By any reasonable measure, the United States is more politically divided than at any point in its history since the Civil War. Americans are more partisan and more susceptible to misinformation and disinformation that aligns with their beliefs. This misinformation and partisanship breed division and political violence that threatens American democracy. We must correct course, but how?
According to Pew Research, the 2020 presidential election was the first in decades where Baby Boomers and members of the silent generation were outvoted by members of other generations. And in the 2022 midterms, just above 30% of 18-29-year-olds voted, an uptick in participation from previous elections, but a far cry from the majority of boomers that vote in midterm elections.
As young people become a higher proportion of voters and Baby Boomers make up less of the electorate, efforts to preserve democracy and fight tyranny must focus on young voters, particularly those who have not grown apathetic to the political process.
Every state requires students to pass some kind of government or civics class, promising to graduate young, aware citizens who can change the nation with their votes and advocacy. However, on the whole, students care little for politics and they are sleepwalking through their government classes that teach most basic facts about the American government — like the fact that there are three co-equal branches, they have checks and balances over each other, and that the US has a bicameral legislature.
While knowing those basics is good, few students care to learn more about government and politics, leaving them ignorant and apathetic on political issues beyond what they already believe, which are often based on their parents’ political beliefs. To reverse that course, high school government programs need to be redesigned to teach students how to engage with our governing documents, their news sources, and each other. School districts ought to look at examples like the Center for Civic Education’s We The People programs and New Jersey’s new information literacy requirements as guides to do that.
We The People is a course that students can substitute for their regular government class. As currently constituted, the class is a competition, where classes divide into two- to-four-person units that take on one topic and its questions for a competition against other schools. Those units answer questions on complex topics, like the creation of the Constitution, the rights the Constitution protects, and modern challenges to American democracy. Students act as experts on these topics in a mock-Congressional hearing where the judges act as members of Congress.
For example, in Indiana’s High School State Finals questions, one unit was asked if they agreed with the Framers’ decision to keep the Constitutional Convention secret, and another was asked if there is a right to privacy in the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent on the issue.
Questions like this do more to educate students about the American political system and how it affects them, but the structure of the class does more to do that than the questions themselves. With each assignment, students debate their positions and come together to make a unified argument. By being forced into groups to answer these questions in a convincing manner, students learn to engage with America’s founding documents, justify their arguments, and compromise to complete their assignments.
As political leaders wish to divide Americans on wedge issues to get their votes, little is more important than teaching the next generation how to justify their arguments and listen to others’ opinions.
Critics complain that adopting this kind of education is too vague and unworkable. And to their credit, “better civic education” is not a specific enough change to implement in education standards. However, states can set very specific requirements on what gets taught and how. States like New Jersey have found ways to require better civics education without it being so vague that it becomes toothless.
Last week, New Jersey implemented new standards, requiring students to “learn about how information is produced and spread on the internet, critical thinking skills, the difference between facts and opinions, and the ethics of creating and sharing information both online and in print.”
The National Intelligence Council has shown that American elections have been infiltrated by foreign and domestic mis- and disinformation. And according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 64% of election officials feel misinformation and disinformation have made their jobs more dangerous, and misinformation is affecting Americans’ trust in elections. To vote their conscious, students must be able to recognize disinformation and get their news from reliable sources. Requirements like those in New Jersey will create a new generation of informed voters and protect future elections from foreign and domestic interference.
America’s politics are now defined by misinformation and a brand of partisanship that has become violent. If the U.S. wants to fight the rise in authoritarian views and division they breed, it must teach the next generation of voters how to evaluate their news and justify their arguments. If the U.S. creates another generation of disinformed partisans, America’s constitutional democracy will fall into the hands of the same kind of authoritarians it denounces abroad.