Democracy Ushers in the Reign of Civic Ignorance

The many analyses of the 2012 election results are not saying much about what may have been the central and fundamental problem: democracy. Notice that I do not say a democratic republic—that was the nature of the American political order as fashioned by our Founding Fathers—but a democracy. A generation ago, Martin Diamond, Winston Mills Fisk, and Herbert Garfinkle explained the difference. A democratic republic features majority rule, to be sure, but through representative institutions (this is its democratic aspect). Its ruling principle, then, is not “power to the people.” It is republican in the sense of being a constitutional regime that is governed by the rule of law and protects minority rights, and because it is characterized by restraint, sobriety, competence, and liberty. The culture of the Founding Era in America, upon which our democratic republic was erected (politics always springs from culture), made these qualities possible. It was a time of strong morality (nowhere stronger than in sexual matters), willingness to sacrifice, strong religious commitment, self-control, and public-spiritedness among many other commendable mores.

Beginning with the Jacksonian Era, democratization advanced in the U.S. I trace that development over American history in my recent book, The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic, and conclude that it was a major factor in altering the vision of our Founding Fathers. James Madison pointedly stated their view in Federalist 10: “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention…as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” The Founders recalled the miserable picture of democracy sketched by all the major classical political philosophers.

The Founders understood that the restraint and competence a democratic republic needs required the proper formation of its people. They need both moral and citizenship education, in the manner of Aristotle’s dual focus of education to shape both the good man and the good citizen. When one looks at this year’s campaign and election, the absence of this critical citizenship formation rings clear—and it seems that the left has been particularly adept at capitalizing on it. A multitude of voters apparently were swayed by mere impressions—of candidates (Romney necessarily favored the rich because, after all, he is rich), of the parties (the Democrats are the party of the “little guy”), of the status of our politics (many voters believed that “gridlock” is a bad thing, instead of understanding that it may merely represent separation of powers at work and that Congress isn’t always doing a good job the more it legislates), and of issues (many voters were sure that the country’s economic problems were caused by George W. Bush—without much or any effort at serious analysis). This hardly bespeaks citizen competence. We witnessed the heavy influence of mere sound bites; that’s why both parties and supporting independent groups flooded the media with them. We saw the naked pandering to ignorance and the passions, such as the strong Democratic appeals against the “evil” rich—in spite of the fact that many of the rich are big supporters of their party.

Serious citizenship education is certainly at a low ebb. High school students often get poor preparation in U.S. history and learn little of our Founding principles—in fact, when they do hear about the Founding Fathers they are sometimes made out to be rogues. At most colleges and universities, leftist ideology and its opposition to traditional American principles is pervasive. Should one be surprised, then, that political decisions are made on the basis of superficial impressions and sound bites?

This is not even to mention the abysmal state of moral formation in the U.S. today—Aristotle’s shaping of the “good man”—which: the public schools run away from as too much like religion when they don’t implicitly (at least) embrace the contrary ethic of moral relativism; is inadequately provided at home due to the massive breakdown of the family; and is not provided enough by churches, both because many denominations have secularized and religion plays little or no role in the lives of vast numbers of people. Is it unexpected, then, that we should see young voters disproportionately support a political “pleasure-agenda” of sexual libertinism, reproductive “rights,” and even marijuana legalization?

The final results of the election also make clear how government dependency is shaping the political decision-making of a substantial portion of the population and how politicians—especially, but not exclusively, of the left—make it the basis for forging almost reflexive political and party loyalty. Even those not used to such dependency now expect government assistance and will exact political retribution if they don’t receive it—as seen with the auto industry bailout. Such dependency and the manipulation of people by politicians that it invites are hardly conducive to the shaping of the sober-minded, independent, and responsible citizens that a democratic republic requires. As it is often said, those who trade liberty for security wind up with neither in the end.

