What If Lack of American History Knowledge Is The Greatest Election Threat?
Recent headlines are clear. We received the 2016 election results we did because the Russians allegedly were able to dupe a significant number of American voters, particularly Bernie Sanders supporters and African-American voters, vote against Hillary. Whether forcing Green Party votes or keeping individuals away from polling places entirely, Russian intelligence spiked our 2016 vote.
Or it was the National Enquirer. By keeping salacious gossip — whether true or no — about the Republican candidate from the front pages of the tabloid, the publishers of the Enquirer handed the election to Trump. The supermarket rag single-handedly provided Donald Trump with his “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment.
Or maybe it was Facebook’s fault, for not properly regulating what its users put forward as “news sources.” Or Twitter for giving Trump a constant platform. Or social media in general for not providing a proper nanny state for telling the average voter what information they should have access to, what they shouldn’t, and what to believe.
Two years have passed since the 2016 elections, and we still want to believe that we got the outcome we got because someone, or someones, did something nefarious to us. The American people are just victims here, with election outcomes the majority of Americans dislike forced upon it by outside forces.
Instead of buying into these conspiracy theories, though, maybe we should be having a serious discussion about a very real problem. We should be voicing our frustrations not at the Russians or the tabloids, but instead at the general absence of an informed populace.
According to this year’s Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, less than a third of Americans can correctly name the three branches of the Federal government. A majority don’t seem to understand how the Federal government actually operates.
A recent survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only a third of Americans could pass the basic immigration exam. The majority of Americans didn’t know which states were part of the original 13 states, who the United States fought in World War II, or when the U.S. Constitution became the law of the land.
Where is our collective outrage about how little we actually know about American civics and history? Where is our growing frustration with a populace uneducated about what government can and has done to address the most pressing issues of our age?
It is heartening to see a majority of states advocating for improved civics education, looking to equip students with a better understanding of how government works, offering them the facts necessary to improve our performance on the annual Constitution Day survey. It is a start.
But it is a far cry from what should be our goal. It’s terrific for the average American to learn — and retain — enough facts and figures to answer survey questions correctly or to outperform peers at a trivia night at the local tavern. Yes, we need to know names and dates. We also need to understand what has happened in our nation’s history, why it happened, and why it is significant. We need to make history relevant for all Americans. Relevant to learn. Relevant to retain. Relevant to apply.
It’s easy to blame social media campaigns or the tabloids for election outcomes. It is far more valuable to understand yellow journalism and how media was used to advance McCarthyism.
It’s easy to accuse politicians of voter suppression. It is far more valuable to understand the Jim Crow era and the fight for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It’s easy to attack the Electoral College for being antiquated. It is far more valuable to understand why we have it and how it has been used and abused in past elections.
When tens of millions of Americans begin to think like historians — knowing our history, understanding why things happened, and appreciating how those lessons of the past can be applied to the realities of today or the promise of tomorrow — we are a better country. Instead of just casting votes, we cast educated votes. We make decisions at the ballot box with a better understanding of how that single action can — and has — impacted our nation for decades to come.
Equally important, a better educated populace greatly reduces the strength of those outside forces we are growing to fear. With a firmer understanding of history, we don’t need social media clickbait to help us make election decisions. We instead cast our votes based on knowledge, facts, and a keener understanding of our history.
A better knowledge of American history can be a powerful thing. And it may just be the most valuable tool for improving elections … and election outcomes.