The short answer is yes, civic ignorance helps to propel government growth and overreach. Ultimately, it has a considerable impact on our worldview about this nation, which is much more impactful than say public policy’s ability to shape the direction this country is headed. Example: If you believe rights come from God you are going to have an entirely different worldview if you believe rights come from government.
I saw this 2017 survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania recently highlighted again. It reveals just how ignorant many Americans are about our Constitution and government. The numbers are quite depressing, particularly given that we live in a so-called “information age.” Only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government and a third couldn’t even name one branch. Thirty-seven percent could not name a single right protected in the Bill of Rights. It’s a lot harder to protect and secure rights if so many are largely ignorant of them.
Almost any recent survey on civics is depressing and that is why many states are scrambling to beef up civic instruction. Sen Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, has recently called for a “cultural catechesis,” highlighted in his book “The Vanishing American Adult.” Unfortunately, because everything has become so politicized now there is little agreement on even how to teach civics.
At least some of the problems we see on college campuses and hostility to the First Amendment are linked to a breakdown in civics. Certainly, anger over election outcomes is exacerbated because some of the populace no longer understand our system of separated powers.
But I think there is a definite link to civic illiteracy and growth in government. Calvin Coolidge was very concerned about this in the 1920s when new socialist ideas had already been taking root in American thought and culture. As president, he saw himself in part as a civic educator and worked to elevate our founding principles to the masses. He deftly noted too that if citizens first thought of the federal government when they think of the term “government,” that it would harm the fabric of our Republic. Unfortunately today, most people would point to or reference Washington D.C. if you talked about government. That is where so much of the power and overreach is now.
Often this illustrated best by our national politics, where politicians, particularly those running for president, offer up a litany of promises (think free, free, and even more free stuff) that are not achievable given the constraints in our Constitution or system of checks and balances. All of that angst and frustration of not achieving political goals at the national government, which is seen as all-powerful and all-knowing to some has the ability to inflame the social decay and cultural fragmentation.
Thomas Jefferson was fond of saying that power ultimately rests with the people. That’s true in a democratic system and a reminder the civic education and literacy is a lynchpin to preserving liberty. Without it, the ability to roll back government overreach becomes nearly impossible.