This commentary by Paul Hill originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
Millions of Americans, a mixture of high school and college graduates on both the left and the right, don’t buy key democratic principles like freedom of speech, minority rights, free elections, or an independent judiciary.
It shouldn’t be such a surprise. Most required social studies, civics and US history classes teach a Kumbaya version of democracy – valuing diversity, noble elected officials, peaceful transfers of power, blind justice.
Positive messages are important, but the real arguments for democracy require contemplation of negatives and a long time horizon. What happens if in the long run majorities change the rules to keep themselves in office permanently? If some groups can be silenced or stopped from voting? If judges are tools of the party in power?
The answers are harsh, raising possibilities of repression, violence, criminalization of political activity and no recourse against injustice. These possibilities leap out of the pages of the Federalist Papers, but only graduate students read them.
We have had some close calls in the past, as Presidents and other officials have pushed their advantage, but other officeholders, the press, and civic leaders, have united against them. Do Americans today understand what it takes to keep a democracy?
Here is a self quiz. Below, how famous Americans might have scored.
1. Does everyone benefit from freedom of speech?
a. No, the majority is forced to put up with annoying statements by losers
b. No, only the media benefit, by reporting on conflicts.
c. Yes, it helps identify dangerous people.
d. Yes, it protects even those now in the majority, who can’t be silenced even if they some day lose majority status.
2. Is there any reason for the principle, one man one vote?
a. No, it ignores differences in knowledge and personal influence
b. No, it too easily leads to deadlock
c. Yes, there is no other clear basis on which to weigh a citizen’s worth
d. Yes, it assures that election winners have majority support
3. Should defeated candidates claim the election was rigged and question the legitimacy of the winner?
a. Yes, losers should never give up
b. Yes, there is always some sort of voting irregularity
c. No, unless they want to encourage violent responses by the losing side.
d. No, it’s more important that the country have accepted leadership than for one side to win
4. Is there any good reason why winning candidates shouldn’t prosecute and imprison their defeated opponents?
a. No, it’s a quaint customimportant news.
b. No, losing candidates are almost always guilty of something
c. Yes, losing candidates might resort to violence to avoid being put out of office
d. Yes, if today’s winners lose tomorrow, they won’t have to fear being prosecuted
5. Is there any good reason why members of Congress avoid calling one another thieves, liars, and traitors?
a. No, these are hypocritical courtesies from a different era
b. No, anything’s fair to excite supporters and weaken opponents
c. Yes, they are all playing a game and shouldn’t get personal about it
d. Yes, members who disagree one day might need to work together at a later time
6. In a healthy democracy should citizens avoid others who have different views and, when forced into discussions, emphasize differences?
a. Yes, integrity means avoiding grey areas
b. Yes, otherwise everything gets so muddled
c. No, it causes too much tension in families or neighborhoods
d. No, citizens need to remember what they have in common even when disagreeing
7. Should election winners tell judges what to do?
a. Yes, winners take all
b. Yes, otherwise opponents might try to use the legal system to thwart them
c. No, if judges weren’t independent, officeholders could break the law with impunity
d. No, without independent judges, political minorities could be imprisoned or ruined
8. Is there any real problem with elected officials profiting from policies they adopt while in office?
a. No, it’s just human nature
b. No, it provides an incentive for the ablest people to enter politics
c. Yes, citizens need to know that officials won’t cheat them
d. Yes, it ensures that official actions reflect general, not personal welfare
Score 1 for a, 2 for b, 3 for c and 4 for d. Below, famous Americans and their probable scores.
8-16: Andrew Jackson, Joseph McCarthy, Steve Bannon
17-24: John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Patrick Buchanan
25-32: Earl Warren, John McCain, Barbara Jordan