The immigration question is also pertinent. Sustaining a democratic republic most fundamentally requires a commitment to it in the minds and hearts of its people. While previous generations of immigrants often came from authoritarian countries and were able to embrace traditional American political and constitutional principles, it is troubling that we don’t expect those of today to do the same.

We often forget that until the Jacksonian Era, an excessive democratic impulse was checked by—among other things—a limitation of suffrage to those who had a permanent attachment and a commitment to the community, especially by means of a property requirement or service in the militia. While the property qualification was generally fairly low and the evidence is that the Founders expected suffrage to expand over time—this was, after all, to be a democratic republic)—it still was restrained. Even the supposed democrat—with a small “d”—Thomas Jefferson favored limited suffrage. While we would not advocate something like a property qualification for voting today, one wonders if part of the problem is that we have gone too far in making voting an out-and-out right. For the Founding Era and even in later social ethics it was characterized as a political privilege. Today, the citizen hardly needs to assume any responsibility in elections. A person can register in many places, even by mail; he doesn’t have to make a trip to the county courthouse any more. Early voting abounds; one does not even have to make the effort to go out to a polling place. One does not have to demonstrate literacy. Does all this maybe not weaken citizen responsibility in general, and even enhance the possibilities of manipulation? One wonders if at least practices like these should be reversed to help rein in—to some degree—runaway democratization. If voting required a little more effort, maybe—just maybe—citizens would take their role more seriously.

One might ask: Does this square with the participatory norm that the Church stresses for politics? The Church does not say that voting is the only way to insure participation or that voting must be made as easy as possible for people. Also, she hardly takes the view that responsible citizenship—in all that means—should not be encouraged.

The breakdown of citizenship education must be compensated for by a recovery of the educative function of politics itself. In fact, the 2012 election suggests that this is imperative for those seeking to uphold the principles of our Founders. Most of these people now are in the Republican party, and for the sake of its future that party must seriously turn its attention to this. Much is being said about how long-range demographic trends are against the Republicans. That is all the more reason why they must do something more than just prepare for the next election. Ground does not produce fruit unless it is made fertile. The Republicans need to get into the business, consistently and for the long haul, of making educating the public about the validity of the principles set out in their platforms—and our Founding principles—a central and ongoing priority. They need to increasingly take such initiatives as arranging media discussions and reaching out to citizen groups to explain, say, why heavy taxing of the rich may not produce the best economic results.

More, they need to stop downplaying the social issues and to explain how they are really intimately connected with other issue areas (for example, the effects that abortion and family breakdown have on economics). Speaking more boldly about the social issues may help build a bridge to demographic groups they are not currently doing well with, such as Hispanics. Instead of being mum about the importance of religion and the natural law, they need to proclaim that they were central to our Founders’ thought. Even more, they need to have a clear, consistent, non-negotiable commitment to a policy of gradual disengagement of the federal government from many domestic areas in order to begin to whittle away at its excessive role and overweening power. That policy must also include, however, an ongoing effort to work with the non-profit sector to build up civil society institutions to take care of human needs—this will make clear to people that they are not just angling to ignore the needy. They also need to develop the proper rhetorical means to convey this message, since an effective educator is not just one who speaks the truth but knows how to put it across.

If the Republicans are serious about all this, such a renewed effort at the long-ignored educative function of politics—which was so much a part of the party’s origins in the person of Abraham Lincoln—can be the first step at reversing the corrosive effects of runaway democracy and restoring the Founding principles of our democratic republic. It might also help them, over time, to win the big elections that they are now losing.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

  • Edward Peitler

    I wish it were not so but it ain’t going to happen. Seems to me that, ever since our founding, our republic has increasingly gotten away from it principles. To think that any group is going to get us to the status quo ante is fantasy. I am afraid that this noble experiment is at an end and we will have to insure that someone is around who is committed to saving the books when the book-burning’ begins. They will need to have something on which to re-create what once was America from the ash-heap. My hope is in the Lord who made heaven and earth.

    • Phil

      The latest American to burn a book was a Christian pastor.

