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Civics is dead, good riddance

| Friday, November 6, 2020

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m writing this Monday. When this column is published Friday, we will hopefully know the outcome of the presidential election. As of right now, I have no idea. I believe that everything in this column will still be true Friday, but I’m sure it will be interpreted differently based on the intervening events. So be it.

During his opening statement in the confirmation hearings of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska discussed at length a distinction between what he called “civics” and “politics.” In his words, civics is “the stuff we’re all supposed to agree on regardless of our policy view differences.” Sasse’s examples were the propositions that “judges should be impartial” and “religious liberty is essential.” Politics, on the other hand, would be “the stuff that happens underneath civics … the subordinate, less important stuff that we differ about.” His examples of politics included health care and education policy disagreements. Sasse’s overall argument was that civics is quickly being replaced entirely by politics and this phenomenon was a serious problem.

I disagree.

There’s a narrative in our country that the American political system was created by the Founding Fathers, perfectly guarantees liberty and equality to all people and is revered by all good Americans. This narrative professes an almost divine reverence for the structures of the American government; to claim those structures need revision is heresy. The narrative is also entirely incorrect.

American politics, as we know it today, is nothing like the Founding Fathers imagined it. The partisan duopoly, the nationalization of political focus, the material impact of the judiciary, the direct election of senators, the number and power of regulatory agencies and, of course, the inclusion of Black people and women in politics all would have been inconceivable to the founding generation. Over the years, our nation has altered the structures of its political system to a tremendous extent — because there have always been major disagreements about what those structures should look like. The fight over the existence of a national bank dominated the early 19th century; that century also included a Civil War over the role of federalism in deciding the issue of slavery. The 20th century saw the contentious fight over women’s suffrage, the controversial expansion of the Supreme Court into important social issues and the beginning of the fight against Jim Crow. There isn’t some subset of issues, those having to deal with the structure and system of our government, on which every American has always agreed. That’s simply not what our history shows us.

More importantly, the fact there isn’t some “civics” on which we all can agree isn’t a bad thing. It’s OK for Americans to disagree on important structures in our government. These days, many Americans believe the Electoral College is outdated and undemocratic. I disagree with them, but I don’t think their opinions are dangerous or unAmerican. I think the Supreme Court should interpret the words of laws faithfully, which I believe in Constitutional cases usually requires looking to the original public meaning of those words. That’s not the way it’s always done, that’s not the way it always has been done and that’s not the way many people think it should be done. It’s OK that there are disagreements about foundational aspects of our political system.

In fact, I think the truly dangerous option is pretending as if everyone agrees on how our system should operate. For one, this illusion creates the assumption that “how things are now” is the same as “how things have always been” and, more importantly, “how things should be.” If you believe there aren’t any problems with America’s current political structures, you should have an argument beyond “that’s how we do things.” If we as a citizenry can be honest about our divergent visions of our political system, we can have substantive debates about what we should do instead of constantly arguing about what we are or have been doing.

One may argue there is a group of beliefs about the American political system that all good Americans share, that this group has simply changed over time and that the current threat is not just another change in civics but its total annihilation. Even if that is the case, I stand by my point that this is a step in the right direction because the separation between civics and politics is simply inaccurate.

There is no such thing as an apolitical belief. Some beliefs have more of a direct relationship to politics than others, of course. My belief that all Americans should have affordable healthcare is much more political than my belief that New Jersey bagels are vastly superior to anything you can find in the Midwest. But all beliefs touch on politics in some way, and it is especially ludicrous to think that beliefs about political systems can be somehow apolitical. Does the way in which we elect a president not affect the well-being of the people? Does the role of the Supreme Court have no impact on whether justice is secured?

Civics is dead — that is, we’ve stopped pretending that we all agree on the fundamentals of our political system. Great! Now we can honestly debate the merits of religious liberty. Now we can honestly debate the limits of free speech. Now we can honestly debate the suppression of minority votes. These debates have been going on for years, but we’ve been collectively ignoring them or pretending they weren’t so penetrating. Now that they’re out in the open, let’s duke it out.


Vince Mallett is a senior majoring in philosophy with a minor in constitutional studies. He currently lives off-campus, though he calls both New Jersey and Carroll Hall home. He can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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