There are now a several books/articles out there with that title!

In many popular circles the phrase is used by two camps. The first camp bemoans the standardization of the curriculum in the Unites States across grades, fears the indoctrination by liberal elites, and criticizes intellectualism as a form of suppression of American freedoms. A second camp is concerned about ignoring facts, fake news, sensationalism, and a seeming lack of inquiry, open mindedness and reasoned opinion in political discourse. The third camp, if there is one, is concerned about elements of both. I suppose that’s where this commentary fits in.

I must be clear, I am using the phrase in connection with the general electorate and their political support for their candidates and the outcomes of those elections. By highlighting this critical label or descriptor, I am essentially asking why do people vote, participate and engage in political campaigns in 2021 and beyond?

Overall, I must begin by saying that I do not think America is uneducated. How well or poorly may be an issue and, of course, it varies across this nation. Whether high school, trades, two or four year college or beyond, America is indeed educated. Yes, students are educated in many areas, English, Math, Science and History and more.

And somewhere in that education cycle, we expect students to learn about citizenship, political parties and elections and how government in a democracy functions. Whether in grade school, high school or college there is likely some continued exposure to those concepts and foundations.

But, when we look at historic participation rates in elections or identification with political parties or the vaguer gauge of participation in civic activities, somewhere our citizenry “drops the ball. Realistically, maybe they never had the ball! Yes, it’s true that our last contentious election in 2020 did see historic voter turnout. So is there even a problem here? Well, the trends in political participation and elections would certainly suggest there may be.

Here’s where I will pivot back to my theme of “the dumbing of America.” For better or worse, we don’t spend enough time throughout our education process to explain and emphasize the importance of voting, political engagement, and the role of government. And let me be clear, I’m not talking about voting just for the sake of voting, but voting for a higher purpose and geared toward an outcome or, gosh forbid, some guiding principles.

America seems to have drifted away from teaching about the role of elections, campaigns and politics and more importantly how votes can translate into policy choices and programs we desire or oppose as citizens. Please, I’m not talking about the need for any “state” or standardized indoctrination, just a deeper appreciation for why voting and participation in a democracy matters. I will argue, if there is a “dumbing” going on, it is this arena.

Once a citizenry is ill-informed, distant from, misunderstands, and has become desensitized to the importance of the mechanics of democracy, that same citizenry become vulnerable. They become vulnerable to misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, flashy candidates, or just misunderstand the process and how it works. Once that happens the brain cells seem to shut down, we become desensitized and disillusioned and we turn away from our democratic foundations and processes. At this point there is really no mystery! Citizens struggle to find something to make sense of it all. They turn to sound bites, incomplete news, glitz or propaganda of campaigns, sometimes lies and misstatements, and because they struggle to hold on to some meaning of their role in society, they latch onto a cause, a candidate, a Party or a false reality. Without a mechanism or means to process the maze of news, political gamesmanship, single issue narrowness and labels, they turn to their “feelings,” close circles, familiar social media outlets, and then their views are reinforced and sometimes magnified.

Once at this point, it is difficult if not impossible to “go back.” These citizens are “locked in” and only see the facts through a lens that has become distorted. Critical analysis, facts, reasoned arguments and thinking seem to be thrown out the window. But, let me be clear, this distorted or misplaced reality is very real to these citizens.

At the same time, other citizens (who claim to have a more sophisticated view of candidates and positions) will dismiss or shun or belittle views expressed from this former group of ill-informed citizens. These enlightened or more socially conscious citizens make the very same mistake as the less-informed citizen group. They too become “locked-in” and fixated on the facts, data and reality. The evidence leads to certain conclusions. It paints them as “right” and others as “wrong.” In many respects this is equally as dangerous because there are limits to the facts. This group of citizens seems to forget their lessons or grounding in democracy and politics and the role of government. Politics is about compromise, balancing interests, and upholding that vision of democracy where everyone’s voices matter in the process (not matter how extreme or at odds with theirs). For some of these same reasons this block of citizens becomes equally entrenched in their views and dismissive of others. This perspective, leads to charges of elitism and inflexibility and closed thinking. In its own way, this too is a form of a “dumbing of America” by closing off avenues for understanding and compromise and moving forward.

Reluctantly, I will posit that this is how citizens likely process information in our political system today. Each voter holds a different level of information, enthusiasm, drive or fervor in this process. Therefore, in examining how we vote, children may vote how their parents voted, or against their parent’s positions, or associate one party/candidate with certain defining issues (immigration, high taxes, liberal or conservative polices, etc.) They are swayed by clever ads, a friend’s recommendation, one news story they liked or didn’t like, etc. No one of those reasons to vote seems to be all that sophisticated or complicated. Single-issue, party identification, etc. may be the predictor of voting so political scientists may say, but let’s be real, it’s not all that sophisticated. How do you quantify “who you like” and “what you feel towards a candidate?” Admittedly, I will suggest that this process of making sense of elections, parties, candidates and policies in 2021and beyond is a consequence of inattention to building the capacity of our democracy. And heck, I blame myself, that’s my field!

And I guess that’s my point! Leaving political choices to a whim or abstract concepts or incomplete information or lack of knowledge is where the “dumbing” takes place. And of course, that can happen on one political side or the other. But ever since my good friend raised that notion of “the dumbing of America” it seems that things have only gotten worse. Less civic engagement, less political participation, more media dominated partisanship, more polarized politics and just downright anger pervades our political system. You are either “with me” or “against me,” and maybe you are “one of those,” you’re a “liberal or a socialist” or you’re a “conservative or a fascist.” Labels substitute for thinking. Instead, subjective and incomplete emotions cloud judgment and rational or (at least) thoughtful thinking.

So, what can we do? We’ll I must confess I think “the bus has left the station.” Returning to or achieving some levels of knowledge base about our democratic processes will take some time to rebuild and cultivate. Hence politics will broadly remain like it is for the next decade. I suppose we could talk about a third party or a unifying candidate or a thoughtful raising of the bar at each level of politics local, state and national. But I’m not hopeful.

Finally, on the “dumbing” thing. I wouldn’t want to be called “dumb” by anyone. And in this commentary I may be insulting a lot of citizens. I really don’t mean to do that! I apologize if I have!! Really!! But, left or right or wherever you are on the political spectrum, it seems that the time has come for some self-reflection or self-awareness about how you/we process and understand and develop our political views and orientation. If we as a citizenry can do that, maybe that’s one pathway to better, more productive and balanced political debates and views.

Increasing understanding of the political process, hearing both sides of a story, and being open to differing views should help reorient our political compass. That will likely take educational programs that feature democrats and republicans and others directed towards engaging our young people at many levels. More information at all levels, full disclosures, open and fair elections, encouraging youth to get involved in politics is what is needed.

What better time to ask everyone to help build that capacity for democracy than on July 4th and the birthday of our country. Let’s use July 4th as a refresher in democracy and democratic principles. Let’s use the day to learn more about each other not as political combatants but as neighbors and citizens. Let’s use the day to reaffirm our commitment to learn about and embrace our system of government and the hallmarks of democracy. And then let’s put that knowledge to work to move this country and our democracy forward in the 21st century and beyond.

Have a wonderful July 4th, with wishes for a more perfect union!

Robert W. Smith, Ph.D.

Dean

College of Public Affairs and Administration

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