      • ATT

        Doesn’t mean the next one won’t be a repressive regime…

      • Edward Peitler

        Just make sure you protect your library for your posterity.

  • Peter

    Great article. My only objection is to the premise that we no longer expect the same of immigrants today as we did in the past. I believe they all are still expected to work hard, to be self sufficient, to learn the language (and most do by the second generation) and to integrate into our society by sharing our values, culture and principles. The only real difference is today we expect them to come with papers, to go through a bureaucratic process at our embassies and pay an “entry fee” to process their visa even before they step a foot out of their country, all something any good Democrat and liberal should be proud of (big government).

    When before people hopped on a boat, arrived on our shores, answered a few questions, maybe had their name changed by immigration officials, and off they went. I’m not saying we don’t need more regulations in today’s world but that the purpose of these regulations is less about security and more about restricting legal immigration. I for one am not sure that’s the noble or Christian approach.

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  • Katie

    Civic ignorance is a major problem in this country. Taxes went up under Obama, Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim, climate change is a leftist conspiracy, they’re coming after your guns, the moon landing was not real, Nate Silver can’t do math, rape can’t cause pregnancy, we’re paying for Sandra Fluke to have sex, DOMA was the only thing keeping the entire population from turning gay, the deficit is not dropping, Saddam Hussein had WMD, Catholics are going to be sent to concentration camps, Ohio did not go to Obama, the Bureau of Labor Statistics made up the drop in unemployment statistics, moderate reforms of regulations on the financial industry are the same thing as communism, evolution is evil, economists believe FDR caused the Great Depression, black is white, up is down, and 1 + 1 = 5. Altogether now: Baa-aaa-ah, baa-aaa-ah, baa-aaa-ah.

    • J G

      How about this for ignorance: it’s all Bush’s fault, it’s the rich’s fault, Republicans are pro-rape, “they” are going to take away your pill, the government owes you a living, you have a right to have someone else pay for your healthcare, Katrina was Bush’s fault but Sandy is not Obama’s fault, we can tax and spend our way out of huge debt, and wanting free stuff is a good reason to vote for somone.

    • Carl

      As a so-called raised catholic what Church teachings do you believe and uphold?

    • carl

      Democratic Party Platform talking points is NOT proof of your Civic intelligence! LOL And it’s quite clear that things like the HHS mandates and religious liberty mean absolutely nothing to you. I believe that you would request the Church be silent on most if not all issues.

    • Adam Baum

      No, “Katie”, FDR didn’t cause the great depression, he prolonged it.

      You are still a troll, misrepresenting yourself.

    • Adam Baum

      This is Katie, using the full breadth and depth of what a purported 18 year old can offer, calls “moderate” “reforms”.

    • carl

      Katie fails her U.S. civics test: U.S. Constitution requires a citizen’s status to be eligible for President, personal income taxes is an amendment less than one hundred years old and has allowed the federal government to create the great welfare society bankrupting all western societies . That not one of these programs would have been able pass constitutional muster otherwise. Just like FDRs new deal, LBJ’s great society, Obamacare’s existence depends upon the poorly written and open ended ability of the Feds to tax the people.
      Regulating and passing federal laws on pregnancy, sex, marriage, climate hypothesizes, evolution, rape, Moon landing truthing, are unconstitutional but creating a Federal Budget is mandatory! Democrats have refused to create a budget for four years!
      Concentration camps are not only inhuman they are also unconstitutional. Democrat party god father FDR interned Japanese and Germans. The second amendment speaks of a “well regulated militia,” and not of gun bans like in DC and Chicago.

      The definitions and actions of socialism, fascism, and communism
      is that they heavily regulate and take over corporations like we have of GM,
      banking, and the student loan industries. Also, government’s bank rolling industries like we have of the solar and green energy is another sign of twentieth century failures repeating themselves.

      Really, Iran is pursuing WMDs and Saddam wasn’t? Technically no one said Saddam HAD WMDs, almost everyone said he was pursuing WMDs.

