As I scrolled social media and watched legacy media collectively roar over the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade, I became disheartened at American citizens’ lack of knowledge about our own government, about the checks and balances maintained by three co-equal branches of government, and about our federalist system that protects state sovereignty. In commentary across the legacy media, ignorance ran as rampant as outrage. Our country is in need of a basic civics education.
One does not need a law degree to understand our system of government. One doesn’t even need to be born American either, as lawful immigrants may become naturalized as United States citizens when they can “[d]emonstrate a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government.”
Sadly, immigrants passing the naturalization tests have more knowledge than American-born citizens. A 2018 study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found a mere 36% of Americans would pass a basic multiple choice citizenship test similar to the naturalization tests. It seems the majority of Americans should learn at least the rudimentary information outlined in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services 2020 Study Guide.
This ignorance, if left unchecked, will contribute to our constitutional republic’s downfall. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln exhorted his listeners to resolve that our “government of the people, by the people and for the people” shall not perish. Thomas Jefferson knew that reliance on the people required the people to be an informed and educated citizenry.
In our constitutional republic, policy is enacted by our elected representatives—this is what’s known as representative democracy. Yet, ironically, many of the same people who constantly wring their hands over potential threats to American democracy (both foreign and domestic) are now horrified at the mere prospect of enacting abortion policy through the democratic process.
Most people, of course, will not take the time to read and understand the 67-page leaked Dobbs v. Jackson draft opinion. Instead they rely on the soundbites and talking points of others. I suggest this one by The Wall Street Journal:
[O]overturning Roe will not be the end of abortion in America. It would merely return the matter to the states, where abortion law was liberalizing in 1973 before the Court usurped that political and moral debate. If it is overturned, some states will restrict or ban abortion rights while others may make it easier.
But this profound moral question will be debated and settled the way it should be in a democracy—by the people.
And this is already happening. In its 2022 legislative session, Colorado answered the profound moral question, and its democrat-controlled state government passed one of, if not the, most expansion abortion rights bills in the nation, allowing abortion up until the moment of birth. The 2021 republican-controlled Texas state government, on the other hand, passed a law to protect every unborn child with a heartbeat. This is dual federalism, state sovereignty and democracy, and it is messy.
As our nation debates the Court’s forthcoming decision, let’s drop the hyperbole and hysteria and try to ground our opinions in a basic understanding of the role of the courts, of federal and state policymakers, and of the people in a democratic society. A basic civics education will serve us and our country well.