      Nate had his fifteen minutes of fame, no one is contesting
      Obama’s win, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics much like Nate bases their
      statistical data on surveys often fraught with errors and open to manipulations
      like climate change theories.

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  • Gerard

    We count stick to the “principles” of the Founding Fathers, and then scratch our heads and wonder how we got to where we are. It is those very principles, taken straight from enlightenment philosophy, that are the source of the problem, regardless if they manifest themselves in a pure democracy or a democratic republic. At root, these principles are antithetical to Catholic teaching.

    • Ib

      Gerard, you are more right than you think!

    • Ib

      This democracy is doomed. But the Roman Catholic Church will continue to be led by the Holy Spirit until the end of time. Nations that once made the people’s of the earth tremble in fear have crumbled away, and the Roman Catholic Church is larger right now, than it ever was in history. Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and the whole cadre of rascals who thought to persecute the RCC out of existence — their empire is well dead and the Anglican corpus so divided it cannot last much longer. Lutheran princes who once sought to despoil the RCC of the faithful in Europe have given way to post-Christian polities, and there are now more Roman Catholics in Wittenberg, than Protestants. Over most of the world, the original Reformer’s Protestant groups have attenuated their memberships, smaller now than they’ve been in centuries. The Christian groups brought over to the New World by the English and Dutch settlers have mostly disappeared. But the Roman Catholic Church is larger right now, than it ever was in history.

      That is why evil political groups hate and fear the Roman Catholic Church. Although almost relentlessly persecuted since the Reformation, it has grown rather than attenuate. It will outlast and outperform any of its political persecutors. God is on its side.

  • Bill Russell

    Dear President Obama:

    I’m planning to
    move my family and extended family into Mexico for my health, and
    I would like to ask you to assist me.

    We’re planning to
    simply walk across the border from the U.S. Into Mexico, and we’ll
    need your help to make a few arrangements.

    We plan to skip
    all the legal stuff like visas, passports, immigration quotas and

    I’m sure they handle those things the same way you do
    here. So, would you mind telling your buddy, President Calderon,
    that I’m on my way over?

    Please let him know that I will be
    expecting the following:

    1. Free medical care for my entire

    2. English-speaking government bureaucrats for all
    services I might need, whether I use them or not.

    3. Please
    print all Mexican government forms in English.

    4. I want my
    grandkids to be taught Spa nish by English-speaking (bi-lingual)

    5. Tell their schools they need to include
    classes on American culture and history.

    6. I want my
    grandkids to see the American flag on one of the flag poles at
    their school.

    7. Please plan to feed my grandkids at school
    for both breakfast and lunch.

    8. I will need a local
    Mexican driver’s license so I can get easy access to government

    9. I do plan to get a car and drive in Mexico,
    but, I don’t plan to purchase car insurance, and I probably won’t
    make any special effort to learn local traffic laws.

    10. In
    case one of the Mexican police officers does not get the memo from
    their president to leave me alone, please be sure that every
    patrol car has at least one English-speaking officer.

    11. I
    plan to fly the U.S. Flag from my house top, put U S. Flag decals
    on my car, and have a gigantic celebration on July 4th. I do not
    want any complaints or negative comments from the

    12. I would also like to have a nice job without
    paying any taxes, or have any labor or tax laws enforced on any
    business I may start.

    13. Please have the president tell
    all the Mexican people to be extremely nice and never say critical
    things about me or my family, or about the strain we might place
    on their economy.

    14. I want to receive free food

    15. Naturally, I’ll expect free rent

    16. I’ll need Income tax credits so although I
    don’t pay Mexican Taxes, I’ll receive money from the

    17. Please arrange it so that the Mexican Gov’t
    pays $4,500 to help me buy a new car.

    18. Oh yes, I almost
    forgot, please enroll me free into the Mexican Social Security
    program so that I’ll get a monthly income in retirement.

    know this is an easy request because you already do all these
    things for all his people who walk over to the U.S. from Mexico.

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